West's victors shooting for respect

March 25, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

LOS ANGLES — LOS ANGELES -- On paper, the West might be the best, most competitive of the NCAA's four regional tournaments.

The four teams gathered here are a collective 105-19, compared with 104-24 for teams in the Southeast, 99-29 among the East teams, 91-28 in the Midwest.

And the West is the only regional in which the favorites have

played to form. Top-seeded Missouri (27-3) beat No. 4 Syracuse (23-6) last night, 98-88 in overtime, and No. 2 Arizona (27-5) played No. 3 Louisville (28-5) in last night's second game at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena.

So why does the West have the feel of a hobos convention?

"Sometimes the criticism's fair," said Missouri's Norm Stewart, one of three coaches here whose track record in games of consequence is somewhat suspect. "Sometimes it's unfair. But people will think what they will."

Many people, fairly or not, went into last night thinking:

* That Stewart, despite a 639-309 record, eight Big Eight Conference regular-season championships and 13 NCAA Tournament appearances in 27 years with the Tigers, will find a way to lose.

* That Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, despite a 434-139 record, five Big East Conference regular-season championships and 15 NCAA appearances in his 18 years with the Orangemen, also will falter.

* And that Arizona's Lute Olson, despite a 456-178 record, seven Pacific 10 regular-season championships and 10 NCAA appearances in his 11 years with the Wildcats, will trip, stumble and fall.

That left Louisville's Denny Crum, who led the Cardinals to NCAA titles in 1980 and 1986, with four other trips to the Final Four during a 546-197 23-year stewardship, as the undisputed master of The Big Game in this company.

"I feel confident in my ability and my background," said Crum, who will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., May 9.

"I've proved we can do it. Whether this team can do it, we'll find out over the next couple of days."

Crum claimed no tactical superiority to Stewart, Boeheim and Olson, whose recent history of NCAA losses to lower-seeded teams does not necessarily reflect any coaching shortcomings.

"There's not that much difference between the best team in the country -- at least in terms of what the polls say -- and the team that's 40th or 50th," Crum said.

As an example, Crum said that when UCLA was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press and USA Today/CNN polls, the Rating Percentage Index had the Bruins at No. 32.

"Which one was the closest to being right? I really don't know," Crum said. "On a given night, UCLA is as good as anyone. But I also think there's 30 or 40 other teams that are just like that. There are so many good teams and the balance is so close,

closer than ever.

"We think we have as good a chance as any team to win it all, but every one of the 16 teams still alive have a good chance. That's just the way it is today. It's good for basketball, but hard on coaches.

"Coaches get all the credit when they win, and all the blame when you lose. That's not fair. Everybody has good players. Winning a national championship is a lot harder than most people think it is. You have to have some good luck, or at least no bad luck."

Perhaps, then, one of the coaches is due a break.

But only one of them, and maybe none, can get out of Los Angeles with the label of big-game loser peeled from his coaching resume.

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