NCAA final is matter of sense and no sense

March 31, 1996|By John Eisenberg

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- One makes no sense. The other makes perfect sense.

The teams playing for the NCAA basketball championship tomorrow night are complete opposites.

Syracuse, which beat Mississippi State in one semifinal yesterday at the Meadowlands, makes no sense.

Kentucky, which beat Massachusetts in the other semifinal, makes perfect sense.

Syracuse lost six of nine games at one point during the season.

Kentucky won 27 in a row at one point.

Syracuse lost to three teams -- Miami, West Virginia and Seton Hall -- that didn't make the NCAA tournament.

Kentucky's only two losses all season were to teams that reached the Final Four.

Syracuse had a three-point win and a two-point win in the West Regional last week, and trailed Mississippi State by 10 points early yesterday.

Kentucky has beaten five opponents in the tournament by 110 points.

Or maybe it is 210 points.

Syracuse was barely above .500 during the season (9-7) when playing away from home.

Kentucky was the first team in 40 years to go undefeated through the Southeastern Conference.

No sense.

Perfect sense.

People would have laughed before the tournament at the suggestion that Syracuse would reach the final, even though the Orangemen won 24 games and drew the No. 4 seed in the West Regional.

They still were seeded just three slots higher than Maryland, for crying out loud.

Kentucky, on the other hand, was the chalk choice from the first stroke of Midnight Madness five months ago. The Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls and never dropped lower than No. 2 after Christmas.

They trailed UMass in the polls for most of the season, but made it clear yesterday that a reversal of those rankings was more accurate.

Although the Minutemen whacked a 15-point lead to three in the second half and had several chances to tie, Kentucky never trailed in the game's final 30 minutes.

Massachusetts played with tremendous heart, as it has all season, but Kentucky was the better team.

The Wildcats made Marcus Camby sweat for all 25 of his points. They harassed Minutemen guards Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso into 5-for-17 shooting. They got 26 points off the bench to 10 for UMass.

Offensively, eight Wildcats scored at least seven points. They just had too many weapons for a UMass team that overachieved with a small nucleus of players after losing two starters from last year.

Kentucky isn't overachieving. Loaded with assets, Kentucky belongs in the final. All year long, Kentucky has belonged in the final.

The Wildcats win with pressure defense, offensive balance and quickness.

The only thing they hadn't often done all year before yesterday was play a close, unsettling game. Particularly one with so much at stake.

They did unravel a bit down the stretch, missing four straight free throws and making just enough mistakes to let UMass back into the game.

"I thought they might panic, and at times they did, but not enough to sway the game," UMass coach John Calipari said. "When they needed a play, they got one."

Syracuse also didn't panic yesterday when Mississippi State blew out to an early lead. State had blown away Connecticut and Cincinnati with similar starts in the Southeast Regional last week, but the Orangemen quickly rallied.

Whatever they were lacking earlier in the season, they're finding ways to win now.

They were wiped out on the backboards yesterday and outshot for the first 30 minutes. Supporting cast members Todd Burgan and Otis Hill had to carry the offensive load when star forward John Wallace struggled to score inside against State's ace defender, Russell Walters.

Didn't matter.

Syracuse committed only five turnovers and forced State into 21, a disparity that offset State's advantages in other areas.

"Turnovers set the tone," said Syracuse point guard Lazarus Sims, who had no turnovers in 40 minutes. State point guard Marcus Bullard had nine turnovers.

Syracuse's run from nowhere to the title game is the essence of the NCAA tournament's appeal, the embodiment of March Madness. Sometimes, there is just no figuring what happens.

As the Orangemen celebrated on the court after the final buzzer yesterday, the joy on their faces was obvious. As much as they deny it, they can't believe it, either.

Kentucky's run to the title game has been far different. The Wildcats were supposed to get here. Travel agents in Lexington were booking Final Four package tours before the season.

As a result, there has been almost a grimness about the Wildcats as they march onward. Fulfilling great expectations is never a lot of fun.

They were relieved more than happy to beat UMass yesterday. You could see it on their faces.

The players on the UMass bench were leaping and exulting last night as the game got close in the second half. The Kentucky bench was a portrait of nervousness.

But the Wildcats made just enough plays to get by. And into the championship game. Against a team from nowhere.

"We've been the underdogs in every game so far," Wallace said. "I'm sure this game will be no different."

So, in the end, the championship comes down to one question: Does the tournament make perfect sense or no sense? If you think you know the answer, you might be wrong.

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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