Why can't some matchups wait?

March 25, 1995|By George Vecsey | George Vecsey,New York Times News Service

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It's too soon for North Carolina-Kentucky. They shouldn't be playing tonight in Birmingham, Ala. They should be playing next week in Seattle.

It's a Final Four game. At very least, they are Final Four names. There are some schools -- I gag on that self-important word "programs" -- that just ought to be in the Final Four. Eleven for North Carolina. Ten for Kentucky.

Here in New Jersey, we had two legitimate regional-sounding games last night. Wake Forest-Oklahoma State in the first game. Massachusetts-Tulsa in the second game.

Fine. Nice. OK. Four aspiring, hopeful, dreaming, striving, up-and-coming or maybe just one-year-wonder teams, trying to get somewhere, anywhere, Seattle if possible.

A regional final is for a wannabe like Connecticut to try to finally make it against a traditional power like UCLA. That happens today in California. That's a regional final.

You hate to waste Final Four matchups in the regionals. They had Georgetown-North Carolina the other night in Birmingham. That's even better than a Final Four game. That's a championship game. Just by the name alone. Forever, Patrick Ewing will be swatting anything that flies, and Michael Jordan will be keeping his tongue in his mouth until the final shot of the game.

What in the world were Dean Smith and John Thompson, two good friends and two of the great names of college basketball, doing meeting in the round of 16? It was bad having the San Francisco 49ers meet the Dallas Cowboys in the conference championship this year.

It was good having Italy meeting Brazil in the World Cup finals last year. We love underdogs. But make them earn it.

North Carolina State stunning Houston in the 1983 finals was cool. Villanova outplaying Georgetown in the 1985 finals was fascinating. I'm all for it. The traditionalist in me just hates to see two historic teams slugging it out before it's absolutely necessary.

Here's a perfect example: Kentucky-Duke. They could have met in the opening round this year if Duke had been extended a bid despite a bad year. The Jean Hersholt Lifetime Contribution Bid, as long as we're in Oscar season.

It was bad enough having Duke play Kentucky in the regional three years ago. There oughta be a law. They merely played the best college basketball game of this decade, or maybe forever.

Bam. Sean Woods drives through 29 Duke defenders including Art Heyman, Jeff Mullins and Dick Groat. Kentucky up by a point, two seconds left. Bam. Grant Hill fires a fourth-and-long pass to Christian Laettner who takes the time to smooth his hair, straighten his shirt, adjust his shorts, pull up his socks and throw in the most beautiful parabola you will ever see, for a 104-103 victory.

And it was only a regional final. Kentucky never even got to the Final Four.

It's going to happen to somebody tonight. Kentucky and North Carolina carry too much history to slug it out in a regional final. Ralph Beard, Wah-Wah Jones, Pat Riley, Goose Givens and John Pelphrey versus Lennie Rosenbluth, Larry Brown, Bobby Jones, Jimmy Black and James Worthy.

Kentucky and North Carolina just happen to ring the bells of the goofy sports fan that lurks inside even a crusty allegedly-neutral sports columnist. When Laettner's shot went up, I was stunned, nay, embarrassed, to find my head jerking with ineffective strangelovian get-outta-there body English.

As anybody who occasionally scans this column may have noticed, I used to live in the commonwealth of Kentucky and I have a personal affinity for the state of North Carolina. Loretta Lynn and James Taylor. Bobbie Ann Mason and Thomas Wolfe. Happy Chandler and Billy Graham. Blowing Rock, N.C., or Berea, Ky. Buddy, you're asking me to choose?

I don't want to lose either Kentucky or North Carolina just yet. They are supposed to be always in the Final Four -- along with Georgetown, UCLA, Louisville, Duke, Kansas and that Midwestern school that persists in employing that unpleasant human being with the basketball stuffed in his red sweater.

That makes eight in the Final Four? Plus an underdog or two? We'll work something out. But not in some regional.

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