Sweet 16 is rich mix of talents Tradition, ambition combine for drama in NCAA countdown

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There are legends and legacies, legitimate contenders and wannabes. There's a 66-year-old coach who just set the record for all-time victories and a 32-year-old who four months ago didn't know where he'd be working after the season. There's one team that never before had made it past the first round and a couple of others whose fans will be depressed all summer if their teams don't win it all.

Welcome to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16.

Welcome to the haves and have-nots of college basketball.

In terms of coaching experience, you have North Carolina's Dean Smith finishing his 36th season in Chapel Hill and UCLA's Steve Lavin being heralded as the new "Wizard of Westwood."

In terms of NCAA tournament experience, you have "Mack's Mocs" of Tennessee-Chattanooga becoming the first Southern Conference team in 21 years to get this far and the two favorites, Kansas and Kentucky, heading toward a showdown for the championship March 31 at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.

Here's a look at how the regions shape up (and who will be shipping out):

East

This would have been a lot more fun had Coppin State advanced to the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., rather than Texas. The Eagles would have had a great shot at beating Louisville, given the Cardinals' history with Baltimore teams (see Towson State).

Now, all the attention will be back on -- guess who? -- Smith and the top-seeded Tar Heels. Having erased Adolph Rupp's record with win No. 877 Saturday against Colorado, Smith's fate is now at least partly in the hands of team trainer Mark Davis. With guards Vince Carter and Shammond Williams nursing injuries, North Carolina suddenly looks vulnerable.

The Tar Heels will play California, which found harmony when coach Ben Braun was brought in last September after Todd Bozeman was forced to resign, and never lost its confidence after Ed Gray, the team and Pac-10's leading scorer, was sidelined with a broken foot three weeks ago.

The Bears will be the most physical team North Carolina has faced in a while, and if forward Tony Gonzales, a second-team All-America tight end, can keep Antawn Jamison off the offensive boards, they could beat the Tar Heels. If Carter's groin and Williams' ankle heal in time, though, North Carolina should advance to Indianapolis with little problem.

The upside to the Longhorns' advancing -- aside from seeing whether coach Tom Penders hit the tanning salon this week -- will be the possibility of a tremendous full-court game featuring the shooting of Texas' Reggie Freeman and Louisville's DeJuan Wheat.

The pick here is the Longhorns, because of their size inside. But the winner of this region will come out of the other game.

Southeast

The Kansas-Arizona matchup in Birmingham, Ala., on Friday will be a rematch of one of the best games in last year's tournament, a down-to-the-wire thriller won by the Jayhawks in the same round of the West Regional. But this is where Kansas could start feeling the pressure of having to win.

Because the Wildcats have come from behind in their first two games -- by 10 each against South Alabama and the College of Charleston -- all the heat will be on the region's top seed and the nation's top-ranked team for much of the season.

The other half of this doubleheader fits in the have-not category. It matches the wits of Mack McCarthy, who learned his down-home-style one-liners from Sonny Smith while at Auburn against Providence's more urbane Pete Gillen, who seems to learn from his lookalike, David Letterman.

As for the basketball part of this equation, who cares? Neither of these teams, or Arizona for that matter, will beat Kansas. The Jayhawks have the best talent and, in Roy Williams, probably the best coach in the country.

The only thing that could derail the Jayhawks is their fans, who remember last year's brickathon in the regional final against Syracuse, as well as other past debacles, and in their polite way keep reminding the players of their team's recent failures.

If guys like Paul Pierce and Jacque Vaughn come out cold, particularly against Arizona, it could make for a long night and an even longer summer. But this seems to be the year Kansas will overcome its recent past -- at least until it gets to Indianapolis.

West

Phil Martelli is not taking any chances this time. After missing a scheduled flight to Salt Lake City, the St. Joseph's coach nearly was arrested by airport security for his blowup. This time, the Hawks are chartering to San Jose, Calif. It's no surprise that Martelli's team is going long distances, considering the way St. Joe's fires up three-pointers. That will likely be the only way it can beat Kentucky.

The defending national champions are used to that strategy by now. The Hawks, on the other hand, have never played a team with the Wildcats' withering press. If St. Joe's guards Rashid Bey and Terrell Myers aren't hitting, this one could get as ugly as Martelli's temper.

Poor Utah. Not only do the Utes have to play in the same region as Kentucky again -- last year the Wildcats won a Sweet 16 matchup by 22 in Minneapolis -- but they have to meet Stanford 20 miles from Palo Alto.

This is the closest any of the remaining teams will play to home now that North Carolina has left Tobacco Road. Silencing the Cardinal fans will be easy compared with slowing point guard Brevin Knight, whose bigger teammates stopped Wake Forest's Tim Duncan just enough to beat the Demon Deacons and will now have to do the same with Keith Van Horn.

Can the Wildcats lose? Sure, Iowa nearly beat them in Salt Lake City on Saturday night. South Carolina, which lost to Coppin State, beat them twice during the regular season.

There should be no pressure on this Kentucky team, because it won last year and lost Derek Anderson midway through this season. But this team has to return to Lexington, home of the most over-the-edge fans in any sport on this side of the Atlantic.

And you know Rick Pitino wants to win another NCAA championship before he leaves to rebuild another former dynasty -- the Boston Celtics.

Midwest

The favorite should be top-seeded Minnesota, but the Gophers are still trying to prove that a team from the Big Ten can beat big-time competition in the NCAA tournament. Their 76-57 win over Temple in Kansas City, Mo., seems impressive on the surface, but who outside the Atlantic 10 and Conference USA have the Owls beat?

They'll get another team that tries to make the game ugly, Clemson, on Thursday night in San Antonio. It could be an interesting matchup between a couple of North Carolina kids, Minnesota's Bobby Jackson and Clemson's Terrell McIntyre, but the Gophers have too much up front.

Is any team playing better right now than UCLA? The Bruins have become the team they were supposed to be this season before Lavin took over for the deposed Jim Harrick. With four potential first-round NBA draft choices, nobody has more talent.

If Iowa State is good enough to beat Cincinnati, the combination of Kenny Pratt and Dedric Willoughby could pull off another upset. Could, but probably won't.

UCLA comes into the Alamodome with 11 straight wins, and it's suddenly starting to look like 1995 all over again. Charles O'Bannon is playing like his big brother, Ed, did, and point guard Cameron Dollar is healthy. Considering their talent, the Bruins could wind up winning it all.

Pub Date: 3/18/97

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