Sweet 16 is rich mix of talents Tradition, ambition combine for drama in NCAA countdown

March 18, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

There are legends and legacies, legitimate contenders and wannabes. There's a 66-year-old coach who just set the record for all-time victories and a 32-year-old who four months ago didn't know where he'd be working after the season. There's one team that never before had made it past the first round and a couple of others whose fans will be depressed all summer if their teams don't win it all.

Welcome to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16.

Welcome to the haves and have-nots of college basketball.

In terms of coaching experience, you have North Carolina's Dean Smith finishing his 36th season in Chapel Hill and UCLA's Steve Lavin being heralded as the new "Wizard of Westwood."

In terms of NCAA tournament experience, you have "Mack's Mocs" of Tennessee-Chattanooga becoming the first Southern Conference team in 21 years to get this far and the two favorites, Kansas and Kentucky, heading toward a showdown for the championship March 31 at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.

Here's a look at how the regions shape up (and who will be shipping out):

East

This would have been a lot more fun had Coppin State advanced to the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., rather than Texas. The Eagles would have had a great shot at beating Louisville, given the Cardinals' history with Baltimore teams (see Towson State).

Now, all the attention will be back on -- guess who? -- Smith and the top-seeded Tar Heels. Having erased Adolph Rupp's record with win No. 877 Saturday against Colorado, Smith's fate is now at least partly in the hands of team trainer Mark Davis. With guards Vince Carter and Shammond Williams nursing injuries, North Carolina suddenly looks vulnerable.

The Tar Heels will play California, which found harmony when coach Ben Braun was brought in last September after Todd Bozeman was forced to resign, and never lost its confidence after Ed Gray, the team and Pac-10's leading scorer, was sidelined with a broken foot three weeks ago.

The Bears will be the most physical team North Carolina has faced in a while, and if forward Tony Gonzales, a second-team All-America tight end, can keep Antawn Jamison off the offensive boards, they could beat the Tar Heels. If Carter's groin and Williams' ankle heal in time, though, North Carolina should advance to Indianapolis with little problem.

The upside to the Longhorns' advancing -- aside from seeing whether coach Tom Penders hit the tanning salon this week -- will be the possibility of a tremendous full-court game featuring the shooting of Texas' Reggie Freeman and Louisville's DeJuan Wheat.

The pick here is the Longhorns, because of their size inside. But the winner of this region will come out of the other game.

Southeast

The Kansas-Arizona matchup in Birmingham, Ala., on Friday will be a rematch of one of the best games in last year's tournament, a down-to-the-wire thriller won by the Jayhawks in the same round of the West Regional. But this is where Kansas could start feeling the pressure of having to win.

Because the Wildcats have come from behind in their first two games -- by 10 each against South Alabama and the College of Charleston -- all the heat will be on the region's top seed and the nation's top-ranked team for much of the season.

The other half of this doubleheader fits in the have-not category. It matches the wits of Mack McCarthy, who learned his down-home-style one-liners from Sonny Smith while at Auburn against Providence's more urbane Pete Gillen, who seems to learn from his lookalike, David Letterman.

As for the basketball part of this equation, who cares? Neither of these teams, or Arizona for that matter, will beat Kansas. The Jayhawks have the best talent and, in Roy Williams, probably the best coach in the country.

The only thing that could derail the Jayhawks is their fans, who remember last year's brickathon in the regional final against Syracuse, as well as other past debacles, and in their polite way keep reminding the players of their team's recent failures.

If guys like Paul Pierce and Jacque Vaughn come out cold, particularly against Arizona, it could make for a long night and an even longer summer. But this seems to be the year Kansas will overcome its recent past -- at least until it gets to Indianapolis.

West

Phil Martelli is not taking any chances this time. After missing a scheduled flight to Salt Lake City, the St. Joseph's coach nearly was arrested by airport security for his blowup. This time, the Hawks are chartering to San Jose, Calif. It's no surprise that Martelli's team is going long distances, considering the way St. Joe's fires up three-pointers. That will likely be the only way it can beat Kentucky.

The defending national champions are used to that strategy by now. The Hawks, on the other hand, have never played a team with the Wildcats' withering press. If St. Joe's guards Rashid Bey and Terrell Myers aren't hitting, this one could get as ugly as Martelli's temper.

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