For some, no marching forward

Basketball: Pressure mounts for coaches and teams who have learned the hard way that making the NCAA tournament is one thing, but winning there is another.

Ncaa Tournament

March 22, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The new coach had taken the school to its first NCAA tournament in his second year, but after two straight opening-round defeats and another loss in the team's first tournament game in his seventh season, some wondered whether this former All-America hotshot from Purdue had what it took to be considered among the nation's top college basketball coaches. Even a fellow named John Wooden had to get over the hump.

The scrutiny of coaches and their teams has intensified greatly since the days of Wooden trying to revive a substandard program at UCLA in the early 1950s, given that college basketball has ballooned into a billion-dollar business and the tournament itself has become a monster that takes over the sporting world every March.

Had the measuring stick that is in place today been used to judge Wooden's first few seasons with the Bruins - namely winning tournament games rather than just making the tourney - he might not have become the revered Wizard of Westwood by winning 10 championships over his last 12 seasons, including seven straight.

"I would certainly be judged differently," Wooden, 90, said this week from his home in Los Angeles. "After two or three bad years, I would have realized that it was not the spot for me. I always joke that it took me 15 years to get it right."

As this year's tournament enters its second week and the remaining 16 teams prepare for their biggest game of the season, several coaches and dozens of players find themselves facing the obstacle of going further than they have ever gone before; others merely are hoping to get back to the Elite Eight -- and possibly the Final Four -- for the first time in several years.

No team or coach left in this year's field has a larger hurdle to climb than Maryland or Gary Williams. The Terrapins, the West Regional's third seed, are seeking their first Sweet 16 victory since 1975. Meanwhile, Williams will be trying to coach a team to the brink of the Final Four for the first time.

"It's as big as any game since I've been here," Williams said yesterday in Anaheim, Calif., where the Terrapins are scheduled to meet 10th-seeded Georgetown in the first West Regional semifinal game at The Pond. "We've been to the Sweet 16 five times, and we'd like to get past it this year. Each year you make the NCAAs you're very happy because you see who doesn't get to the tournament or the Sweet 16. You're happy to be here."

But Maryland and Williams are not alone in their daunting quest.

There is Kansas, the fourth seed in the South, once considered a perennial contender under Roy Williams but now merely happy to have survived the first weekend after three straight second-round exits. There is Cincinnati, the fifth seed in the West, hoping to upset top-seed Stanford in Anaheim and reach its first regional final since 1996.

Roy Williams spoiled Jayhawks' fans when he took over a program constrained by NCAA probation in 1988. The probation was brought on by infractions committed under Larry Brown while he was building a team that won the championship the previous season. Williams guided Kansas to two straight Final Four appearances in 1991 and 1992, but the Jayhawks have made it back to the Elite Eight only once since.

"I really want the kids to enjoy it, not to feel the pressure," Roy Williams said in a national teleconference this week. "But I'm stressed out right now."

To relieve some tension, Roy Williams took a stuffed monkey his wife, Wanda, gave him and had each player knock it off the coach's shoulder before the team played Syracuse in the second round. The Jayhawks then knocked the stuffing out of the Orangemen.

"I don't think it was anything you can hide from," said Roy Williams, whose Jayhawks will need all the help they can get when they meet top seed Illinois tomorrow night in the South Regional semifinal in San Antonio. "We tried to add a little humor to it. Now I've got to find a big monkey, maybe get a gorilla off my back."

Kansas senior center Eric Chenowith, whose own under- whelming career has mirrored his team's postseason collapses, said that it isn't easy to forget what has transpired the past three years.

"We're reminded of it every year when they have the tournament specials on television," said Chenowith. "We've played Kentucky and Duke. Kentucky was having a magical year and Duke is always tough. I have no regrets."

Where that bump in the road takes place is all relative. For Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, it was a steady progression from getting his team into the tournament in his fourth season in 1984, then rapidly getting to the Final Four in 1986. Duke's loss to Louisville in the championship game was the first of five trips in six years in which the Blue Devils lost in either the semifinals or final. Duke beat Kansas for the first of two back-to-back titles in 1991.

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