Ask Arizona about being a sure thing

March 24, 1998|By John Eisenberg

You would think North Carolina, as the last No. 1 seed left standing, is now a good bet to win the NCAA tournament.

But you would also have thought Duke was a good bet not to blow a 17-point lead in the second half of the South Regional final, with coach Mike Krzyzewski unable to make moves because the Blue Devils had run out of timeouts with five minutes left.

And you certainly would have thought Arizona was a good bet to beat Utah in the West Regional final -- and a million-dollar lock not to lose by 25 points.

Remember all that talk about this being the year four No. 1 seeds made the Final Four? Well, only one did.

In other words, as much as the Tar Heels look like the team to beat in San Antonio, perceptions and predictions are proving particularly purposeless this year.

Say that last sentence five times in a row really fast and you win a dream date with Arizona coach Lute Olson.

He'll tell you all about how his cocky Wildcats would have defended their national title except for that one, teeny-weeny 25-point loss to a Utah team that Maryland probably could beat.

It's hard to remember a March Madness result more stunning.

Imagine Wile E. Coyote catching the RoadRunner after all these years and splattering him across a highway in flattened road-kill glory.

Only in this case, no one outside of Arizona was sorry to see the Wildcats get squashed.

They were a terrific team, but their constant bragging and whining about a lack of respect was about as attractive as jiggly Utah coach Rick Majerus in a Speedo swimsuit.

They were so high on themselves that they thought the West Regional was, well, sort of beneath them. They talked about playing North Carolina in the Final Four more than they talked about Maryland and Utah, their regional opponents. Basically, they thought they had a bye to the Final Four.

It was hard to tell whether they were less ready to play Utah on Saturday or Olson was less ready to concede any credit to the evil Atlantic Coast Conference, which, to hear Olson tell it, gets more respect than Kathleen Willey gets on conservative talk radio.

It's too bad we won't get to see the Wildcats play North Carolina in a match of the nation's two best teams, but the Final Four will be more fun and less paranoid with Majerus and the Utes substituting for Olson and his whiny gang.

The guess here is North Carolina and its inside-outside balance DTC probably would have beaten Arizona, setting up a championship game between the Tar Heels and Duke, which surely would have beaten Stanford, the surprise winner of the Midwest Regional.

Duke was almost already there, carrying that big lead against Kentucky as the clock wound down in the South Regional final.

When the Wildcats started to rally, the Blue Devils handled the late-game clock about as well as the Ravens usually do.

True, it was one of the players, not Krzyzewski, who called that last timeout with more than five minutes to play. You can't blame Krzyzewski for that.

Nor can you blame him for the way Kentucky guard Wayne Turner blew past Duke's Steve Wojciechowski on almost every Kentucky possession down the stretch.

But the Devils' shot selection in the last few minutes wasn't exactly a testimony to the quality of a Duke education.

They threw up so many ugly shots that even ACC homer Billy Packer was forced to criticize them.

Maryland coach Gary Williams would have been carted off on a stretcher had it been the Terps blowing that lead with a trip to the Final Four on the line, but Coach K sat there as serenely as a guy watching an opera. Bizarre.

Dean Smith didn't comment after the game on CBS. He was off camera somewhere trying to wipe the smile off his face with an industrial-strength scrubber.

That smile might fade when someone points out that Carolina coach Bill Guthridge will have won half as many national titles in one year as Smith won in 37.

Anyway, it's too bad the Duke collapse didn't happen at Cameron Indoor Stadium, in front of those smart-aleck Duke fans. They were making some sad calls home to Dad late Sunday night, no doubt about it.

And hey, Duke's defeat wasn't nearly as appalling as Rhode Island's loss to Stanford in the Midwest Regional final. The Rams were up six with less than a minute to play.

The end of that game was what college sports is all about, with Rhode Island coach Jim Harrick looking as if he wanted to give the refs a Sprewell, and Stanford guard Arthur Lee signaling a choke sign after Rhode Island missed a key free throw.

It was hard all along to buy into CBS' attempt to portray Harrick as a warm and fuzzy "comeback" story so soon after UCLA had run him off. Talk about a story with holes.

Anyway, Harrick crashed and Stanford's win made it a great day for people with big jaws and good resumes.

Stanford probably will lose to Kentucky in one semifinal on Saturday, and Carolina probably will beat Utah in the other, and Carolina probably will beat Kentucky in the championship game, but before you bet a nickel on any of that, just remember what Maryland's Rodney Elliott said about Arizona:

"They're the best team until someone beats them."

OK, done.

Next?

Pub Date: 3/24/98

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