College basketball tourney heats up

The notion that the National Collegiate Athletic Association has diluted its basketball championships just doesn't hold water. Arguably, not all 48 teams are threats to go the distance, but most all can compete at the highest possible level.

Thus far, results from the current tournament, which is down to final stages of regional competition, bear this out. Fifteen of 32 first--and second-round games were decided by two baskets or less. Even the big, bad wolves of the field didn't blow opponents away, an indication that more solidly constructed teams are playing the game than ever before.

Of the tournament's four designated ''heavies,'' only Georgetown won with any ease at all, and then not much, beating Wyoming in the West Regional, 51-43.

North Carolina and Virginia, the top seeds in two other regionals, sweated out near upsets in their first games. The top-ranked Tar Heels advanced in the East by defeating James Madison University 52-50, while No. 3 Virginia erased a 10-point deficit to beat Tennessee in the Mideast, 54-51.

The fourth member of this distinguished quartet was pushed not to the brink of elimination, but beyond it. DePaul, which entered the tournament with the best regular-season record, pulled a ''Casey at the Bat'' for a third straight year, this time losing to Boston College, 82-75.

Coach Ray Meyer, the game's loveable grandfather figure, had seen his top-ranked Blue Demons lose their first tournament game each of two previous seasons. This year was supposed to be different, with quiet confidence replacing outright cockiness, but virtually the same devastating array of talent (sans Mark Aguirre).

No. 2 DePaul fell again, however, and rather ironically on the same court where Aguirre now showcases his talents with the National Basketball Association's Dallas Mavericks.

Boston College's victory over DePaul, coupled with a first-round win against San Francisco, not only established the Eagles as the tournament's dark horse team, but vindicated the tournament selection committee for inviting them at all.

At least one coach accused the committee and its chairman, Dave Gavitt, of regional bias in the selection process. Gavitt also happens to be the commissioner of the Big East Conference, which has four teams in the NCAA field, including fourth-place Big East finisher Boston College.

Now that the Eagles have been on national TV, the reason they're in the tournament is clear. Perhaps no team in the country is better coached. Dr. Tom Davis has Bobby Knight's knack for getting a maximum effort out of every player, while remaining cool, calm, and collected. His team combines game-long, full-court pressure, a heavily-used bench, and a clever passing game to wear opponents down. Though the BC system gets everyone into the act, the most heralded Eagle is chunky guard John Bagley, who is deceptively quick and hard to defend going to the hoop.

It's no secret that Davis can just about take his pick of college coaching vacancies, including the ones at Stanford and Wisconsin, but now's not the time to entertain thoughts of next season.

Because of its disciplined style of play, Boston College stands a chance to go all the way to the Final Four in New Orleans, site of the national semifinals and final to be played March 27 and 29.

Its next test comes Friday night in St. Louis, where the Eagles meet up with Kansas State in the Midwest Regional semifinals. This game presents an interesting challenge for Boston College, which now plays a team more disciplined that its first two run-and-gun victims. K-State Coach Jack Hartman is noted as one of the premier teachers of a structured attack.

Whichever team can claw its way through this one takes on the winner of the Houston-Missouri game in Sunday's regional championship. Earlier in the season, Missouri was the nation's No. 1 team for several weeks.

In the East, North Carolina will be on familiar ground when it meets Alabama in Raleigh, N.C. In Friday night's other semifinal it's Villanova of the Big East, a triple overtime winner over Northeastern, against Memphis State, which has been making plenty of noise with angular freshman center Keith Lee and his kiddie corps teammates.

Some fans may remember Memphis State making the Final Four in 1973. The Tigers' coach at the time was Gene Bartow, who later guided UCLA to the same plateau, and now is threatening to do it again with the University of Alabama-Birmingham. If Bartow succeeds, he would be the first coach to take three different teams to the Final Four.

His current charges ran roughshod over Indiana, the defending national champion, to set up a Mideast Regional date with Virginia. The game will be played in Birmingham, making for one of those rare occasions a team actually plays at home. If the Blazers get past Virginia and 7 ft. 4 in. Cavalier center Ralph Sampson on Thursday, they will meet the Louisville-Minnesota winner on Saturday.

Louisville faces a lofty, though lesser-known pivotman in 7-3 Randy Breuer, the visual centerpiece of the tournament's only remaining Big Ten Conference team and the league titleholder. Louisville has the benefit of six seniors who played on its 1980 national championship team. But the Cardinals have lost six of seven games they've played against ranked teams this season, and Minnesota entered the post-season ranked sixth in the UPI coaches' poll.

In the West, Georgetown confronts a team every bit as tenacious defensively as itself in Fresno State at Provo, Utah, Thursday. The other semifinal pairs Idaho and Oregon State, who have met more than a hundred times. Oregon State, like DePaul, has had problems getting past its first tournament game, but did so this year by beating Pepperdine handily.

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