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T-Birds have come a long way

Role players have helped SUU get to NCAA tourney

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Southern Utah University guard Jeff Monaco has seen two very different sides of the T-Bird basketball program in his four seasons.

The good side is evidenced by this year's 25-5 record, best in school history — the T-Bird's first Mid-Continent Conference championship, and, finally, their first bid to the NCAA Tournament.

And a bad side, a very bad side, in 1997 when the T-Birds finished 7-20, their worst record since moving up to Division I status in 1988.

Monaco was a part-time starter on that '97 club that lost seven straight games. Granted they lost to Utah, Oklahoma State, Wyoming and UTEP during that run and lost one other game in that stretch by five, but losses are still losses.

"We just have a better group of teammates," said Monaco, a senior from Scottsdale, Ariz. "We have a lot of role players who pick up the slack like Justin Sant and Frederick House. My freshman year we just had athletes. Now we have role players."

Going into Thursday's meeting with No. 10 Boston College at the Nassau Coliseum, the T-Birds have won seven consecutive games.

He not only credits his teammates, but SUU coach Bill Evans, who at one point was rumored to be close to losing his job. Now Evans is ending the first year of his three-year contract extension.

"He does a lot of coaching in practice," Monaco said. "We have people who respond better to him than when I was a freshman."

RESPECT?: Boston College, a No. 3 seed, has been grumbling about its seeding since hearing about it because they think they deserve better. SUU may have a better case for respect. ESPN.com had been calling SUU the Hawks instead of their real name — the Thunderbirds.

REUNITED: SUU's Fred House and Oklahoma State's Maurice Baker were teammates at Dixie College in St. George. If the T-Birds beat Boston College and Oklahoma State beats USC they will meet in the second round Saturday.

ALFORD IRKED: Iowa coach Steve Alford put to rest any rumors of his possibility of taking over for Bobby Knight at Indiana.

"Why do you ask me that? Ask Billy Packer. Bill Packer says he called me. He didn't call me. Nobody called me Monday. I'm not interested. I went through this in the fall. I am not interested in entertaining any questions about Indiana University," Alford said. "They're in a regional somewhere. I don't know where they are at . . . a first-round site. Go out there and ask Indiana people what's going on in Indiana. We are the Big Ten Champions. We are the University of Iowa. Ask me a question about the University of Iowa."

TOO MUCH TRAVEL: The T-Birds got to Uniondale, N.Y., Tuesday night at 7 after leaving Cedar City at 5:45 a.m. that morning.

Brutal travel? No, the T-Birds, members of the All-Continent Conference (a k a Mid-Continent Conference) are used to it.

In league play they went to Tulsa, Okla.; Kansas City, Mo.; Rochester, Mich.; Youngstown, Ohio; Macomb, Ill.; Chicago; Valparaiso, Ind.; Indianapolis; and Fort Wayne.

So traveling to New York was no biggie.

"This is old hat for us," Dan Beus said.

REUNITED II: Creighton's Ryan Sears has bad memories of Iowa guard Dean Oliver.

"We started playing each other our freshman year in high school," Sears said. "He lit me up big time in high school. I hope he doesn't do that again. He's a great player and competitor. It's a great rivalry."

SUU'S BOSTON CONNECTIONS: T-Bird coach Patrick Harrington was born and raised in Boston. He played high school basketball there and also was an assistant coach at South Boston High, but he said he was never a real Boston College fan.

MORE CONNECTIONS: Harrington used his Boston connections to get the T-Birds practice time at Long Island Lutheran High School Tuesday and then at Hofstra University Wednesday.

Minutes after learning the T-Birds were going to Long Island, Harrington called his friend, Howard Starks, assistant athletics director at Hofstra, asking for practice time.

LUCKY 13?: After finishing 13th in the Big East last year, Boston College went from worst to first with 26 wins . . . SUU made the tournament in its 13th year as a Division I program . . . The T-Birds have won 13 of their past 14 games.


E-mail: jhinton@desnews.com