EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Think the Southeastern Conference might get more than four berths in the NCAA tournament next year?
Three other conferences -- the Atlantic Coast, Big East and Big Ten -- put more teams in the tournament this season but only one got a team in the Final Four. The SEC, meanwhile, advanced all four of its entrants to the Sweet 16 and two to the Final Four.
It's the second time in three years that the SEC provided half of the Final Four field, and what makes that accomplishment doubly impressive is that it involved four schools. Champion Arkansas and Florida made it two years ago, Kentucky and Mississippi State this time.
Beyond Kentucky, the preseason No. 1 choice, it was supposed to be a rebuilding year in the SEC.
The ACC used the early departure of Joe Smith, Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse as an excuse for its worst NCAA tournament in a decade, but the SEC added to its profile even though three of its premier players of 1995, Arkansas' Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman and Alabama's Antonio McDyess, left before their eligibility was up.
A Kentucky title last night would have given the SEC two champions in three years after 16 years without a crown. The Big Ten last produced a champion in 1990, and Syracuse was attempting to become the first from the Big East since 1985, when that conference made history with three of the Final Four teams.
How did the SEC, which was looking to make history with a sweep of the men's and women's titles, surpass the ACC over the past three seasons?
The SEC, the Big East and the Atlantic 10, which produced the Final Four teams, have been helped by Proposition 48 nonqualifiers which the ACC teams could not accept. UMass will have an entirely rebuilt frontline if Marcus Camby goes to the NBA, but its cupboard includes Lari Ketner, a 6-foot-10 forward from Philadelphia who was academically ineligible this season. Maryland recruited him, but it couldn't sign him even if he wanted to, because he was a Prop 48.
The NCAA created a new category, the partial qualifier, for the next freshman class, and each ACC school will be allowed to accept two male and two female athletes -- no more than one per sport -- who will be able to practice but not play in their first year.
Coach on the floor
Both finalists claimed to improve by addition through subtraction.
Kentucky's glut of talent eased when Rodrick Rhodes, who averaged 12.9 points but made only 39.0 percent of his shots in 1994-95, transferred to Southern Cal. Syracuse cites Lazarus Sims' work at the point as one reason it got this far, and he might not have gotten the chance to start if former Dunbar High star Michael Lloyd hadn't left Syracuse after last season.
Lloyd, a shooting guard, was out of position at the point. Sims was supposed to be a question mark this season, but he had a better than 2-to-1 assists-to-turnover ratio and let his teammates know quite clearly who was running the show.
"Lazarus is the general of our team," center Otis Hill said. "A lot of people ask why he yells at you on the court. It's because he wants you to listen. It's because he controls the team. Without his leadership, we wouldn't be where we are today."
A changed man
Kentucky coach Rick Pitino said some people warned him not to recruit Antoine Walker when he was a McDonald's All-American at Mt. Carmel High in Chicago. He was supposedly interested in his points and little else, but Pitino said that Walker, the sophomore power forward who may be the Wildcats' best NBA prospect, now has an all-around game to match his talent.
"Antoine came in very similar to [Jamal] Mashburn, with defensive liabilities and not an understanding of what the game is all about," Pitino said. "Right now, Antoine is an excellent defensive player. He's become unselfish, very much a leader."
New York flavor
Thanks in part to the way the Carrier Dome comes across on television, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has been able to recruit nationally, but these Orangemen have a distinct New York flavor.
Sims went to Henninger High in Syracuse. Hill is from White Plains, and senior forward John Wallace is from Rochester. Jason Cipolla, who had the audacity to make a mock call from a press row phone Saturday night, is from Queens.
The other starter, sophomore swingman Todd Burgan, is from Detroit, which a decade ago sent Derrick Coleman Syracuse's way.
The Orangemen were attempting to become the second college from New York to win an NCAA title in the city game last night. The first was City College of New York in 1950, which was found to be part of a point-shaving scandal. . . . The state of Kentucky, meanwhile, was searching for its eighth title, as the Wildcats came in with five titles on their resume. Louisville has two... Kentucky placed two players -- Tony Delk and Ron Mercer -- on the all-tournament team. They were joined by Syracuse's Wallace and Burgan and Massachusetts' Camby.
Pub Date: 4/02/96