When the college basketball season began four months ago, there was talk about North Carolina making an undefeated run to a second straight national championship. There were even jokes that everyone else was playing for second place.
The 1994 NCAA tournament begins today, and the top-ranked Tar Heels are the team to beat. But a combination of their bumpy ride through the regular season and the incredible number of teams that have been ranked No. 1 in the past two months is quieting talk of a guaranteed coronation later this month in Charlotte, N.C.
"Our goal is to win this four-team tournament," said North Carolina coach Dean Smith, referring to the NCAA East Regional at USAirArena in Landover, where the top-seeded Tar Heels will open tomorrow against Big South champion Liberty, the No. 16 seed. "We're going to try to win and move forward."
Despite six regular-season losses, including five in the Atlantic Coast Conference, North Carolina is coming into this year's NCAA tournament in better shape than it did a year ago. Last year, the Tar Heels were blown out by Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament final, and the status of point guard Derrick Phelps was uncertain because of a back injury.
This year, North Carolina is coming off an impressive regular-season-ending win over Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium and a solid, often-spectacular performance at the ACC tournament. The play of freshmen Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse, who was the tournament's MVP, has many believing the Tar Heels will be making a return trip to the
Charlotte Coliseum for the Final Four.
"I can tell you North Carolina is the most talented team in our conference," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose struggling Blue Devils are seeded second in the Southeast Regional and will play Texas Southern tomorrow at the Suncoast Dome in St. Petersburg, Fla. "The way they played against us, they're going to be very difficult to beat. They don't have any weaknesses."
But Krzyzewski is not ready to concede another national championship to Smith, his closest rival.
"What has happened, not just in the last week [of the regular season, when six of the top eight ranked teams lost], but throughout the whole season, is that there are a lot of good basketball teams with a chance," said Krzyzewski. "Whoever stays healthy, whoever's enthusiastic and whoever wants it badly will keep playing. There are more teams that can win this year than in the past few years."
North Carolina and Arkansas, the top seed in the Midwest Regional, are considered favorites to meet in this year's championship game April 4, but the early rounds could produce a larger number of upsets than in recent seasons -- especially in the West.
"I think anyone can beat us, and I think we can beat anyone,"
said Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, whose Razorbacks will meet No. 16 seed North Carolina A&T; tomorrow at the Myriad in Oklahoma City. "I would rather have my guys thinking the second thing, but I want them to realize the first."
Three of the top four seeds in the West know the feeling. Top-seeded Missouri, No. 2 seed Arizona and No. 4 seed Syracuse are infamous for getting knocked out before the Sweet 16. Missouri will play No. 16 seed Navy tonight in Sacramento, Calif., and Arizona, which has lost in the first round the past two years, will play Loyola tomorrow evening in Ogden, Utah, where Syracuse opens with Hawaii.
Being sent West might cause your players to miss more school time and prevent your fans from making the trip, but it also might be the easiest route back to the Final Four.
"I don't think we have to pull off any great upsets," said Syracuse guard Adrian Autry. "In our bracket, the teams are such that if we play well, we can win some games."
Said Virginia coach Jeff Jones, whose seventh-seeded Cavaliers will play No. 10 seed New Mexico in Sacramento: "I'd like to believe that every year we've been in it, everyone said, 'If we play well, we've got a chance to do well in this tournament.' But this year, we might have seen a lot more examples [of upsets]. It's been more pronounced. There's probably more hope that a team can come up with an upset or two to reach the Sweet 16s, the Elite Eight and the Final Four."
It is the point where everyone is dreaming -- and scheming -- their upset road. Even Penn. The Quakers, with what might be their best team since the 1979 Final Four squad, jumped into the Top 25 recently before dropping out in this week's final regular-season poll. Not that the NCAA tournament selection committee noticed, seeding the Ivy League champions 11th in the East.
Or, maybe, the College of Charleston. After beating bigger schools the past couple of years -- Georgia Tech last season, Alabama this year -- the Cougars made it as an at-large team because their membership in the Trans America Conference won't officially kick in for postseason considerations until next year. Charleston will play Wake Forest today at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., in the Southeast Region.
"I don't think we'll be able to surprise anybody," said longtime coach John Kresse, whose last appearance in the NCAA tournament came in the mid-1970s, while he was an assistant to Lou Carnesecca at St. John's. "Especially another team from our region like Wake Forest."
Then there is Michigan, which has made a habit of going to the Final Four under Steve Fisher. Since taking over when Bill Frieder was told by former athletic director Bo Schembechler to pack his bags right before the 1989 tournament -- Frieder was heading for Arizona State -- Fisher has led the Wolverines to one national championship (that year) and two championship games (losing to Duke in 1992 and North Carolina last year).
"A lot of people say we're the Buffalo Bills of the basketball circuit," Fisher said this week before heading to Wichita for today's game against Pepperdine. "Our kids probably resent that. I know I do. We're the kids that a lot of people love to hate."
That could also be said about North Carolina, especially outside the state lines. But with the past three national championships won by teams along an 11-mile stretch of State Highway 15-501, and the Final Four being held in Charlotte, it seems as if the Tar Heels have a lot going in their favor.
NCAA MEN'S TOURNAMENT AT A GLANCE
EAST REGIONAL First- and second-round sites: Uniondale, N.Y.; Landover
Sweet 16 and final eight site: Miami
Favorite: North Carolina
First-round upset pick: Penn over Nebraska
Best potential matchup before Sweet 16: Temple vs. Indiana, second round in Landover
Dark horse for Sweet 16: Florida
Best unknown player: Gary Trent, Ohio
Sun's choice for Final Four: North Carolina
SOUTHEAST REGIONAL First- and second-round sites: Lexington, Ky.; St. Petersburg, Fla.
Sweet 16 and final eight site: Knoxville, Tenn.
First-round upset pick: Southwestern Louisiana over Marquette
Best potential matchup before Sweet 16: Michigan State-Duke, second round in St. Petersburg
Dark horse for Sweet 16: Michigan State
Best unknown player: Shawn Respert, Michigan State
Sun's choice for Final Four: Purdue
MIDWEST REGIONAL First- and second-round sites: Wichita, Kan.; Oklahoma City
Sweet 16 and final eight site: Dallas
First-round upset pick: Tulsa over UCLA, in Oklahoma City
Best potential matchup before Sweet 16: Saint Louis-Massachusetts, second round, in Wichita
Dark horse for Sweet 16: Saint Louis
Best unknown player: Shea Seales, Tulsa
Sun's choice for Final Four: Arkansas
WEST REGIONAL First- and second-round sites: Ogden, Utah; Sacramento, Calif.
Sweet 16 and final eight site: Los Angeles
First-round upset pick: Hawaii over Syracuse
Best potential matchup before Sweet 16: Virginia-Arizona, second round, in Ogden
Dark horse for Sweet 16: Virginia
Best unknown player: Harold Deane, Virginia
Sun's choice for Final Four: Louisville
FINAL FOUR AND CHAMPIONSHIP Final Four: North Carolina vs. Purdue; Arkansas vs. Louisville
Championship game: North Carolina vs. Louisville
Winner: North Carolina