NCAA gets sweet, sour Valpo, Rhode Island give lower seeds hope

Kansas falls (as usual)

March 16, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Rhode Island and Valparaiso in the Sweet 16.

College basketball's NCAA tournament doesn't get any better than this.

Forget the marquee matchup of Kentucky and UCLA on Tropicana Field at the South Regional in St. Petersburg, Fla. Or the collision course that top-ranked North Carolina and defending national champion Arizona seem to be headed on from the East and the West.

It's the eighth-seeded Rams and the 13th-seeded Crusaders at the Kiel Center in St. Louis in the semifinals of the Midwest Regional. It's Jim Harrick and Jim Jr. -- the father, his career resurrected at Rhode Island, and the son, an assistant beginning his career at the place called Valpo.

"Only in America," said Valparaiso coach Homer Drew, who along with son, Bryce, have become the most compelling story in this year's tournament.

Though many figured this would be the year all of the top seeds made it through to the Final Four in San Antonio, history tells us that we shouldn't be surprised that they won't. It hasn't happened since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Kansas will somehow find a way to lose.

The Jayhawks did again yesterday in Oklahoma City to Rhode Island, thus setting up the matchup between the two lowest seeds to play in a Sweet 16 game since seventh-seeded Navy met 14th-seeded Cleveland State in the East Regional semifinals in 1986.

Here's a look at this year's Sweet 16:

EAST (Thursday and Saturday, Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, N.C.): The top-seeded Tar Heels return to the place where they blitzed Duke by 15 points in the ACC tournament final eight days ago. They'll play in front of a pro-North Carolina crowd when they meet fourth-seeded Michigan State and they'll be the only team left in the tournament to sleep in their own beds, with Chapel Hill an hour or so away. The Spartans woke up from a late-season slumber to beat Princeton, but sophomore guard Mateen Cleaves won't do to the Tar Heels what he did to the Tigers.

A prediction about the other semifinal: The Huskies will win. The second-seeded Connecticut Huskies are the youngest team in the field, led by freshman point guard Khalid El-Amin and sophomore Richard Hamilton, the Big East's Player of the Year. The 11th-seeded Washington Huskies dominated Richmond because of their size, particularly 7-foot junior Todd MacCulloch. But with enough big bodies to throw at MacCulloch and fellow 7-footer Patrick Femerling, Connecticut should make it to the regional final for the first time since losing to Duke in overtime in 1990.

WEST (Thursday and Saturday, The Pond, Anaheim, Calif.): In the shadow of Disneyland, fairy tales can come true: They can happen to Terrapins. But fourth-seeded Maryland will need to play a perfect game just to stay with top-seeded Arizona, let alone beat the Wildcats. Any of the other 15 remaining teams -- with the possible exception of Duke -- would have been better matchups for the Terps. Arizona guards Mike Bibby and Miles Simon could present huge problems for Terrell Stokes and Sarunas Jasikevicius. Ironically, the Terps will be the team trying to slow the tempo.

Utah coach Rick Majerus said last month that he didn't think his Utes would even get to the Sweet 16 for the third consecutive year. But the third-seeded Utes surprised even their coach, and now get one of the tournament's surprise teams in 10th seed West Virginia. The Mountaineers might have a karma thing going, considering that this is their first trip to the Sweet 16 since a player named West (Jerry) led them to a championship game loss to California in 1959 and a player named West (Jarrod) got them there with his last-second prayer to beat second seed Cincinnati in Boise on Saturday. This game is a tossup.

SOUTH (Friday and Sunday, Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.): Both the Duke-Syracuse and Kentucky-UCLA semifinals are viewed as merely a warm-up act for what is the most anticipated regional final, the one between the top seed Blue Devils and the second seed Wildcats. But the Orangemen shocked a top seed two years ago to reach the Final Four (Kansas, who else?) and their zone defense can cause problems for a team that likes to shoot threes. But Duke's depth, and freshman center Elton Brand, should be able to wear down Syracuse.

Kentucky could be the hottest team in the tournament, and seems to have completed the transition from Rick Pitino's tTC frenetic style to Tubby Smith's frenetic style. The Wildcats do not have the star power they had in winning the national championship two years, or reaching the final a year ago, but they are deeper and healthier than when they lost to Arizona. The Bruins survived two three-point wins in Atlanta and though Toby Bailey seems bent on winning another title before leaving Westwood, the knee injury yesterday to freshman Baron Davis could make an already thin team even thinner.

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