Forgotten at the Big Dance '95 powers Arkansas, UCLA out of spotlight

March 14, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Paul McMullen contributed to this article.

INDIANAPOLIS - A year ago at the Kingdome in Seattle, they played for college basketball's biggest prize. By winning, UCLA returned to the days of its long lost dynasty. By losing, Arkansas saw its chance at a dynasty derailed.

Today, when the 1996 NCAA tournament opens its three-week run toward the Final Four, there is no talk of the Bruins repeating or the Razorbacks returning to their third straight national championship game. The mighty have fallen, if not off the map, then at least from the spotlight.

"We haven't gotten a lot of attention, but we still have the bull's eye on our backs," UCLA coach Jim Harrick said earlier this week.

There will be 63 other teams trying to follow the Bruins as national champions. A handful, most notably top-seeded Massachusetts in the East Regional and top-seeded Kentucky in the Midwest, are considered among the prohibitive favorites to wind up in East Rutherford, N.J.

Chances are, neither UCLA nor Arkansas will be there at the end. In fact, they might not be around long.

The Bruins, seeded fourth in the Southeast and opening against Ivy League champion Princeton tonight here at the RCA Dome, are the lowest seeded defending champions since Indiana was a fourth seed in 1988. The Hoosiers lost in the first round to Richmond that year. The Razorbacks, the 12th seed in the East, are lucky to be in the tournament.

"It's a very humbling experience waiting to see if you're going to be invited, compared to knowing that you're in and just wondering about where you're going to go," said Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, whose Razorbacks meet fourth-seeded Penn State tonight in Providence, R.I. "I was sitting there with my family saying, 'Have we done enough?'

"We have made a habit of going to the NCAAs. This year was different. It wasn't set in stone that we would make it. There was some doubt in everyone's minds."

There have been doubts about both teams all season. Though UCLA dominated the Pacific-10 and Arkansas struggled mightily in the Southeastern Conference, they had strangely similar seasons. It has been a long, strange trip back to the NCAA for both teams.

They experienced the loss of key players from last year's teams: the Bruins lost seniors Tyus Edney, George Zidek and Final Four MVP Ed O'Bannon; Arkansas saw 10 players, including 1994 Final Four MVP Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman, leave Fayetteville. In Thurman's case, it was a year too early for both he and the Razorbacks.

"If we had had Scotty, we would have been a heck of a team," Richardson said of the former All-American and current Continental Basketball Association player, who went from hitting the winning shot in his team's championship game victory over Duke two years ago to having a horrific championship game last year against UCLA.

"When I remember Corliss Williamson, Scotty Thurman, if we had them back, we might not be sitting in this position," said Richardson. "I've been the underdog all my life.

"This is one of the few teams I've coached that I didn't think about playing 40 minutes of hell."

Both teams have had key injuries: point guard Cameron Dollar played the entire year for the Bruins with his right hand wrapped in a soft cast, while Darnell Robinson, the only experienced player returning for the Razorbacks, broke a bone in his foot and missed 13 games.

Both teams are extremely young: Two of UCLA's top players, J. R. Henderson and Toby Bailey, had up-and-down sophomore years after being tabbed as stars-to-be as freshmen, as did freshman center Jelani McCoy; five of the 10 players in Richardson's rotation are freshmen, including four starters.

"It's been a pretty tough year," said Richardson, who also saw junior-college transfers Jesse Pate and Sunday Adebayo the team's leading scorer and rebounder, respectively, at the time declared ineligible because they practiced before being certified the NCAA to play. "But Darnell is playing really well right now. I hope he continues to play well."

Harrick said this "has been a much calmer year for me on the bench, the wins and losses have not been so momentous."

He said he believes the Bruins were not treated with respect as defending national champions by the selection committee. (In defense of the fourth seed, UCLA's non-conference record included an early-season loss to Santa Clara and a late-season loss at Duke.)

"We went 16-2 in the league and won our league by three games and the team that's behind us has a higher seed and they don't even have to get on a plane," Harrick said of Arizona, seeded third on the strength of a late-season win over Cincinnati. "Then we have to play a team that nobody ever wants to play. Maybe I should have canceled the Duke game like Arizona did with St. Joe's. That's what everybody is judging us on."

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