In New Orleans, it's battle of heavyweights Final cast is who's who of basketball success 1993 NCAA FINAL FOUR--NEW ORLEANS

April 02, 1993|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS -- There are no great pretenders in the bunch, no big-time wannabes. This year's Final Four is strictly for the top of college basketball's heavyweight division. Long before there was anything called March Madness, before there was even an NCAA tournament, three of these teams were building their traditions.

Consider this: Of the all-time winningest programs in the country, North Carolina ranks first, Kentucky is second and Kansas, which beat Indiana (No. 3 on the list) to get here, is fourth. Of the all-time winningest coaches, Dean Smith of the Tar Heels ranks second and is first among those still active.

And consider this: Among schools with the most Final Four appearances, North Carolina is second (11) to only UCLA and -- listen up Duke fans -- has gone back ahead of the Blue Devils. The Wildcats and Jayhawks each have 10 while Michigan is making its sixth, the third in five years under Steve Fisher.

"This is an unusual Final Four in that these are teams which expected to be here," said Smith, whose 53 NCAA tournament victories are the most by any coach and whose nine trips to the Final Four are second only to the legendary John Wooden. "All four teams have a chance to win."

Said Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, making his second Final Four appearance: "You have four different teams that, on four different nights, you could have four different winners."

There will only be two winners Saturday when North Carolina (32-4) meets Kansas (29-6) in the first semifinal at the Louisiana Superdome, followed by Kentucky (30-3) and Michigan (30-4). But who will emerge as this year's champion come Monday night?

Will the Tar Heels, with their size and strength and depth, finally give Smith his second title 11 years after the 1982 team -- with a freshman named Michael Jordan -- gave him an even more elusive first? It was Jordan's jump shot that beat Georgetown here, launching his legend.

Will the Jayhawks, having erased the memories of last year's second-round disaster to Texas-El Paso, continue to overcome the injury problems that affected them during the regular season? A title will enable Roy Williams, making his second Final Four appearance in the last three years, to emerge forever from Smith's imposing shadow.

Will the Wildcats, the class of this year's tournament after beating up on their first four opponents by an average of 31.4 points a game, continue their show-stomping performance in the Big Easy? With Jamal Mashburn headed to the pros, Rick Pitino would like to stamp his name indelibly into the lore of a program and into the hearts of Kentucky's insatiable fans.

Will the Wolverines, the crass of this year's tournament by talking a better game than they're playing, finally shut up and rise to their enormous potential? The Fab Five, sore losers to Duke in last year's final, have gone from being the tournament's darlings to the guys in the black socks.

"We're a team that's been way too much promoted," Fisher said during Wednesday's national media teleconference. "The expectations a year ago were, 'Let's see if you're as good as everybody says.' This year, if we don't win all our games, it's got to be that we have fat heads. But we've got to play a little tougher than we have been."

The appearance of these teams -- all of which were No. 1 at one point this season -- disproves the theory that parity has overtaken college basketball. This marks the first time since the field was expanded to 64 teams that as many as three top seeds advanced to the Final Four.

Of the three, North Carolina had the toughest road recently, being taken down to the wire by Arkansas and into overtime by Cincinnati in its last two games of the East Regional at East Rutherford, N.J. Michigan made what should have been an easy path tougher with narrow victories over UCLA, George Washington and Temple. Kansas has pulled away midway through the second half of each game, while Kentucky has barely worked up a sweat.

"The pressure is getting there," said Pitino, whose Wildcats are considered the favorites. "Once you get there, you have to play good, hard basketball and let the chips fall where they may."

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