Finally, a Men's Basketball Foursome
At the end of the road, two surprise teams, two that aren't
THE college-basketball primaries are over. Fans have waded through a glut of do-or-die games, been bombarded (''ba-by'') by the shrill auto ads delivered by a certain TV basketball personality, and seen numerous clinics on the theory and application of such strategies as the matchup zone and half-court trap defenses. Finally, there are four men's teams left: Massachusetts, Kentucky, Syracuse, and Mississippi State.
The quartet comes to the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., this Saturday and next Monday to crown a successor to UCLA, which lost in the opening round of this year's 64-team National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.
This is the first time since 1950 that the tournament has been played in metropolitan New York. The college basketball community has avoided the Big Apple ever since City College of New York scored a double triumph there in 1950 (victories in both the NCAA and National Invitation Tournaments). The next year, CCNY was one of seven teams involved in a point-shaving scandal. Since then, St. John's University is the only metro school to make its mark nationally.
Meanwhile, Syracuse has emerged as a perennial power in central New York State. Interestingly, Syracuse is so consistently talented that followers of the college game may be taking their success for granted. Syracuse sneaked up on people this time, perhaps overachieving to reach the Final Four.
With everybody anticipating that Georgetown and Connecticut would make the Big East Conference's deepest penetration into the tournament, Syracuse played unburdened by high expectations in the West Regional, where the Orangemen beat Kansas, 60-57, in the closest regional final.
Elsewhere, Massachusetts crushed Georgetown, 86-62, to win the East; Kentucky stung Wake Forest, 83-63, to prevail in the Midwest; and Mississippi State cruised past Cincinnati, 73-63, in the Southeast.
Of the teams in the final, Mississippi State's Bulldogs are the most curious. They come from a state that's been a backwater for the college game. They are coached brilliantly by Richard Williams, a former junior high school math teacher, and play a powerful brand of basketball that has turned many heads. In fact, Mississippi State has scored three impressive upsets in the last few weeks, beating then No. 1-ranked Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game before toppling top-seeded Connecticut and second-seeded Cincinnati in NCAA regional action.
Mississippi State must now play Syracuse, whose star player, forward John Wallace, has been rewarded by his decision to stay in school for his senior season rather than turn pro. ''I'm just tremendously happy for him,'' says coach Jim Boeheim, an often-underestimated strategist whose squad came within a basket of beating Indiana in the 1987 NCAA final.
Boeheim, as it turns out, helped to launch the meteoric rise of Kentucky head coach Rick Pitino, whom Sports Illustrated labeled ''A Man Possessed'' on a recent cover. Boeheim met with Pitino to offer him an assistant's job in 1976. Pitino took it and quickly became a hot head-coaching commodity, landing jobs with Boston University, Providence, and the professional New York Knicks before taking over a Kentucky program badly in need of repair.
Pitino has clearly fixed it and meanwhile furthered the career of John Calipari, whom he strongly endorsed to fill the University of Massachusetts head-coaching job at his alma mater. Calipari has achieved a rags-to-riches makeover at UMass, whose basketball fortunes plummeted after Julius (Dr. J) Erving made an early exit from school in 1971.
UMass and its sinewy center, Marcus Camby, the College Player of the Year, have adopted ''Refuse to Lose'' as their motto and pretty much lived up to it. The Minutemen began the season by knocking off Kentucky, then remained undefeated and No. 1 until Feb. 24, when George Washington University issued them their only loss.