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Final Four vet Packer says Terps worthy


There are few college basketball observers who have the kind of historical perspective that CBS analyst Billy Packer has.

Packer was one of the heady guards of coach Bones McKinney's Wake Forest teams of the early 1960s, before heading into coaching and then into broadcasting, calling Atlantic Coast Conference games in the early 1970s on the old C. D. Chesley regional network.

This season will mark the 25th straight in which he will work the Final Four, first in a dynamic teaming with NBC's Dick Enberg and Al McGuire and in the last eight years with CBS' Jim Nantz.

"That's a record that will never be broken," Nantz said last week during a national conference call.

Said Packer: "That's what Lou Gehrig said and so did Tony Dorsett and Babe Ruth."

While you may not buy all of what Packer has to say, like his heated criticism of the NBA that ran in this space last Friday, you have to admit that he has the heft to make the calls.

With all that as setup, Packer said Maryland's dominant performance in the Puerto Rico Shootout finals over Pittsburgh was enough to convince him that this Terps squad is something special.

"From what I have seen, it may be the quickest team position-by-position in college basketball," Packer said. "Pittsburgh had two tremendous wins and came in with some confidence. Maryland just toyed with them. It was embarrassing."

And while it may be early to begin comparing this Maryland team with some of the great Terps squads of the past -- especially the hallowed 1973-74 team with Len Elmore, John Lucas and Tom McMillen -- Packer said you can already see that the current team has the advantage in leaping ability and, yes, quickness, while giving the mid-'70s team the nod in outside shooting.

For now.

"This Maryland team has to be considered one of the best they've ever had," Packer said.

However, to get to the rarefied air of the Final Four, a spot no Maryland men's team has reached, Packer, who speaks of the college season as a four-part excursion -- early season, conference schedule, conference tournaments and NCAA tournament -- said the team's remarkable depth will need to be scaled back to get to a solid, functional rotation for March.

"Gary [Williams] will be blessed with that [depth]. It helps you with practice and if you have injuries," Packer said. "But a coach has to realize in that 'four seasons' scenario, the one that counts the most is not the one in which depth matters."

Batter up

Fresh off a 1998 season in which ratings rose 15 percent from 1997, Fox has released its 1999 baseball telecast schedule that launches June 5 with four regionally televised interleague games over the last 18 weeks of the season.

As you might expect, the New York Yankees will get the lion's share of coverage, drawing the maximum nine appearances. The Chicago Cubs, Atlanta Braves, New York Mets and San Francisco Giants are next with eight Fox airings.

The Orioles make seven appearances, with their first Fox game coming June 12, when they travel to Atlanta.

A boxer's life

Tonight at 10, HBO debuts yet another brilliant documentary, this one on the life and times of one of the most charismatic and talented fighters of the 20th century, Sugar Ray Robinson.

Backed by a moving original score composed by Wynton Marsalis, the HBO producers -- who also are responsible for the Emmy-winning film on the life of Sonny Liston -- take an uncompromising look into a fighter who was said to be as innovative in his field as Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando were in their respective endeavors.

Robinson, who won welterweight and middleweight titles and was unbeaten in an astounding 93 fights over an eight-year span of the late 1940s and early 1950s, is examined as a businessman, as he is said to have revolutionized how fighters conduct their affairs.

However, the most poignant moments in the hour come as his sons describe how the publicly gregarious Robinson was lacking in parental skills, but earned their love and respect anyway.

Former Robinson combatants such as Carmen Basilio and Jake LaMotta and actor-director Woody Allen show up to provide context for the times in which Robinson lived and thrived.

Yes, it has become virtually rote to say, but it's nonetheless true: No one turns out the kind of consistently fascinating character studies that HBO does and tonight's Robinson biopic is just the latest.

Pub Date: 12/08/98

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