Tournament appears wide-open and well-Heeled NCAA FINAL FOUR 1994 CHARLOTTE

March 17, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

When the college basketball season began four months ago, there was talk about North Carolina making an undefeated run to a second straight national championship. There were even jokes that everyone else was playing for second place.

The 1994 NCAA tournament begins today, and the top-ranked Tar Heels are the team to beat. But a combination of their bumpy ride through the regular season and the incredible number of teams that have been ranked No. 1 in the past two months is quieting talk of a guaranteed coronation later this month in Charlotte, N.C.

"Our goal is to win this four-team tournament," said North Carolina coach Dean Smith, referring to the NCAA East Regional at USAirArena in Landover, where the top-seeded Tar Heels will open tomorrow against Big South champion Liberty, the No. 16 seed. "We're going to try to win and move forward."

Despite six regular-season losses, including five in the Atlantic Coast Conference, North Carolina is coming into this year's NCAA tournament in better shape than it did a year ago. Last year, the Tar Heels were blown out by Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament final, and the status of point guard Derrick Phelps was uncertain because of a back injury.

This year, North Carolina is coming off an impressive regular-season-ending win over Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium and a solid, often-spectacular performance at the ACC tournament. The play of freshmen Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse, who was the tournament's MVP, has many believing the Tar Heels will be making a return trip to the

Charlotte Coliseum for the Final Four.

"I can tell you North Carolina is the most talented team in our conference," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose struggling Blue Devils are seeded second in the Southeast Regional and will play Texas Southern tomorrow at the Suncoast Dome in St. Petersburg, Fla. "The way they played against us, they're going to be very difficult to beat. They don't have any weaknesses."

But Krzyzewski is not ready to concede another national championship to Smith, his closest rival.

"What has happened, not just in the last week [of the regular season, when six of the top eight ranked teams lost], but throughout the whole season, is that there are a lot of good basketball teams with a chance," said Krzyzewski. "Whoever stays healthy, whoever's enthusiastic and whoever wants it badly will keep playing. There are more teams that can win this year than in the past few years."

North Carolina and Arkansas, the top seed in the Midwest Regional, are considered favorites to meet in this year's championship game April 4, but the early rounds could produce a larger number of upsets than in recent seasons -- especially in the West.

"I think anyone can beat us, and I think we can beat anyone,"

said Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, whose Razorbacks will meet No. 16 seed North Carolina A&T tomorrow at the Myriad in Oklahoma City. "I would rather have my guys thinking the second thing, but I want them to realize the first."

Three of the top four seeds in the West know the feeling. Top-seeded Missouri, No. 2 seed Arizona and No. 4 seed Syracuse are infamous for getting knocked out before the Sweet 16. Missouri will play No. 16 seed Navy tonight in Sacramento, Calif., and Arizona, which has lost in the first round the past two years, will play Loyola tomorrow evening in Ogden, Utah, where Syracuse opens with Hawaii.

Being sent West might cause your players to miss more school time and prevent your fans from making the trip, but it also might be the easiest route back to the Final Four.

"I don't think we have to pull off any great upsets," said Syracuse guard Adrian Autry. "In our bracket, the teams are such that if we play well, we can win some games."

Said Virginia coach Jeff Jones, whose seventh-seeded Cavaliers will play No. 10 seed New Mexico in Sacramento: "I'd like to believe that every year we've been in it, everyone said, 'If we play well, we've got a chance to do well in this tournament.' But this year, we might have seen a lot more examples [of upsets]. It's been more pronounced. There's probably more hope that a team can come up with an upset or two to reach the Sweet 16s, the Elite Eight and the Final Four."

It is the point where everyone is dreaming -- and scheming -- their upset road. Even Penn. The Quakers, with what might be their best team since the 1979 Final Four squad, jumped into the Top 25 recently before dropping out in this week's final regular-season poll. Not that the NCAA tournament selection committee noticed, seeding the Ivy League champions 11th in the East.

Or, maybe, the College of Charleston. After beating bigger schools the past couple of years -- Georgia Tech last season, Alabama this year -- the Cougars made it as an at-large team because their membership in the Trans America Conference won't officially kick in for postseason considerations until next year. Charleston will play Wake Forest today at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., in the Southeast Region.

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