Pollio’s Loyalties Tested in Big Hoops Week

Sure, there is a huge amount of interest in the NCAA Tournament, but Billy Reed would have you pay more attention to the tournament trail being traveled by Bellarmine, Kentucky Wesleyan and Northern Kentucky. And here’s the story of one guy with hoops connections to all of them, plus Western.

by Billy Reed

Mike Pollio has conflicting loyalties

If I were Mike Pollio, I’m not so sure I’d be able to attend Tuesday night’s NCAA Division II regional final between Bellarmine and Kentucky Wesleyan. You want conflicts of interest? Pollio has them out the wazoo. He had better wear beige to the game because Bellarmine red or Wesleyan purple would get him a ton of heckling from somebody in Knights’ Hall.

The safe choice would be to stay home and watch the Western Kentucky-Mississippi Valley State game on TV. The Hilltoppers’ new coach, Ray Harper, played point guard for Pollio at Wesleyan in the early 1980s and later was a member of his staff at Virginia Commonwealth University – yes, the same VCU that cracked last season’s Final Four.

Pollio is a 1962 Bellarmine graduate. For four years, he was a student manager under Coach Alex Groza. After going into coaching, he spent five years on the bench in Owensboro, coaching Kentucky Wesleyan to a 117-35 record before moving on to VCU. During his years at VCU, Pollio once had a staff that included Tubby Smith, of whom you know; Scott Davenport, who coached Bellarmine to last year’s D-II national title; and Harper, who coached Wesleyan to D-II national titles in 1999 and 2001.

Oh, yes. Pollio also has conflicts on a different level. If Western Kentucky beats Mississippi Valley Tuesday, it will earn the right to play Kentucky Thursday night in the KFC Yum! Center. But that’s the same night Georgetown College will make its debut in the 32-team NAIA tournament in Kansas City.

For most of the last decade, Pollio was commissioner of the Mid-South Conference, the NAIA league that includes Georgetown, Pikeville, St. Catherine, Cumberlands, and Lindsey-Wilson. Last summer, in fact, while serving as interim athletic director at Wesleyan, Pollio was involved in negotiations that will significantly impact the future of both the Mid-South Conference and the Great Lakes Valley Conference, that D-II league to which both Wesleyan and Bellarmine belong.

On Pollio’s watch, Wesleyan decided to stay in NCAA D-II instead of moving to D-III. But it also decided to leave the GLVC after the current season and join a new D-II conference that right now includes five Ohio schools. That will leave Bellarmine as the only Kentucky school in the GLVC, considering that Northern Kentucky University already had announced plans to move up to D-I as a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference.

While all this has been percolating behind the scenes, Georgetown also has been exploring the possibility of leaving its historic NAIA home and joining Wesleyan in the new D-II conference. The college’s board currently is considering that move and probably will announce its decision next month.

If Georgetown joins Wesleyan in the new conference, it would put Kentucky’s two most historically successful basketball programs in the same league for the first time ever and create a new rivalry that would be every bit as exciting as Wesleyan-Bellarmine has been since Davenport became the Knights’ head coach seven years ago.

Since 1958, Georgetown has made 31 trips to the NAIA championship tournament, advancing to the Final Four 12 times and the championship game four times. The Tigers’ only national title came in 1998 under Coach Happy Osborne.  Since the early 1950s, Georgetown has employed only four head men’s basketball coaches – Bob Davis, the late Jim Reid, Osborne, and current coach Chris Briggs, who’s completing his first season as Osborne’s successor.

Wesleyan, meanwhile, has won eight national titles (one more than the University of Kentucky) under five coaches – Guy Strong (1966), Bob Daniels (1968 and ’69), Bob Jones (1973), Wayne Chapman (1987 and ’90), and Harper (1999 and 2001). In an interesting twist, Jones played center at Georgetown under Davis in the 1950s.

Only since Davenport’s arrival has Bellarmine moved up to the Wesleyan-Georgetown level. But with Wesleyan and NKU both leaving the Great Lakes, Bellarmine now will have to decide whether it wants to stay in a league that keeps expanding westward and farther from Louisville. Without Wesleyan and NKU, the Knights’ travel budget will increase significantly.

So it’s against this backdrop of change and controversy that Bellarmine and Kentucky Wesleyan will meet Tuesday night for the regional championship and a berth in the D-II Elite Eight, which has moved from Springfield, Mass., to NKU’s palatial new arena in Ft. Thomas.

The last meeting between the Knights and Panthers as Great Lakes Valley members has a lot of story lines. Will senior Bellarmine center Luke Sprague, who missed the Knights’ romp over Findlay due a shoulder injury, be ready to go against Wesleyan? Will Wesleyan guard Cardell McFarland, who torched the Knights for 47 two years ago in a Knights Hall upset, have another incredible shooting night?

Although the Knights have defeated the Panthers twice this season, both home and away, they will have the tougher job. Like every other coach, Pollio will tell you how hard it is to beat a team three times in the same season. For reference, check out Vanderbilt’s win over UK in the Southeastern Conference title game.

For Pollio, it’s the best of times and the worst of times. He can’t win and he can’t lose. But he’ll at least be able to reflect on his impact on a lot of people’s lives and the sport that has been his life.

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