Pitino: Being a big-name team no big deal NCAA TOURNAMENT

March 23, 1995|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The dynasty days are over, Kentucky coach Rick Pitino suggested yesterday.

And if parity has visited college basketball's upper echelon, it can mean only one thing: This week's Southeast Regional tournament can be won by any of the four semifinalists, regardless of history, bloodlines or coaching profiles.

"The names will always be magical," Pitino said of a Southeast lineup that features North Carolina, Georgetown and his Wildcats. "But the dominance will not be there any longer."

Into the heart of Southeast Conference country, these NCAA heavyweights have come -- joined by wanna-be Arizona State -- bringing nine national titles, eight by Kentucky and North Carolina.

Kentucky, 27-4 and the top seed, is the clear favorite to come away with Final Four reservations to Seattle. But the first order of business for the Wildcats is tonight's game against ambitious Arizona State (24-8) in the second half of the Southeast semifinals at Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center. If Kentucky succeeds there, it will face the winner of tonight's 7:45 matchup between Carolina (26-5) and Georgetown (21-9).

Expectations are for a Kentucky-Carolina final. The expectations weigh on Pitino, perhaps more than he was willing to admit in yesterday's meeting with the media.

"There's pressure on us," he said. "But I believe in good pressure and bad pressure. The most pressure is in the first two games. If a team is not emotionally up for those games, it's at a disadvantage being the highest seed. . . . That's what we tried to do in the first two rounds, reach an emotional pitch."

Kentucky will rely on its enervating press to wear down an ambitious Arizona State team that goes only seven players deep. Pitino would like to draw fouls -- and a lot of them -- in a calculated up-tempo game.

"We have ourselves a tough, tough ballgame," he said. "We have more depth, but depth is only a concern when a team is in foul trouble. The television timeouts help. If you take our starting lineup against their starting lineup, it is anybody's game."

Arizona State concurred. On the issue of bench strength, junior forward Ron Riley reached for a bottom-line perspective. "They can only play five guys on the floor at a time," he said.

The element of Arizona State's game that Pitino respects most is its quickness.

"Gary Williams of Maryland said it best when he said this [Arizona State] is the quickest team he's faced since he's been at Maryland," Pitino said. "I see the same thing. They are the quickest team I've seen since I've been at Kentucky."

Arizona State, which beat the Terps in the Maui Invitational in December, arrived here looking for more than a Final Four berth. As 13 1/2 -point underdogs, Bill Frieder's Sun Devils want a measure of respect they feel has been missing.

"This is what the tournament is about, making a name for ourselves," Riley said.

This is the place where traditions can be revived. Kentucky reached the Final Four two years ago under Pitino, but hasn't won a national title since 1978.

"It takes a long time to get the caliber of player I want at Kentucky," Pitino said. "Now, we have that. . . . I think the best lies ahead for us. This year, I had the most fun. It feels like I've been coaching three weeks."

Only by luck of the seedings do North Carolina and Georgetown meet. Coaches Dean Smith and John Thompson are such close friends they prefer not to play each other in the regular season. The last time they played was 1989, when the Hoyas won, 93-81, in the ACC-Big East Challenge. Before that, the last meeting was in the 1982 championship game, won by North Carolina, 63-62, on a late jump shot by Michael Jordan and an errant pass by Georgetown's Fred Brown.

The sixth-seeded Hoyas beat Xavier by five and Weber State on an acrobatic, last-second basket by Don Reid last weekend to get here. After a nine-year absence, Thompson is back in the Sweet 16.

"We probably did a little bit more than I expected, based on the fact we lost George Butler during the season, and he was the second-leading scorer on the team," Thompson said. "I thought the players responded to that extremely well."

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