All even, hanging in the balance There might not be a team for the ages, but these 4 are solid

March 29, 1997|By DON MARKUS | DON MARKUS,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- The four teams that have made it through this year's NCAA tournament to today's national semifinals here at the RCA Dome have a number of things in common. But the biggest similarity could be in the fact that none will go down as a team for the ages.

The North Carolina team that will meet Arizona in the first game isn't close to Dean Smith's two previous national championship teams. It lacks the overall talent of the 1982 team that included junior All-American James Worthy and freshman legend-in-the-making Michael Jordan. It doesn't even measure up to the 1993 team that featured sophomores Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse. It is certainly not as deep as the 1995

team that lost to Arkansas in the semifinals.

The Kentucky team that will meet Minnesota in the second game is far from last year's national championship team that beat Syracuse and promptly lost four starters, all of whom were drafted and three of whom are now in the NBA. It also might be a toss-up between these Wildcats and the 1993 team that had a dominant player in Jamal Mashburn, but lost to Michigan in the semis.

"I think you have four really, really good basketball teams, and I think it's more fun that way," Kentucky coach Rick Pitino said yesterday. "If you studied the games leading up to this Final Four, there's no way you can pick a team being better than the other. You can make a case for their strength, but there's no way watching these teams that you'd be convinced. Now if Kansas was here, obviously you can make a case for them."

But Arizona's elimination of the Jayhawks, top-ranked for all but the first three weeks of the regular season, has turned this into arguably the most balanced Final Four since 1989. After losing head coach Bill Frieder right before the NCAA tournament, Michigan won the championship with an unknown interim named Steve Fisher.

There were no such dramatic developments with the four teams still playing this year, but each has experienced its own bumps along the road to Indianapolis. Kentucky saw All-America forward Derek Anderson go down with a season-ending knee injury in mid-January. Minnesota had to overcome a long-standing reputation for underachieving. North Carolina started 0-3 in the ACC for the first time. Arizona played the first 11 games without Miles Simon.

"But," said Pitino, "you have four teams that got hot at the right time."

The hottest team is North Carolina (28-6). The Tar Heels have equaled the school's longest winning streak at 16 games, and haven't lost since an 80-73 loss at Duke Jan. 29. Arizona (23-9) lost its last two regular-season games on the road at Stanford and Cal. The Wildcats nearly lost their first two Southeast Regional games against South Alabama and the College of Charleston, then shocked Kansas before holding on to beat Providence in overtime in Sunday's regional final.

In a matchup of coaches who've been occasionally known to play mind games with their players, the advantage certainly goes to Arizona's Lute Olson. Considering that his team beat the Tar Heels handily in the season-opening Tip-Off Classic in Springfield, Mass., and did without the academically ineligible Simon, the Wildcats will certainly go into the rematch feeling good about their chances.

"Obviously, we have a sense of confidence since we beat them earlier in the year," said sophomore center A.J. Bramlett, whose late-season surge has played a huge role in Arizona's run to Olson's fourth Final Four, his third with the Wildcats. "But they're a totally different team than they were in that first game and so are we. Both teams have come a long way since that first game."

Said North Carolina coach Dean Smith, "I was raving about them when they had us by 17 points with eight minutes to play [and won by 11, 83-72] and that's without Miles Simon. And you can say that Miles is perhaps their best player and surely that's what I've seen in the tournament. I wish he was ineligible for one game like he was for the first game."

The matchup between Kentucky (34-4) and Minnesota (31-3) is an intriguing contrast. The Wildcats are perimeter-oriented, but are underrated inside. They also have the Final Four's most celebrated player in sophomore forward and soon-to-be NBA lottery pick Ron Mercer. The Gophers prefer to go inside, but in senior guard Bobby Jackson might have been the most underrated player in the country until the last month of the regular season.

The advantage Pitino's team, as well as Pitino himself, has is the fact that he and the Wildcats have been here before. Here, meaning both in the arena formerly known as the Hoosier Dome and at the Final Four. It is Pitino's fourth trip, and Kentucky made its ninth appearance in the building when the Wildcats opened their season with a 79-71 loss to Clemson in the BCA Classic.

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