In cramming for finals, Arkansas makes grade NCAA TOURNAMENT

Rasheed Wallace might have put it best. Or, at least, the most colorfully.

"If you can't stay with the big dogs, you wind up sitting on the porch," the North Carolina center said after his team's win Saturday over Kentucky in the Southeast Regional final in Birmingham, Ala.


There will be a lot of porch-sitting -- or at least dorm-sitting -- going on this week for the 60 teams eliminated from this year's NCAA tournament. The big dogs are headed to Seattle for the Final Four at the Kingdome.

There's UCLA, once again the biggest dog in all of college basketball. The top-ranked Bruins, two decades removed from the last of their 10 national championships and 15 years after their last trip to the NCAA semifinals, certainly look like the team to beat.


There's North Carolina, once again defying the critics who say that a team with virtually no bench can't make it through the grind of the six-game tournament. With the best starting lineup in the game, and possibly the best player in sophomore Jerry Stackhouse, don't count the Tar Heels out.

There's Arkansas, the defending national champion, looking to do what has been done only once (by Duke in 1990-91 and 1991-92) since UCLA's back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back run of titles that ended in 1973. The Razorbacks have been pushed well past the brink several times in the tournament, but seem to have as many lives as players (at least nine).

And, finally, there's Oklahoma State, the wild card in this select group, a team coming off upsets of the No. 1 (Wake Forest) and No. 2 (Massachusetts) seeds in the East. The Cowboys have the biggest of these dogs in Bryant "Big Country" Reeves, who made short work yesterday of Minutemen Lou Roe and Marcus Camby as Randy Rutherford was lighting it up from the outside.

"Nobody said this job is easy," UMass coach John Calipari said earlier this season, after the suspension of guard Mike Williams made his team a bit suspect in the backcourt. "But it sure is interesting."

So is the story line of this year's Final Four. It might not have the Cinderella -- or was that Aesop's Fable -- quality of 10 years ago, when Villanova denied defending champion Georgetown its place in history by playing the perfect game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.

It won't even have the rags-to-riches saga of Steve Fisher, then an obscure Michigan assistant, who coached the Wolverines to a national championship over Seton Hall in 1989, the last time the Final Four was played in Seattle. (Hopefully, it won't have the horrible foul call that helped Michigan win the game, either.)

But it certainly should be filled with a few workable plots and subplots.

* Plot No. 1: The coach who doesn't get any respect winning the title.


Take your pick: It's UCLA's Jim Harrick or Arkansas' Nolan Richardson. The West Regional champion Bruins, who will play East Regional winner Oklahoma State in one semifinal, are looking to help their coach finally fill that Old Wooden Shoe. But as former Southern Cal coach George Raveling said, "If he wins one, he's still down nine."

As for Richardson, maybe he left the soapbox he preached from during last year's tournament -- reaching a feverish pitch in Charlotte, N.C., during the Final Four -- back home in Fayetteville. The Hogs have gotten more than their share of favorable calls just to get here, going back to their opening-round win over Texas Southern. CBS can get you only so far; the rest they have to do on their own.

* Plot No. 2: Mr. Smith goes to Washington (state). How many times have you heard that during the past two weeks? Regardless of his team's obvious talent, Dean Smith has done one of his best coaching jobs this season, and that's saying a lot considering his 34 years and 830 victories.

Even without a bench -- Ed Geth could set a Final Four record for minutes not played, because he was a sophomore on the national championship team two years ago -- the Tar Heels could beat Arkansas in the semifinals if Donald Williams, the 1993 Final Four MVP, keeps playing the way he has and Wallace keeps from getting tossed.

* Plot No. 3: The last hurrah before becoming an NBA millionaire. Let's see, there are sophomores Wallace and Stackhouse for North Carolina, UCLA senior Ed O'Bannon, Reeves and possibly juniors Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman for Arkansas. Of the group, Reeves stands the most to gain and, perhaps, lose. The potential matchup between Stackhouse, who has carried the Tar Heels this far, and Thurman, whose last-second three-pointer gave the Hogs the title last year over Duke, is one for the ages.

* Plot No. 4: The back-from-the-coaching abyss of OSU's Eddie Sutton. Sutton brought the Hogs to the Final Four in 1978, wound up at Kentucky in 1985 and then, with his career in ruins after the scandal in Lexington, ended up in Stillwater, where he has taken the Cowboys to five straight NCAA tournaments. His 27 NCAA tournament wins rank fifth among active coaches, behind Smith, Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski and John Thompson.


Given how well I've done so far in this tournament -- picking Wake Forest, Kentucky, Arkansas and Indiana in the Final Four, with the not-so-Demon Deacons beating the Razorbacks for the title -- here are my picks for Seattle. (Instead of fanfare, can anyone play "Taps"?)

North Carolina vs. Arkansas

I'll stick with the Razorbacks, but I'm as unstable about this one as either Wallace's sprained ankle or his personality. If Stackhouse and Wallace vs. Thurman and Williamson is a draw, it will be up to their supporting casts to do the job. I like North Carolina's guards, but depth should play a factor.

* Prediction: Arkansas 81, North Carolina 78.

UCLA vs. Oklahoma State

This is one of those perfect contrasts in style: the run-and-gun Bruins and the crawl-and-maul Cowboys. Who dictates the pace of this game likely will have the best chance to win. UCLA center George Zidek did a nice job on another big, big man in Mississippi State's Erick Dampier, so Big Country shouldn't be as monstrous a mismatch as it seems. As much as I -- not to mention CBS -- would love to see the coaching matchup of Richardson and Sutton, the Bruins should have a little too much firepower for the Cowboys to control.


* Prediction: UCLA 80, Oklahoma State 70.

Championship game

The potential dynasty vs. the past dynasty. The Rodney Dangerfield matchup of coaches. Celebrity fans (the Razorbacks have Bill Clinton, the Bruins had Jack Nicholson last week in Oakland, Calif.). The matchups are a draw, but Arkansas' experience in the championship game will be the edge, but not by much.

* Prediction: Arkansas 88, UCLA 85.


Updated odds to win the NCAA tournament:


School .. .. .. .. .. ..Odds

UCLA .. .. .. .. .. .. ..3-2

North Carolina .. .. .. .5-2

Arkansas .. .. .. .. .. .3-1

Oklahoma State .. .. .. .4-1