After Carolina hits pothole, road to title veers west


January 16, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

The most recent indication that the road to the national championship just might not run through Tobacco Road came Wednesday night at Cole Field House, when Maryland exposed No. 1 North Carolina's thin rotation.

There also are a few reminders in the history book that maybe it isn't so wise to beat the rush and predict a Duke-North Carolina NCAA final at the Alamodome in San Antonio on March 30. Put aside your Eastern bias for a moment and look west, young man, specifically to the Pac-10.

The last four NCAA titles have been split between the Pac-10 and Southeastern Conferences. The latter sent four programs to the Final Four from 1994-96, and the former has developed some unappreciated depth that began to surface last season.

The Pac-10 was the only conference to place four teams in the Sweet 16 last March. Arizona and UCLA have won two of the last three NCAA titles. Stanford is one of only two unbeatens in the nation, the other being Utah.

Yes, the defending champion Wildcats have lost to Duke, Kansas and Florida State, but Miles Simon, Mike Bibby, Michael Dickerson and the next five players returned. UCLA was whipped early by North Carolina, but the Bruins are a different team now that Kris Johnson and Jelani McCoy have completed suspensions.

No. 8 UCLA plays at No. 7 Stanford tomorrow (4 p.m., CBS). The Cardinal doesn't have anything resembling a major win, but it has gotten off to the best start in school history. Brevin Knight graduated, but the junior backcourt of Arthur Lee and Kris Weems has been sound enough to make 87.7 percent of its free throws.

There's more to the SEC, meanwhile, than just No. 6 Kentucky. South Carolina remains suspect, but No. 11 Mississippi's only loss to date has been at Ball State, no embarrassment. In a great year for forwards, Ansu Sesay is one of the best.

The SEC doesn't appear to have as many quality teams, but consider this: before losing its first three league games, disappointing Georgia was able to take North Carolina into overtime. Tennessee has some decent wins, but it's also 0-3 in conference play.

There's no disputing that the ACC had a great run in November and December, when it went 11-7 against non-conference competition ranked in the Top 25. Don't forget, however, that the same computer program that proclaims the ACC as the nation's strongest conference listed the Big East as No. 2 last week.

Lefty's back

Eddie Sutton is the only coach ever to take four programs to the NCAA tournament -- Tulsa, Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma State -- but a familiar face is taking steps in that direction.

Lefty Driesell, who was shown the door by James Madison last spring, has wasted little time raising the visibility of what had been a moribund Georgia State program.

Driesell's face is more ubiquitous in Atlanta than Ted Turner's, as Georgia State plastered his likeness on 10 billboards. Driesell inherited a program that had only three winning records to show for 34 seasons, but he's displayed some of his famous recruiting skill.

The two high schoolers and one junior-college player who have signed letters of intent have been branded a top 50 recruiting class. Transfers from Georgia Tech, Alabama and Texas A&M are sitting out this season, but Georgia State is still making noise, as a squad of mostly holdovers should win the West Division of the Trans America Athletic Conference.

The best inside player has been Quincy Gause, a transfer from Allegany Community College in Cumberland.

Driesell took Davidson to the NCAA tournament three times, Maryland eight and JMU once.

Pressure shots

Virginia's Jeff Jones said he doesn't have any gimmicks to improve his team's free-throw shooting, but he remembered a coach who does.

"The most bizarre thing was at my high school in Kentucky," Jones said. "Our coach boarded up the windows to the gym, and we shot strip free throws. You miss, you lose a piece of clothing. You've got to stand up to pressure in that situation. I'm not sure in this day and age that you could do that."

Pub Date: 1/16/98

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