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Come Tournament Time, the NCAA Does Not Stop at Seeding College Basketball Teams;
Hotels Competing to House NCAA Tournament Teams Also Get Ranked

By Lorenzo Perez, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Mar. 21, 2008 - RALEIGH -- Come tournament time, the NCAA does not stop at seeding college basketball teams. The hotels competing to house NCAA Tournament teams also get ranked, and a little extra luxury goes a long way in landing the top contenders.

For the eight teams slotted to tip off today in the RBC Center, that meant North Carolina, the tournament's overall No. 1 seed, ended up unpacking its bags Thursday at the Embassy Suites in Cary after a 20-mile bus ride.

The Tar Heels' underdog opponent, Mount St. Mary's, a No. 16 seed from Emmitsburg, Md., did not get the glass elevators, skylit atrium or indoor waterfall in the lobby of their more modest accommodations at the Holiday Inn Brownstone near N.C. State University.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County is a No. 15 seed and also ended up at a Holiday Inn, near Crabtree Valley Mall. Meanwhile, UMBC's first-round opponents, the No. 2 Georgetown Hoyas, will rest their heads on hypoallergenic pillows and sleep in hyperplush "Sweet Sleeper" beds at the Sheraton Raleigh.

How you're expected to play determines where you stay. Few question the pecking order.

At 6-7, Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers freshman forward Shawn Atupem and his brother Sam, a junior teammate, probably both could bang their heads on the ceiling of the Brownstone lobby with a short hop.

"I'm sure UNC's hotel is very nice, too," Shawn Atupem said. "But I have no complaints. ... All that is just about extras. They're nice to have, though."

The director of sales and marketing for the Holiday Inn Brownstone has no problem with his hotel's low-seeded status.

"We know our place in the community," Kevin Johnson said. "We're not a four-star hotel, but there were probably 20 hotels who put in for this. So we look at it as a 'glass half-full' situation."

The collection of Embassy Suites, Hilton, Marriott and Holiday Inn properties tapped for NCAA Tournament duty in the Raleigh area drew compliments from players and coaches from the eight teams competing here this year, as well as from NCAA officials who scouted them with the help of N.C. State and a local host committee.

But the NCAA was not always so rigorous in its hotel screening. Southern Illinois assistant coach Brad Korn told The Washington Post last year how his team reached the tournament's regional semifinals as a No. 11 seed in 2002, only to be assigned to a rundown Syracuse hotel with moldy showers, unkempt beds and filthy curtains. The Salukis head coach, Chris Lowery, an assistant at the time, suffered an allergic reaction and missed a practice when his face erupted in hives. The team blamed the food and the hotel's cleanliness.

Gonzaga, a No. 7 seed in this year's tournament, has its own history as a low-seeded underdog dealt the hotel scraps in leaner years. The Bulldogs are staying in the Hilton North Raleigh this weekend, but associate head coach Leon Rice remembers the program's NCAA Tournament debut as a No. 14 seed in 1995.

"They had to put towels underneath the door so the wind wouldn't blow in," he said.

But ask Rice or any other tournament coach how much you can boost your team's performance by staying in a hotel with an extra star or two, and you get a common answer.

"Zero," Rice said. "Gonzaga lost to Maryland in '95 because Maryland was a really good basketball team, not because of any accommodation issues."

Yet the NCAA acknowledges it scouts prospective hotels much more extensively now. Until four years ago, some inspections amounted to little more than a drive-by peek at the lobby, said Jeanne Boyd, managing director of the NCAA Division I men's basketball championship. With the help of the Greater Raleigh Convention & Visitors Bureau and N.C. State, NCAA officials inspected conference room space, restaurants, suites and rooms in every potential team hotel in Raleigh.

The NCAA requires hotels to have a full-service restaurant to accommodate team meals as well as two conference rooms large enough to seat 50 people -- one for the players' study hall sessions, the other for team meetings.

"What you don't want to hear is that they're staying in better hotels during the regular season than during the tournament, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a lot of these student-athletes," Boyd said.

UNC coach Roy Williams said his hotel demands start with a nearby soda machine and end with room service that goes "late, late, late." Nothing else matters, he said.

"I've stayed in some dadgum dumps, and my team played like crazy," he said. "And we have stayed in some top-of-the-rise places and stunk it up."

UMBC sophomore forward Justin Fry did not begrudge Georgetown its more luxurious hotel, nor did he gripe about his Holiday Inn, which was close enough to the Angus Barn steakhouse for a Wednesday night team dinner.

"They deserve it," Fry said of Georgetown and its place in the hotel pecking order. "I mean, it's not really a slap in the face. We're just here to play ball."

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To see more of The News & Observer, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.newsobserver.com.

Copyright (c) 2008, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

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