One-size-fits-all slipper

NCAA tournament: Any number of teams could play Cinderella in this wide-open men's field. Iowa State, Tulsa, Louisiana State and Tennessee are standing in line.

Ncaa Tournament

March 15, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The glass sneakers, uh, slippers are collecting dust. The fairy godmother, in the form of the NCAA men's tournament selection committee, has done its best to let this year's Cinderellas take their shots. Continuing on this theme, let the Big Dance begin.

When this year's tournament opens for 32 teams at four subregional sites tomorrow, and the other 32 at four other locations on Friday, more than a few will be thinking they have a chance to make it all the way to Indianapolis for next month's Final Four.

But it has been 12 years since an underdog won the national championship. You have to go back an additional four years for a true Cinderella team to have gone to the Final Four.

What Kansas did in 1988 by upsetting No. 1-seeded Oklahoma and what little Indiana State and Larry Bird did in nearly toppling Michigan State and Magic Johnson in 1979 might be done this year.

"Because of all the defections by the great players to the pros, you're left with a lot of good teams that are not necessarily dominant," said CBS college basketball analyst Billy Packer. "It means that you might not have a lot of memorable games during the regular season, but it makes for an even better NCAA tournament."

A number of teams fill the modern-day definition of a Cinderella. It could be a team from a big conference with stars and coaches who are not household names outside their area. It could be a team that has gone unnoticed despite past success in the postseason.

Does the name Bill Self ring a bell outside Tulsa, where the Golden Hurricane lost four close games this year, including three to the same team? How about Stromile Swift and Jabari Smith, the two Louisiana State standouts who have taken the Tigers from NCAA probation to the Southeastern Conference Western Division championship?

If you can name Larry Eustachy's two head coaching jobs before he came to Iowa State last season, you also probably know Dick Vitale's birthday. And here's something to consider: the University of Tennessee has a men's team, and a pretty darn good one at that.

Get out the bracket sheets for your office pools and see how far you've picked these four teams to go. You might want to reconsider.

Tulsa

Considering that Fresno State is nowhere near Tulsa in this year's tournament -- the Bulldogs are the No. 9 seed in the West and the Hurricane is the No. 7 seed in the South -- Self won't have to fret about that bald-headed fellow, Jerry Tarkanian, or that free-flinging guard and transfer from Virginia, Courtney Alexander.

Tulsa is 29-4, three of those losses at the hands of its Western Athletic Conference rival. All three came in the waning seconds, as did the team's other loss to Oral Roberts, the cross-town school from whence Self came. Given the nature of the defeats, the Hurricane was about a minute away from being unbeaten.

"I've never thought of it like that," Self said.

What he has thought about is upholding a tradition that began in the early 1980s. After Nolan Richardson brought Tulsa to New York, where it upset Syracuse in the 1981 National Invitation Tournament, the Hurricane program took off. Richardson took Tulsa to three NCAAs and J. D. Barnett to two more.

But it wasn't until the Hurricane made the Sweet 16 in 1994 and 1995 under Tubby Smith that some started paying attention. Steve Robinson, now at Florida State, continued with appearances in the 1996 and 1997 tournaments. Self arrived two years ago and this makes six trips in seven seasons.

"Over time, our program has held up pretty well," said Self, 37.

And this year?

"We thought we'd have a chance to have a nice team," said Self, whose team lost four starters after finishing 23-10 last year and losing to Duke in the second round. "But we had seven new guys on the team. We thought we'd have a chance to do some things, but not to the degree that we've done."

The highlight came three months ago, when Tulsa crushed Tennessee in the final of a tournament in Puerto Rico. With the loss of Utah and New Mexico to the Mountain West this season, the WAC was not as strong. So the Hurricane wants to prove its record wasn't a fluke, beginning with Nevada-Las Vegas tomorrow in Nashville, Tenn.

"Our league hasn't gotten any exposure because of the split," Self said.

Nor have Tulsa's players. Five score in double figures, led by sixth man David Shelton (13.9 average). What could give the Hurricane some problems during the tournament is its size: Self starts four guards and Brandon Kurtz, a 6-foot-10 senior. But Shelton, a 6-6 junior, is the key.

"I think he's really the guy who allows all the pieces to fit together," Self said. "Off the bench, there's not a better player or a more productive player in the country."

LSU

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