BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- At high noon yesterday, some forlorn figure from Topeka, Kan., stood outside the 9th Avenue entrance to the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center, trying to hawk a handful of devalued tickets to the Southeast Regional championship.
Today's Arizona-Providence match is not exactly what everyone had in mind when the draw for the Southeast Regional was unveiled. Instead of a peek at one more step in the coronation of No. 1 Kansas, it's a buyer's market for a game that, at least on paper, is the lamest regional final in 18 years.
Arizona, the conqueror of Kansas, is the No. 4 seed. Providence is the No. 10, and you have to go back to 1979, when No. 9 Penn beat No. 10 St. John's in the East, to find a more improbable regional final.
That Penn team was obliterated by Michigan State in the national semifinals, but since there are no more Magic Johnsons playing college basketball, today's winner will be most capable of standing up to the East survivor, North Carolina or Louisville, next Saturday in Indianapolis.
"We leave the favorite and underdog stuff to the people in Vegas," said Miles Simon, Arizona's shooting guard. "That has nothing to do with this team."
This game matches the wisecracks of Providence coach Pete Gillen against the regal bearing of Lute Olson, New York kids against a team with a West Coast bent and two fine young point guards, but regardless of what they say and where they're from, both teams are on a roll.
Arizona's mettle was forged back in December, when Simon, the lone returning starter, was academically ineligible.
Forward Michael Dickerson and point guard Mike Bibby came on as an extremely young team grew up in a hurry against a heavyweight schedule. There were numerous stumbles in the Pac-10, however, and after a lost weekend in the Bay Area at the conclusion of the regular season, Simon shaved his head.
"I decided I needed to make a change," Simon said, "because when I had hair, it wasn't looking good for us."
The view wasn't pleasant on March 13, either, when the Wildcats trailed South Alabama by 10 and appeared headed to their fourth first-round exit of the 1990s. The NCAA anxiety for Providence began four days earlier, on Selection Sunday, when the Friars sweated out one of the last at-large berths.
"We watched the selection show in our locker room," shooting guard Jamel Thomas said. "I kept telling Derrick [Brown] that we weren't going to make it."
The Friars did, but they had NIT written all over themselves when they lost five of their final seven regular-season games. Which loss to Georgetown was more galling? The one at USAir Arena on Feb. 12, when the Friars didn't compete? Or the regular-season finale March 2, when they lost a must-win game by 11?
"In the middle of the season, I saw some frustrated guys," said Gillen, who's working his first regional final. "We got them back briefly, but after the second Georgetown game, it was really blown up again. The team almost died, but our almost death brought the team to life."
There was an open forum after the first loss to Georgetown, when everyone vented his petty gripes. There was also some maturation by God Shammgod, the point guard who hasn't always been as divine as his name. Austin Croshere, the first-team All-Big East forward, isn't one to talk, and it took a while for Shammgod to become a leader.
"He's a great young player, but sometimes they get visions of grandeur," Gillen said. "I had to tell him, don't listen to the guys in the street. He's practicing hard every day, but in the beginning, it wasn't easy. He was comfortable when he came to us. He never said it, but that was his mind-set. We had to try to get him to be the leader."
Shammgod was the star in Friday's semifinal win over Tennessee-Chattanooga, and Arizona got clutch scoring from its own point, Bibby, down the stretch in its dismantling of Kansas.
Will it be difficult for the Wildcats to reach that emotional peak twice in 48 hours?
"I'm thinking the same thing," Dickerson said.
Pub Date: 3/23/97