Who do you like? Take a number

March 08, 1995|By PHIL JACKMAN

It is Jim Calhoun's contention that there are 20 teams that can capture the NCAA basketball tournament beginning in eight days. "And there are 10 others that can make the Final Four," the Connecticut coach says.

If his guesstimates are anywhere near valid and the progression holds, half the 64-team field could make the regional finals, more than 40 teams are strong candidates for the "Sweet Sixteen" and all entries win their first-round games, at least.

It's difficult to recall when this rite of spring, this hoop equinox, ever seemed so wide open. Maybe 1943, when Wyoming came wandering out of the west with Kenny Sailors and crunched Georgetown in the final, 46-34, when most people in the east probably weren't even aware they played bounceball west of the Mississippi.

Look at how many teams made it to the top of the weekly polls this season, what, 52? And, invariably, they would get bumped off when they got there.

"Now that we're approaching the end of the season," said Calhoun, "I can't help but think how phenomenal it is for teams to go through the season with only five or six losses these days. I think those days of teams' making it through with one or two losses are gone forever."

The coach finds it hard to believe his Huskies presently reside at 23-3 and sixth in the polls, and they lost just two of 18 games while repeating as regular-season champs of the Big East. Remember, UConn lost consensus All-America Donyell Marshall from last year's cast.

"The Big East got immeasurably better," he continued. "We've got an incredibly young league and, it's so deep, the teams just below the top beat each other up and that leads to a lot of even records in the conferences."

That's a sticking point with the Big East and several other power conferences, as a matter of fact, good teams ending up with a dozen losses or so because they're in tough nearly every night. Talk about a Catch 22: The better your league gets, the fewer tourney invitations you're likely to garner.

Because it's a better league than last year when it landed six teams in the NCAAs, the made-for-television Big East is campaigning overtime to land at least five this time. Its chances don't appear to be very good unless Miami, 9-9 in the conference, has a heckuva tourney.

The Big 10, with five chiseled in stone, is looking for a sixth invitational, maybe even a seventh if things break right in the concluding days of its regular season. Teams there don't have to go through the rigors of a conference tourney.

The Big 8 would appear to have five teams ready to go, all rated in the Top 25, but with 19-9 Iowa State showing only a 5-8 record in the league so far. Depth. Give the ACC, the SEC and Pac-10 five apiece and listen to them squawk if another conference gets a sixth.

As Seton Hall's new coach, George Blaney, points out, "The selection committee is stuck between looking for the best teams, the automatics [conference winners] and rewarding some teams that have had terrific seasons." Not to mention making the fewest number of people mad at the committee's decisions.

Meanwhile, teams that already have a bid wrapped up aren't going to be relaxing as they enter conference tournament weekend.

"I'm looking forward to being in our tournament in New York," says Georgetown's John Thompson, "because now we're looking to win to get into better position [with a higher seeding] in the NCAAs.

"A lot of teams may not be satisfied with the way they're playing right now, so they want to get that straightened out. Playing well builds confidence and that propels you into the big tournament. But, like I told our players, we could be going home the first night or be there until the championship game Sunday."

Calhoun said, "The best part about our season was we played wire-to-wire. I heard people saying we played well until we collapsed, but I look at our record and see we won eight of our last 10 games. It's a long season and you have lulls. You never know when they're going to come."

That's why he figures anybody from UCLA to Alabama, the first- and 20th-rated teams, respectively, in this week's AP could end up the toast of Seattle April 3.

You wanna call him a liar?

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