Forget score Mount wins

March 16, 1995|By BILL TANTON

The road to the NCAA basketball championship started today at the Arena. By the time it reaches its end April 3 in Seattle, several important things will have been determined.

Foremost is that a new national champion will be crowned.

Talk about a crapshoot? Picking one of these 64 teams to win it all is as difficult as it has ever been.

Don't expect Maryland to win it. The Terps are among the best in the country. They're 24-7 and No. 10 in the latest Associated Press poll.

They'll win their first-round game tonight in Salt Lake City. If you're an early-to-bedder, don't worry about it; go to bed. Maryland's opponent, Gonzaga, has as much chance as Loyola had last year.

It will be a different matter Saturday when the Terps meet tonight's Texas-Oregon winner. Either can give Maryland a hard time.

The Terps surprised last year by making the Sweet Sixteen. They should get to the quarterfinals this time, but not to the Final Four.

They have been a little erratic, throwing in a clinker here and there. The coach, Gary Williams, still weak from pneumonia, would have been better off playing tomorrow with an extra day's rest. Maryland is not ready to win six straight.

Of the four No. 1 seeds, UCLA has the best draw, but the pick here is Kentucky.

Great team. Great coach (Rick Pitino). Great tradition. Can handle the pressure.

L If Maryland can't win it, it might be good if Kentucky does.

The other tournament participant from this state, 16th seed Mount St. Mary's, opens against Kentucky tonight in Memphis. Never in tournament history has a No. 16 seed beaten a No. 1.

Even if eliminated in the first round, the Mount St. Mary's kids will be able to say for the rest of their lives, "We played in the NCAAs and lost to Kentucky when they won it." Not bad.

This will be the 94th NCAA Division I tournament game for Kentucky. It's the first for Mount St. Mary's.

Of the 64 teams in the tournament, only one has no sneaker contract. You've already guessed which one.

But that's all right. Mount St. Mary's stands to gain as much from this as anybody -- more in some tangential ways.

For one thing, its coach, Jim Phelan, is likely to make the Basketball Hall of Fame because of all this. My opinion: He can't miss after the national exposure he's receiving through ESPN, etc.

Phelan belongs in the Hall of Fame. In 1991 he was one of 15 nominees to pass the screening committee. He was not voted in last year, but his nomination is still alive.

Phelan's credentials are for real. Of all the active coaches in the country, only one -- North Carolina's Dean Smith -- has won more games. Dean has won 826 games, Phelan 737.

In the history of the sport, only six coaches have won more games than Phelan: Adolph Rupp, 876; Big House Gaines, 828; Smith at 826; Hank Iba, 767; Ed Diddle, 759; and Phog Allen, 746.

All of those are in the Hall of Fame. Phelan soon should be.

Millions of people who had never heard of Jim Phelan -- and probably hadn't heard of Mount St. Mary's either, though it's been there since 1808 -- have become familiar with both since the team won the Northeast Conference tournament and qualified for the NCAAs.

What terrific exposure this has been: The likable, balding coach, who will turn 66 on Sunday, after 41 years at a little-known school outside Emmitsburg in the Maryland hills, finally gets to The Big Dance. Both Phelan and the school's lovely campus have come off marvelously on TV.

Guarantee you, applications for admission will rise at the Mount. For the freshman class of 1,121 that's now in place, 1,255 applied. Bet you anything the next applicant group numbers at least 1,500.

That in itself is of value to a small school in today's competitive college market, beyond the fact that each application has to be accompanied by a non-refundable $25 fee.

You don't think 18-year-olds choose a college on such grounds?

In 1970 there was a high school kid in New Jersey who used to watch the Baltimore Bullets play the Knicks on TV. His favorite player was the Bullets' Fred "Mad Dog" Carter, from Mount St. Mary's.

"Mad Dog went to Mount St. Mary's," the kid told his parents. "That's where I'm going."

He did, too. The kid was Tony Agnone, who went on to become a lawyer. Today he's one of the most successful sports agents in the country. He has never regretted his decision to go to the Mount.

After Doug Flutie threw his Hail Mary pass to beat Miami and won the Heisman in 1983, Boston College was swamped with applications for admission.

Loyola College's applications were up this year, in part because both the men's and women's basketball teams played in the NCAAs last year. The Mount's women are now in the NCAAs, too.

No matter what happens over these three weekends, some good things are bound to occur.

If Jim Phelan makes the Hall of Fame, and if Mount St. Mary's enjoys a national reputation that it could only gain from basketball, how can you knock it?

Who knows? Maybe the Mount will even get a Nike contract.

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