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The Front Row with MARK NELKE November 28, 2010

| November 28, 2010 8:00 PM

The North Idaho College men's basketball team, off to an 9-0 start, ascended to the No. 1 spot in this week's NJCAA poll for the first time in school history, which means a lot and very little at the same time.

"There's really no weight to it, other than it's nice to be ranked," NIC men's coach Jared Phay said.

Also this week, the NIC women's basketball team (10-0) jumped from No. 14 all the way to third in the national poll, which could turn out to be a more important accomplishment than what the men did.

How's that?

In the men's poll, rankings mean nothing when it comes to bracketing the teams once they've qualified for the national tournament. The matchups between qualifiers are already predetermined, following a blind draw at the national meeting.

The women actually have an NCAA tournament-style selection committee which seeds their national tournament - and rankings play a part in that seeding.

"Sometimes I just feel our teams are good enough to get ranked higher ... and I just leave it that," NIC women's coach Chris Carlson said. "I'm not in there fighting for every spot. Preseason polls are also good for recruiting purposes, with the early signing period winding down. It's nice to say we're ranked."

WHY THE difference?

In the men's case, it's kinda like some other businesses - this is the way we've done it in the past, so this is the way we're going to do it in the future.

NIC athletic director Al Williams is on the NJCAA Division I men's basketball committee. He was at the annual meeting when the pairings were drawn out of a hat.

He recalled a few years back, when Arizona Western was the top-ranked team coming into the tournament. Their predetermined foe came in at No. 2. After they lost that game and another one the next day to another top-five team, they were out of the tournament - just like that.

“We’ve talked about doing seeding, but it never seems to make it past the nomination stage,” Williams said.

All the men’s NJCAA tournaments are bracketed that way at nationals — by blind draw. The women get together and seed all of their national tournaments, using rankings, strength of schedule, prior results, etc.

THE VOTING process is similar — somewhat.

For the women, there is one voter in each of the 24 regions nationwide. They submit a list of the top three teams in their region each week.

For the men, since some regions/districts combine for one berth (as is the case this year, where the men’s Region 18 champion has to play the Arizona district champion for a berth to nationals. For the women, the Region 18 champ advances directly to nationals), there are 16 people who vote. They also nominate the top three teams in their area, and also, because they have access to something called Michael Johnson’s Juco Classic News Service, they submit a ballot of their top 20 teams nationwide.

Last year NIC’s men reached as high as No. 2 in the polls, which Phay said was the highest ranking in school history. With just one returning starter this year, he said he was a “little surprised” to see his team ranked No. 3 in the preseason poll.

NIC’s women, coming off two straight trips to nationals, were ranked No. 6 in this year’s preseason poll. But despite starting out undefeated, the Cardinals curiously dropped to 14th in the next poll.

Turns out one of NIC’s scores was entered into the database incorrectly, and voters thought the Cardinals had lost to their alumni team by 47 points, rather than beat them by that amount.

That explains the huge jump from No. 14 to No. 3 this week.

“When they saw we were 9-0 and won a bunch of road games, that changed the voting quite a bit,” Carlson said.

NIC’s MEN have not been to nationals since 1997.

NIC’s women were seeded eighth (out of 16 teams) to nationals in 2009, and seventh last season.

“We played a lot of morning games, and it seemed like we were getting up for breakfast around 5 a.m.,” Carlson said. “Maybe this is a good year to see if a higher poll ranking makes a difference. But I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.”

In fact, all three of NIC’s winter sports teams are ranked in the top 3. The Cardinal wrestling team is at No. 2. Of course, NIC is a national championship contender in wrestling, having won 13 NJCAA titles, so it would be news if they weren’t ranked among the top teams.

For the most part, the Cardinal coaches don’t sound too concerned with where they are in the polls or what it means — fans seem to be more worked up about it than the coaches are. Both hoops coaches are too busy trying to get their teams ready for the rugged Region 18 tournament in Twin Falls in March and, if things go well, to nationals a couple of weeks after that.

“It’s bragging rights for both teams, but it means more for the women than it does for the men,” Williams said.

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via e-mail at mnelke@cdapress.com.

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