With 8 on floor, Arena subregional shifts into gear NCAA TOURNAMENT THE ROAD STARTS HERE


Start with two neighbors from Tobacco Road, one a have, one a have-not.

Follow with two programs separated by 600 miles of the Mississippi and united by their reliance on the three-point shot.

Match Ben Franklin's school against Forrest Gump's.

Finish with Big Country vs. Big City.

It's a hearty stew that has the makings of a basketball feast today at the Baltimore Arena, where the NCAA tournament opens with four first-round games. It's not a glamorous subregional -- the last participant to make the Final Four was Penn, 16 years ago -- but it is an accomplished one.

All eight teams were in the NCAAs last year. Five of the eight are here as their conference's champion, and no subregional boasts more. Four will move on to Saturday's second round, and top-seeded Wake Forest and No. 4 Oklahoma State are favored to advance to the East Regional next week in East Rutherford, N.J.

It's not called March Madness for nothing, however.

"In a conference tournament, familiarity sometimes breeds contempt," Wake Forest coach Dave Odom said. "Once you get to this point, there is no familiarity."

Odom was referring to the Atlantic Coast Conference, the nation's strongest and a major player across the board in college athletics. North Carolina A&T;, Wake's first-round opponent, is 25 miles away in distance, but light years away in funding.

The Aggies hail from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, a group of nine historically black colleges -- including three in Maryland -- that never has won a game in the Division I tournament. The MEAC struggles in part because no major conference teams will play at their gyms.

North Carolina A&T; has a pretty good postseason roll going in Baltimore, where it is 6-0 over the past two Marches. The Aggies dream of going where no 16th seed has gone, into the second round.

"I know 240 more schools that would like to have my problem," said Aggies coach Roy Thomas.

Thomas must find a way to slow Randolph Childress, a dynamic guard from Prince George's County who shot his way into the ACC tournament record book last weekend with a dislocated pinkie on his shooting hand.

Oklahoma State of the Big Eight and Alabama of the Southeastern Conference will defend the honor of major conferences against an invasion from Philadelphia tonight. The Cowboys face Drexel, which yearns to prove Philadelphia basketball goes beyond the Big Five.

Every year, one favorite groans when it learns it has to play the Ivy League champ, in all likelihood the most cerebral team in the tournament. Alabama, which recently got a movie legend in Forrest Gump to go along with the real thing, Bear Bryant, has the unenviable task of dealing with Penn, which embarrassed sixth-seeded Nebraska last year.

The second game in the afternoon matches the subregional's most quotable coach, Saint Louis' Charlie Spoonhour, against the one who had the most success as a player, Minnesota's Clem Haskins.

The Gophers, one of the last teams to receive an at-large bid, set a Big Ten record for three-pointers. The Billikens, who don't start a player taller than 6 feet 6, took 60 more than Minnesota this season.

"This is so far removed from the way my teams used to play," said Spoonhour, who turned Saint Louis into a winner after being hired three years ago by Debbie Yow, who is now the athletic director at Maryland. "I'm more conservative than Barry Goldwater."

Haskins finished his NBA career with the Bullets, and he lived in Columbia from 1974 to 1976. The Bullets moved from Baltimore to Landover in 1973, and he recalled playing for the Chicago Bulls and Phoenix Suns at the Arena.

"Earl Monroe, Wes [Unseld], Leroy Ellis, Kevin Loughery, Bob Ferry, those old Bullets teams were pretty good," Haskins said. "I don't remember winning a whole lot here."

He'll get some new Arena memories today.

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