Kansas' exit doesn't leave Final 4 without favorites Pitino has best cast, Olson the biggest chip

March 24, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Terry Holland has to be smiling. Roy Williams probably still is crying. And Lute Olson will definitely be snickering once the Final Four begins later this week in Indianapolis.

Holland, the Virginia athletic director and chairman of the NCAA tournament selection committee, has to be pleased that three of the top four seeds are still alive going into the final weekend.

Williams, who will hear the mock chant "Rock, choke, Jayhawk" at various Big 12 arenas until Kansas makes it back to another Final Four or wins a national championship, is in for a long off-season in Lawrence.

And Olson, whose fourth-seeded Arizona Wildcats have had at least two lives in this tournament, will likely do a few more of his Spiro Agnew impressions during the assorted news conferences this week.

Arizona's elimination of the Jayhawks in Friday's Sweet 16 at the Southeast Regional in Birmingham, Ala., leaves the Final Four without a heavy favorite, but there will be favorites nonetheless at the RCA Dome.

Among them:

The Nearly Heavy Favorite: With Kansas gone, it has to be Kentucky. Even without star guard Derek Anderson, the Wildcats are again proving what a lot of talent and a resourceful coach such as Rick Pitino can do. This marks Pitino's fourth trip to the Final Four in the past 11 years, and though he has a lot more talent than he did in taking Providence there in 1987 or Kentucky there in 1993, this year's team is nowhere near last year's in terms of depth or future NBA players.

But a team reduced to eight scholarship players has by far the best player left in sophomore Ron Mercer, and the experience others such as Anthony Epps and Wayne Turner gained in winning last year in New Jersey will make it difficult for either Minnesota or the winner of Saturday's other semifinal between Arizona and North Carolina. Difficult, but not impossible, especially if Gophers point guard Eric Harris' sprained shoulder heals sufficiently enough for him to be a factor.

The Crowd Favorite: With most of the local fans being your basic Bob Knight apologists, you have to figure they'll root against the regional rival Wildcats. With Minnesota the only team whose fans are within at least a two-day drive of Indianapolis, you also have to figure that the Gophers will have their share of supporters. (Including the guys at the Alamodome last weekend with the banner that read, "Just 2 more victories and we'll be sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom.")

Minnesota might not be the most talented team left in the field, but it might be the best. The Gophers had the highest ranking at the end of the regular season -- third -- and have the best record at 31-3. Those who have watched them in Kansas City and San Antonio have come to realize that Clem Haskins has put together a team that can win in a lot of ways: big or small, fast or slow, and has just as strong a bench as Kentucky. Bobby Jackson might not be as gifted as Mercer, but he can be just as dominant.

Sentimental Favorite: You have to go with Olson. Just kidding. Actually, many would like to see North Carolina's Dean Smith win another, given his age and his considerable achievements. Though most in the ACC outside Chapel Hill have expended a lot of energy rooting against Smith over the years, the fact that he is 66 and just passed Adolph Rupp as the game's all-time winningest coach would make a third title a nice retirement present.

But the chances of Smith retiring seem as unlikely as the Tar Heels' chances of getting this far when they started the ACC 0-3. They haven't lost since. Despite the nation's longest winning streak at 16 games, North Carolina comes in a bit banged up, with at least three key players nursing or just getting over injuries, with Antawn Jamison (back) joining Vince Carter (groin) and Shammond Williams (ankle) among the recently infirmed. Though all three are expected to play Saturday, Arizona could exploit all three the way freshman guard Mike Bibby is running the show.

Unsentimental Favorite: Olson, college basketball's last angry man, is also on his fourth trip to the Final Four, having taken Iowa there in 1980, as well as Arizona in 1988 and 1994. Olson, whose team's early-tournament exits in many of the intervening and subsequent seasons have given the Wildcats the kind of choker's label the Jayhawks now wear, hopes to get the last laugh this time.

With the way Bibby and Miles Simon are playing, and the way its heretofore nondescript frontcourt has come through, Arizona can beat the other three teams remaining on a given night. (See Kansas.)

This year's team seems to be playing well despite the chip Olson has placed on its collective shoulder, and Bibby could be this year's Isiah Thomas or Magic Johnson. If the past few weeks are any indication, Olson should be in top form by the time he gets to Indianapolis. Just think of a well-coiffed Agnew. Or better yet, Knight without the paunch and sweater.

Pub Date: 3/24/97

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