Overdue success for underachievers

March 26, 1994|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- Even though Missouri rates the edge in experience and depth, the Tigers see themselves when they look at Arizona.

The two meet today in the West Regional championship at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, with the winner moving on to the Final Four in Charlotte, N.C. They're here because of defense and three-guard rotations that begin with their respective senior stars, the second-team All-American backcourt of Arizona's Khalid Reeves and Missouri's Melvin Booker.

Most important of all, both teams were overlooked in the preseason and both coaches carry sizable chips on their shoulder, placed there by the pundits and office-pool pickers who won't forget their embarrassing early-round pratfalls of years past.

"You people [the media] are usually pretty accurate in regard to us, but it hasn't been a good year for you," Missouri coach Norm Stewart said. "If we believe what the newspapers said, we'd be watching California play Cincinnati."

The Nos. 1 and 2 seeds given Missouri and Arizona led to the instant observation that the West was the weakest of the four regions, and predictions that Louisville, California, Virginia, Cincinnati -- anybody but one of these two -- would make it to the Final Four.

This isn't another of coach Lute Olson's quick-closing Arizona acts of the past two years, however, when the Wildcats lost to a No. 14 and a No. 15 seed. Nor is this the kind of Tiger team that had been eliminated in the first round in eight of Stewart's 13 previous NCAA tournaments.

The guys from the "Show-Me State" turned into a "We'll-Show-You Team." After finishing seventh last season, Missouri was picked to finish third in the Big Eight Conference. It has eight seniors, but three new players -- conference Rookie of the Year Kelly Thames and transfers Julian Winfield and Paul O'Liney -- transformed the Tigers into the first to go unbeaten in the Big Eight in 23 years.

"We've got players who started for two or three years, and now they're not playing much, but we're not running a happiness camp," said Stewart, who started nine different lineups in the first 10 games. "You don't have any diaper dandies or any of that crap. This ballclub is truly the sum of its parts."

Likewise, Arizona was predicted to finish third in the Pac-10, but the development of big men Joseph Blair and Ray Owes, along with the maturation of Reeves, helped the Wildcats to their seventh title in the past 10 seasons.

Shooting stars Booker and Reeves, the former from Moss Point, Miss., and the latter out of one of New York's top prep programs, are averaging 25.3 and 30.3, respectively, in the tournament.

Another link has been defense, predominantly of the in-your-face, man-to-man variety. None of Missouri's past 25 opponents has shot 50 percent or better from the field, and 12 of them couldn't even get to 40 percent. In three NCAA tournament games, Arizona foes have combined for a pitiful .321. For the season, Arizona's defensive field-goal percentage is .410, Missouri's .418.

On the sidelines, Olson and Stewart will wage the ongoing war for respect. Olson has the best winning percentage in the nation the past seven seasons (.839) and is the most dominant coach in the Pac-10 since John Wooden left the UCLA dynasty, but he has only one Final Four appearance.

And Stewart? Dean Smith is the only active coach who has been in more Division I games, but through 33 seasons and 640 wins, Stewart has never been to the Final Four.

Olson and Stewart realize what will happen next week. Today's winner will be toasted, the loser burned.

"Arrows are part of our business," Olson said. "People here are just waiting for us to fall, so they can start shooting again."

WEST FINAL: MISSOURI (28-3) vs. ARIZONA (28-5)

Site: Los Angeles Sports Arena

Time: 3:40 p.m. today

TV: Channels 11, 9

Outlook: Top-seeded Missouri struggled at times in December, losing 120-68 at Arkansas in its second game and beating Coppin State in the final seconds, but once places were found for three new players, the Tigers were untouchable in the Big Eight Conference. Their only other losses were at Notre Dame and against Nebraska in the semifinals of the Big Eight tournament. Missouri has won 18 of its last 19, while second-seeded Arizona is 15-2 since a deceiving 5-3 stretch in late December and early January. Two of those five victories were a 24-point blowout of Michigan and a 14-pointer over Marquette. Both teams boast a second-team All-American guard, but there is more to Missouri than Big Eight Player of the Year Melvin Booker, and more to Arizona than Khalid Reeves, the Wildcats' all-time single-season scoring leader with 802 points. Missouri is older and deeper, and one of the many key matchups for teams that prefer man-to-man defenses is Wildcats sophomore Joseph Blair against Tigers senior Jevon Crudup at center. Missouri has never been to the Final Four, while Arizona ++ followed Sean Elliott there in 1988, when it was finally beaten in the semifinals by Oklahoma.

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