GREENVILLE, S.C. -- The Southern Conference tournament opens today at the Bi-Lo Center with no clear favorite and with coaches hoping any controversy has passed.
Six weeks ago, even playing here was a question. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wanted the men's and women's games moved because South Carolina flies the Confederate flag over its Statehouse.
But after one nullified deal and several weeks of talks, league commissioner Alfred White said last month that things would stay put. If the flag still files next year, the league will look to leave the Bi-Lo for an out-of-state arena.
For now, White says, "it's nice to talk about basketball again."
The men's event will be at 15,000-seat Bi-Lo. The first two rounds of the women's tournament will be at Furman's Timmons Arena with the semifinals and final at the Bi-Lo.
Most league coaches said they talked with players about the NAACP's call. And most said they agreed with the Southern Conference's position. In November, league presidents and administrators came out against the flag.
"I'd really like to leave it out of the tournament," Wofford coach Richard Johnson said. "It's just my opinion that sports shouldn't mix with politics."
"Maybe the less we talk about it, the sooner something will get done," he said.
Chattanooga coach Henry Dickerson, the league's only black men's basketball coach, said the flag issue is tougher on him than others. But he agreed the tournament should have remained here "because it's something the young men and women have been looking forward, too."
He goes on to say, however, that, "If I had one of my guys come to me and say he didn't want to play because of the flag, I'd have to support him." No Chattanooga player has come to him with such concerns, Dickerson said.
It has been nearly impossible to divorce the flag from sports in South Carolina the past six months as the NAACP's tourism boycott gained momentum. Almost every major coach, including South Carolina's Lou Holtz, has weighed in about it. Some competitors at the women's Olympic marathon trials this past Saturday, including runner-up Kristy Johnston, wore red-white-and-blue ribbons of protest.
DeLores Todd, head of championships for the Atlantic Coast Conference, said that league has asked its nine teams to stay on the North Carolina side of the line in the Charlotte area instead of in Fort Mill for the ACC baseball tournament at Knights Castle this May.
"We want to limit the amount of money we spend in South Carolina" to support the boycott, she said.
Flag opponents say it's a symbol of racism and slavery. Supporters say it honors Southern heritage.
White and his coaches want the next four days to be about crowning the Southern Conference representatives to the NCAA tournaments, not about politics or the flag.
"It's an important issue," Appalachian State coach Buzz Peterson said. "But we want to go in there and put on a good show."
And it should be a good one, without a juggernaut like last year's undefeated College of Charleston in the field. The Cougars are 22-5 this season.
They received a first-round bye along with Appalachian State (20-8), Davidson (15-12) and Georgia Southern (16-11).
Today's first-round games are Chattanooga (9-18) vs. Western Carolina (14-13), North Carolina Greensboro (15-2) vs. Furman (12-17), East Tennessee (13-14) vs. The Citadel (9-19) and Wofford (12-15) vs. VMI (6-22).
Furman, last in the league's South Division, won it's final three games. Appalachian State defeated the ACC's Clemson in January, but lost last month to VMI. Charleston fell to Western Carolina on Feb. 21.
"Realistically, realistically," Davidson coach Bob McKillop repeated for emphasis, "any team can win this."
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