College champ to emerge from basketball's Final Four
New Orleans — Many quartets have played this city over the years, yet the one everybody's talking about now is ''The Final Four.''
The group's members are not guys named Fats and Dizzy, but four college basketball teams. They've made their way here to the Superdome as regional winners of the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament. Saturday afternoon North Carolina and Houston meet in one semifinal game, Louisville and Georgetown in the other, with the winners playing for the championship Monday night.
The NCAA's 48-team playoff may never have received more attention, and with just cause. Ticket demand has been so great in the past, the NCAA felt compelled to find the largest arena possible for the Final Four. As a result, the Superdome was booked and 60,000 seats sold almost instantly. Fan interest also prompted CBS to pay $16 million for the privilege of televising this season's tournament.
That money has made reaching New Orleans a real plum. Each school is expected to go home with about $600,000 for participating, which is almost double last year's take.
Given the monetary and other incentives for winning, recent tournaments have been chock full of quality teams.
Not surprisingly, therefore, no one enters the battle of New Orleans either undefeated or as a strong favorite.
Top-ranked North Carolina comes closest to a spotless record with a 30-2 mark. Georgetown's next at 29-6, followed by Houston (25-7) and Louisville (23-9 ).
This may give some idea of the relative merits of each squad, but the lesson of recent years is clear: the hottest team wins. Forget what happened during the regular season, whoever peaks now will look back on any earlier losses as mere character builders.
Just look at what happened to Indiana last year. The Hoosiers lost nine games leading up to the tournament, a record for an NCAA champion, but demolished five opponents in the playoffs by an average of 22.6 points.
The only team that's looked anywhere near as devastating this year is Georgetown.
In an effort to balance the regional brackets, the young Hoyas were told to go west. Playing in Utah, far from its Washington D.C. home, might have bothered some teams, but not Georgetown, which beat Wyoming by eight points, Fresno State by 18, and Oregon State by 24 to capture its regional. The Hoyas may have had the easiest time checking into New Orleans, yet some might argue that this means nothing. The big question is, does Georgetown have enough poise to win a game decided in the last minute? The other three semifinalists know they have.
North Carolina survived a big scare to win its tournament opener 52-50 over James Madison; Houston held off a late rally by Missouri to emerge with a 79-78 victory in the Midwest Regional; and Louisville passed two major tests against Minnesota and Alabama-Birmingham.
College basketball has been called a coach's game because of the significant role bench bosses play in any contest. The four that brought their teams here are all naturals for the spotlight.
North Carolina's Dean Smith has achieved just about everything a man could hope for in the sport. He's been College Coach of the Year, guided the US Olympic team to a gold medal, and currently presides over the national coaches' association. To say he has the respect of his peers is an understatement.
All this carries immeasurable satisfaction, yet there's one mountain the the Tar Heels' master strategist still hasn't climbed. He's never coached a national champion, even though his team reached the Final Four six other times, including last year, when North Carolina lost to Indiana.
Smith takes the dissappointments in stride, indicating the Tar Heels were never favored on any of these earlier occasions.
Though perhaps not the clear-cut favorite this year, North Carolina does carry the best record and ranking into New Orleans. The feeling exists, therefore, that this talented squad has the makings of a champion.
In an interesting coincidence, Houston Coach Guy Lewis will be going after career victory No. 500 against Smith. Very few active coaches have arrived at this milestone, and what a time to do it!
Lewis, of course, is playing the whole thing down, saying he's just happy his unranked team has made the Final Four. It's not Houston's first such appearance , but the Cougar coach claims it's the sweetest. During the late 1960s, a more vaunted Houston team, led by Elvin Hayes, made the Final Four twice. One of those teams met UCLA in a much-ballyhooed regular season game that attracted 52, 693 fans to the Astrodome, an NCAA attendance record.
Houston played in the Superdome earlier this season, though not before wall to wall people. Whatever the crowd size, though, the Cougars have a free-wheeling team that probably would play as well before an empty as a full house.
Louisville's Denny Crum coaches what a respected columnist once called ''the nation's most unappreciated team.'' That was before the Cardinals won the national championship two years ago. But the fact remains, Kentucky, the state school once thought to be the Bluegrass basketball king, still refuses to play them.
At this point, Crum may wait for Kentucky's Wildcats to approach him. The former assistant to John Wooden at UCLA has now taken four teams to the Final Four in the last 11 years.
The current squad kind of snuck through the back door, finishing second to Memphis State in the Metro Conference but coming on like gangbusters in the tournament. Crum has plenty of experience in the lineup, with four starters back from the 1980 champs. Yet the superstar of that team, guard Darrell Griffith, is in the pro ranks now.
''No way this team is as loose as that one,'' says forward Derek Smith. ''We have too many old guys.''
''Old'' guys are something Georgetown's John Thompson has veryfew of. Oh sure, there's senior All-America Eric (Sleepy) Floyd. Basically, however, Thompson has built his powerhouse around new arrival Pat Ewing, a swooping, shot-blocking seven footer, and one of the best crops of freshmen in the country.
Ewing finds it easy to relate to his coach, who is 6 ft. 10. and once was a backup center to Bill Russell on the Boston Celtics. In size alone, Thompson is impressive, but what he's done to put this academic bastion on the sports map really catches your eye.
With that as an introduction, now it's time to begin the biggest basketball jam session on either side of the Mississippi. Let the staccato dunks begin.