Jaguars pose problem for struggling Illini Same time last season, South Alabama nearly knocked out Arizona

West Regional notebook

March 12, 1998|By Kent Baker and Paul McMullen | Kent Baker and Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- A year ago, South Alabama came out of nowhere to win the Sun Belt Conference, then staged a near-upset of eventual national champion Arizona in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

A lot has changed for the Jaguars.

No longer are they lightly regarded. To repeat in their league, they had to weather a head coaching change when Bill Musselman quit to become an NBA assistant just before fall practice began and a slew of injuries during the season.

But one thing hasn't changed. They are a dangerous opponent to draw, especially for an Illinois team that lacks depth and was upset in the second round last year by Tennessee-Chattanooga.

They meet for the first time today in the West Regional, and the winner will be Maryland's second-round foe if the Terrapins avoid an upset by Utah State.

The memory of the 65-57 loss to Arizona -- a game South Alabama led by 10 with 7 1/2 minutes to play -- is fresh.

"It was disappointing, yet kind of exciting, too, that you got beat by the national champs," guard Toby Madison said. "We were in a position to win and then everything became kind of a blur."

Forward Jason Hamm said: "We became [Arizona's] biggest fans after that because everything they did made us look good. And they got stronger as they went."

New coach Bob Weltlich, an assistant on Bob Knight's 1976 Indiana team that was the last undefeated national champion, is proud of the Jaguars, who won their final eight games, six on the road, including the Sun Belt tourney title from Southwestern Louisiana on its court.

He wasn't happy with being assigned to Arco Arena after that stretch, yet said his team has been "very resilient through a lot of frustrations and obstacles. It's a testimonial to their character."

And what must the 12th seed Jaguars do to win?

Keep the game at a moderate tempo and hold the Illini to less than 60 points. They were 19-2 when the opposition scored in the 50s or less.

Illini got wake-up call

Illinois' only tournament encounter with Maryland was in 1984 when the Illini took a 72-70 victory in the Sweet 16.

Coach Lon Kruger is confident his team has put behind it a nightmarish 19-point defeat to Purdue in the Big Ten tournament and is counting on an all-senior starting five anchored by guard Kevin Turner and forward Jerry Hester.

"We want to come out and dictate the tempo," Turner said. "But we'll play whatever way it takes."

"Hopefully, how we played in the tournament will serve as a wake-up call," Kruger said. "This is a very mature, experienced team and they know what happened [the near upset of Arizona] last year."

Like South Alabama, Illinois is smallish and relies on team defense, fundamental rebounding and perimeter offense.

The key is the bench, which averages only 12.6 points a game. If the officials are calling it closely, the Illini could be in big trouble.

Terps go the distance

Maryland traveled farther than any team in the tournament to reach its first-round destination -- 2,749 air miles. That was 40 more than Washington's trip from Seattle to Washington, D.C.

Coach Gary Williams didn't complain when Maryland was sent to the West Region for the third time in four years, however, and yesterday's shirt-sleeve weather beat the snow in Chicago and wind chill in Oklahoma City.

Et cetera

Utah State coach Larry Eustachy will wear the same outfit today against Maryland that he wore in all three of his team's games in the Big West tournament last week.

"At least they got cleaned since then," he said. "I'm a little superstitious. Brown pants, same shirt, same underwear as I had last week."

Maryland had a shoot-around at the Arco Arena yesterday, and a more rigorous workout at Sacramento State, where the coach is former Terps assistant Tom Abatemarco. Utah State has had a seven-man rotation since forward Dave Isaacson's career was ended by a second foot fracture. Maryland and Utah State share a common opponent. The Terps swept Florida State, and the Aggies lost, 66-55, at Tallahassee, Fla., in the Preseason NIT.

Pub Date: 3/12/98

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