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Rookie cap talk could spur exodus

THE BALTIMORE SUN

North Carolina's Rasheed Wallace and/or Jerry Stackhouse . . . . gone?

Villanova's Kerry Kittles, Arkansas' Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman . . . . gone?

Maryland's Joe Smith, Wisconsin's Rashard Griffith, Ohio's Gary Trent, UMass' Marcus Camby . . . . gone?

Who knows for sure, but expect a lot of underclassmen to bolt early if NBA owners and the players union continue talking about a possible rookie salary cap as part of the league's next collective bargaining agreement.

"The salary cap . . . . nobody knows how that's going to work out," said North Carolina coach Dean Smith, who has a long history of helping Tar Heels underclassmen (Bob McAdoo, James Worthy, J.R. Reid, Michael Jordan) determine their pro worth. "So it's too early for us to really discuss."

Fair enough, but if it happens, count on two things: more parity and more players doing junior college imitations -- two years and out.

"When players are leaving after their sophomore year, you don't see the Dukes, the Las Vegases anymore, with three first-round draft picks," said Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, who lost Jamal Mashburn after his junior season. "You never quite get to that point because the players leave before they're at their full maturity."

They leave because the money is too much to ignore. Purdue's Glenn Robinson got a $68 million package to come out early. Memphis' Anfernee Hardaway received a 13-year, $65 million deal.

Meanwhile, coaches such as Pitino can offer trips to Starkville, Miss., and the chance at a diploma.

"No question about it, if you're recruiting a Jason Kidd or a [Chris] Webber or that caliber of basketball player, you know you're going to get two years definitely, but anything more than that is gravy," Pitino said. "Right now, North Carolina must be looking at that and Maryland must be looking at that with Joe Smith. You know they need another year. You know everybody's telling them about the salary cap for rookies. And you know the players are saying, 'Well, if I get injured, that could be $40 million down the drain.'

"So, you know they're not ready, but you got to do the right thing for the young people because of the way the game is played today. The slightest twist of the knee could end a career."

Dean Smith has one other suggestion: Never repeal the NCAA rule that allows an underclassman to test the NBA draft and then retain his eligibility if he wishes to return to school rather than join the pros. At the most recent NCAA convention, there was a failed attempt to rescind the one-year-old measure.

Smith, who helped inspire the legislation, maintains that the rule allows a player to make a more informed career decision. Critics of the measure, such as assorted NBA general managers, argue otherwise.

And according to Smith, Minnesota coach Clem Haskins wasn't in favor of the rule because it didn't give him to time to replace a star player. In Haskins' case, standout guard Voshon Lenard declared himself available for last year's draft, was chosen by the Milwaukee Bucks, then decided to return to school.

Clinton survives Vitale

Forget Newt Gingrich. President Bill Clinton survived a halftime interview with ESPN's Dick Vitale and has bruised eardrums to prove it.

Vitale: "Will you be at the Final Four?" Clinton: "I hope so. I've got a job, though."

Clinton is becoming one of the great local good luck charms. He was there when unranked George Washington upset then-No. 1 UMass at the Smith Center on Feb. 4. And Monday night at the USAir Arena, the Georgetown alum (Class of '69) saw his unranked Hoyas overwhelm No. 9 Villanova.

As for Vitale, he says he's going to take Clinton up on his offer to shoot hoops at the White House.

Miscellaneous

Yet another reason why we won't be picking North Carolina to win our NCAA tournament office pool: In Sunday's 73-71 loss at Virginia, the Tar Heel bench (Serge Zwikker, Pat Sullivan, Ed Geth and Pearce Landry) combined for 24 minutes and zero points. As a concession to a young team that lacks depth and can't afford fouls, Smith has toned down his famous pressure defense, which usually begins as soon as the ball crosses half court. Instead, the Tar Heels aren't applying much pressure until teams reach the three-point line. "Thirty-three and a half years we've done that," he said of his beloved half-court pressure. "We just have to back it off a little." . . . . Yet another reason why coaches are just as dumb as sportswriters: In this week's USA Today/CNN coaches poll, someone stuck Duke (11-14, 1-12 in the ACC) on his top 25 ballot. Even worse: Arkansas Little Rock, which started the week 5 1/2 games out of first place in the Sun Belt Conference and had a terrible power rating of 167 (out of 302 Division I programs), received three votes. In the AP polls, done by the writers, Duke was nowhere to be found and Arkansas Little Rock got one vote.

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