Georgetown looms team to beat in NCAA basketball showdown

The vistor information packets feature the area's numerous horse farms, but the major attraction this week is a gleaming basketball stable called Rupp Arena. It is the ultimate destination of the 1984-85 college season -- the site of the ``run for the roses'' known as the national championship.

The University of Kentucky's Wildcats were eliminated in regional play, but that's hardly dampened enthusiasm for hosting the event, which has become a highlight on the American sports calendar.

The thoroughbreds from only four schools - No. 1 Georgetown, No. 3 St. John's, No. 5 Memphis State, and unranked Villanova - are left from what began as a 64-team field a few weeks ago.

Georgetown, St. John's, and Villanova all play under the same Big East banner, marking the first time any conference has so monopolized the tournament's latter stages. The schools have some common features. Each is Catholic, each is situated in or near a major city (Washington, D.C., New York, and Philadelphia), and none boasts of having a major college football program. Basketball, the so-called ``city game,'' is their stock in trade.

All four have pressure-tested veterans, including a senior superstar. For Georgetown it's 7-foot Patrick Ewing, for St. John's 6-6 Chris Mullin, for Villanova 6-9 Ed Pinckney, and for Memphis State 6-10 Keith Lee. But as they turn for home, Georgetown's defending champions appear to be a breed apart -- a disciplined unit touched with the greatness of a Triple Crown winner.

Still, winning this tournament twice in a row is a tough assignment. Only five schools have ever ``doubled'' as champions: Oklahoma State (1945-46); Kentucky (1948-49); San Francisco (1955-56); Cincinnati (1961-62) and UCLA in 1964-65 and again with its remarkable seven straight titles from 1967 through 1973.

This marks Georgetown's third trip to the Final Four in the last four years. The others have advanced this far before, but none more recently than 1973, when Memphis State lost the final to UCLA.

That incidentally, was the year after Coach John Thompson arrived at Georgetown and began the school's rags-to-riches basketball story. The team that couldn't shoot straight gave way to one that plays with ``a full arsenal,'' to quote one rival.

With Ewing, a dominating presence in the middle, surrounded by a rich mix of scoring, rebounding, and defensive talents, the Hoyas appear to be a team for the ages.

Still, the NCAA tournament forces the eventual winner to string together six wins in a tense playoff that provides no second chances. And as Thompson reminds reporters, ``Any team can lose a basketball game.''

The point enjoys even greater relevance given Georgetown's loss to St. John's in January.. The two will meet for the fourth time this season in the second game of Saturday's semfinal doubleheader, which tips off with the Villanova-Memphis State clash at 3:42 p.m. EST on CBS-TV. The final is Monday at 9:12 p.m.

St. John's (31-3) and Georgetown (34-2) are about as familiar with each other as any college teams can be. Their respective stars, Mullin and Ewing, were even teammates on last summer's gold medal-winning US Olympic squad, and have divvied up most of this season's player-of-the-year type awards.

Portrayed as nearly invincible for awhile, Georgetown experienced a brief mid-season slump that resulted in back-to-back losses to St. John's and Syracuse. The Hoyas reasserted themselves thereafter, beating St. John's by 16 and 12 points on separate occasions.

The Redmen, coached by the irrepressible Lou Carnesecca, rely on a ''Mull-Berry'' offense -- shorthand for the contributions of forwards Mullin and Walter Berry. Having beaten Georgetown once, they feel capable of doing it again. And if Villanova (23-10) should upset Memphis State (31-3), the Wildcats know they stayed close enough to force the Hoyas into overtime on Jan. 12.

Memphis State, of course, has no intention of yielding the stage to the Big East's basketball beasts. And the Tigers have shown a knack for winning the close games that frequently develop in this tournament, beating Alabama-Birmingham 67-66 in overtime, Boston College 59-57, and Oklahoma 63-61 in their last three contests.

There can't be many more thrillers left in their gym bag, but at this juncture they'd be happy for two more close shaves. You can hold the hair cut.

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