SEC in league of its own in tournament 8-0 so far, with teams in each of regions, it could fill Final Four; 'Kentucky and 11 dwarfs'; UMass, UConn loom in 3rd round, however; NCAA TOURNAMENT


The year was 1985.

The place was Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.

By becoming the first conference to send three of its teams to the Final Four and the second of three leagues to have two members play each other for the national championship, the Big East was the beast of college basketball.

But the beast eventually became a bust.

Now, more than a decade removed from that history-making event and seven years after sending the last of its teams to the Final Four, the Big East has another chance. But the Southeastern Conference, once thought of primarily for its football, has an even better chance.

In fact, the SEC can do the Big East one better. With an 8-0 record and all of its NCAA tournament teams divided among the four Sweet 16 sites, the SEC has an opportunity to become the first league to send four teams to the Final Four.

"We play in a weak league," Mississippi State coach Richard Williams said with more than a hint of sarcasm after the fifth-seeded Bulldogs routed the tournament's Cinderella team, Princeton, 63-41, in a Southeast Regional second-round game to join conference mates Arkansas, Kentucky and Georgia in the Round of 16.

"I guess we just got some lucky bounces in this tournament, because our league is so weak. We have Kentucky and the 11 dwarfs."

Some, including Williams, say it's still Kentucky's tournament to lose. That's high praise, considering Mississippi State is the only team to defeat the Wildcats in the past three months and only one of two to do it this season.

"If you haven't seen Kentucky play, you can't understand how good they are," said Williams, whose Bulldogs beat the Wildcats in the championship game of the SEC tournament.

Here's how the regions break down:

East Regional

Massachusetts (33-1) vs. Arkansas (20-12): The top-seeded Minutemen, the other team to have beaten Kentucky this season, have been clutch at the end of games. But they still seem to be in danger of running out of gas especially All-America center Marcus Camby. The 12th-seeded Razorbacks don't have the same talent, depth and experience that produced one national championship and two straight appearances in the NCAA final, but could prove a lot of people wrong by getting to Saturday's regional final.

Georgetown (28-7) vs. Texas Tech (30-1): North Carolina coach Dean Smith had a warning for his friend John Thompson after the Tar Heels lost, 92-73, to the third-seeded Red Raiders Sunday. "Georgetown better watch out," Smith said. Texas Tech does more than just shatter backboards, as Darvin Ham did against the Tar Heels. Shutting down Jeff McInnis and Dante Calabria is one thing; stopping Allen Iverson is another. The only thing that might stop the Hoyas is if Iverson gets into foul trouble for the third game in a row.

Midwest Regional

Kentucky (30-2) vs. Utah (27-6): Despite getting off slowly in both of their first two victories, the top-seeded Wildcats eventually wore down the competition by sheer force of numbers and talent. The fourth-seeded Utes must have a completely healthy Keith Van Horn. Though Utah made it this far with Van Horn (flu) playing a limited role against Canisius and Iowa State, it needs the junior shooting star at the top of his game for a shot at an upset.

Wake Forest (25-5) vs. Louisville (22-11): Whether the four days the Demon Deacons have to recover will be enough for Tony Rutland's knee to heal and Tim Duncan's stomach virus to clear up is a matter for debate. Wake Forest certainly needs Duncan, who'll be facing his toughest test in Louisville's Samaki Walker since being outplayed by Camby early in the season. The Cardinals seem to be doing what Denny Crum's Final Four teams always did: peak at the end of the season.

Southeast Regional

Connecticut (32-2) vs. Mississippi State (24-7): Top-seeded Connecticut has the look of a Final Four team, but could be one pulled muscle away from going back to Storrs frustrated again. Senior point guard Doron Sheffer reportedly pulled a groin muscle in Saturday's win over Eastern Michigan. With freshman backup Ricky Moore out indefinitely, Sheffer becomes even more vital. Connecticut 7-footer Travis Knight has the size to stay with the Bulldogs and their 6-11, 265-pound center, Erick Dampier, but he might not have the strength.

Cincinnati (27-4) vs. Georgia Tech (24-11): Bearcats power forward Danny Fortson might be too much of a load for the Yellow Jackets, who rely more on finesse than forearms inside. But Tech is starting to resemble the 1990 team, when Lethal Weapon 3 (Kenny Anderson, Dennis Scott and Brian Oliver) helped Bobby Cremins to his first Final Four. This time, it's guards Stephon Marbury and Drew Barry and forward Matt Harpring doing the damage.

West Regional

Kansas (28-4) vs. Arizona (26-6): The second-seeded Jayhawks have an advantage: Two good big men (Raef LaFrentz and Scot Pollard) to one (former Jayhawk Ben Davis) for third-seeded Arizona. Also, Kansas point guard Jacque Vaughn is one of the nation's top defenders, as evidenced by the way he made Steve Nash disappear the day after the Santa Clara guard made Maryland disappear.

Syracuse (26-8) vs. Georgia (21-9): John Wallace didn't get a lot of attention outside the Big East, but he could be the next Derrick Coleman minus the attitude. This is one of Jim Boeheim's most blue-collar, well-balanced teams, but its lack of depth could be a problem against the Bulldogs. Georgia coach Tubby Smith, who has made a career of NCAA upsets and Sweet 16 appearances, is coming off his biggest one yet: Saturday's victory over top-seeded Purdue.

Pub Date: 3/19/96

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad