Lefty is back, right where he wants to be

March 17, 1994|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Sun Staff Writer

UNIONDALE,N.Y. — UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- He was in the resplendent past yesterday at the Nassau Coliseum, cracking one-liners to the press, throwing down the gauntlet to the competition and ignoring feedback his words might cause.

Although the sideburns are more gray and the waistline a little bigger, this was Lefty Driesell, circa 1970, proclaiming his intention to make Maryland "the UCLA of the East."

The James Madison coach was back on the battlefield he most enjoys, the NCAA tournament.

Tonight, the Dukes wrap up a four-game East Regional program at approximately 10 p.m. against third-seeded Florida in Driesell's first NCAA appearance since his Maryland team lost to Nevada-Las Vegas, 70-64, at Long Beach, Calif., in 1986.

It has been a long road back for Driesell, after being fired from Maryland after 17 years and 348 victories.

After four seasons of winning or tying for the Colonial Athletic Association regular-season title, Driesell and the Dukes surmounted the CAA tournament, with a comeback victory against Old Dominion 10 days ago.

"I don't want to do one more dance and go home," said Driesell, when asked his feelings about returning to the NCAAs.

"I ain't worrying about getting back here. The only thing that's been on my mind is to beat Florida."

The Dukes beat Old Dominion, 77-76, in the CAA final by overcoming a 61-42 deficit in the final 13 minutes and winning on a buzzer-beating three-point shot by Kent Culuko.

There was Lefty on that Richmond court, throwing his fist into the air, flashing a V-sign and cutting the nets as if he had just, well, become the first coach to beat Dean Smith at the DeanDome.

He said then, "This is the biggest win I've ever been associated with as a player or a coach." Bigger than the ACC tournament title. Bigger than making four NCAA Final Eights at Davidson and Maryland. Bigger than the NIT titles. Bigger than the DeanDome.

"I've won games on last-second shots, but to be 19 points behind with 13 minutes left has to be the greatest comeback [of his career]," said Driesell, who has 641 lifetime wins.

"If he had missed that shot, I'd be going back to the NIT again and playing Providence on their home court."

"Two years we lost in the [CAA] final, and coach took it very hard," said senior guard Michael Venson (Oxon Hill). "We dug deep down this time, and it paid off."

James Madison has not been in the NCAAs since 1983 when coach Lou Campanelli was completing a three-year tournament run. The addition of Driesell in 1988 after his two years in television raised expectations of a repeat of that streak, but the promise had gone unfulfilled.

The major criticism that has dogged Driesell through his career regards his coaching ability. He could have easily taken credit for Culuko's game-winner off a well-designed play.

"I wanted to go for two," he said yesterday.

"I have a play we run in a close-game situation late that I feel sure we can score on. But Chuck [his son, the assistant coach] and Kareem [Robinson] talked me into going for the three.

"I hid my face in my hands at first, but when I picked up my head and saw it going in the basket, I just said, 'good call.' "

Then he bounded off the bench with the old Driesell fire, belying his 62 years and 250 pounds.

Driesell parried all references to his Maryland experiences, saying"there is only one school I have a feeling for now, and that's JMU."

He said he has sought no advice from the Dukes' Louis Rowe, a transfer from Florida, because, "I got eyes to see film. If I asked him about Florida, they're his friends, and I don't need him to tell me how good they are."

But the coach also knows he has a formidable hurdle in the 25-7 Gators, who, he said, "can't win 25 games in one of the toughest conferences and be a Mickey Mouse team."

Driesell also took a swipe at opponents from more prestigious leagues who won't play the Dukes on a home-and-home basis.

"The only people I can get to our place are my friends. When I got to James Madison, I found out I didn't have many of them."

He also said Tom Butters, chairman of the NCAA tournament selection committee, told him that the CAA event "really begins our NCAA season."

"So we're really playing our fourth NCAA game tomorrow," Driesell said.

"I felt we should have gotten an at-large bid a couple of times, and Old Dominion should have this year.

"What can you do? Teams from the ACC, Big East, Big Ten won't play us unless it's all on their court."

It was vintage Driesell. Turning on the charm and the combativeness all at once.

The NCAA just hasn't been quite the same without him.

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