NCAA Basketball Notes : Big East's Final Three Make Conference No. 1

Times Staff Writer

With 60 of the original 64 teams in the NCAA tournament eliminated, the Big East has been validated as the nation's strongest basketball conference. Three Big East teams--Georgetown, St. John's and Villanova--are in the Final Four.

Memphis State of the Metro Conference is the only outsider left in the tournament, which will end with semifinals Saturday and the championship game Monday night at Lexington, Ky.

It was possible that four Big East teams could have made up the Final Four, mockingly turning a national playoff into an extension of that conference's postseason tournament.

Boston College was one fumbled pass away from upsetting Memphis State in a Midwest Regional semifinal game. After the Eagles had lost the ball with the score tied, 57-57, Andre Turner kept Memphis State alive in the tournament with a game-winning jump shot in the final second.

If Boston College had won--and it was likely before the turnover--the Eagles would not have been intimidated by Oklahoma in the regional final.

Billy Tubbs' Sooner team was as physically talented as any in the tournament but not as disciplined. Tubbs indirectly scolded Memphis State Coach Dana Kirk for playing a half-court game against his Sooners instead of running mindlessly up and down the court, "the way basketball should be played," according to Tubbs' dictum.

Boston College's style--a combination of a disciplined half-court game, change-up zone defenses and a press that rattled Memphis State--would have been even more frustrating to Tubbs.

It's the year of the Big East, no doubt. But don't get the idea that a trend is developing. The three Big East teams in the Final Four are all led by dominating senior players: Patrick Ewing of Georgetown, Chris Mullin of St. John's and Ed Pinckney of Villanova.

The Big East will continue to be representative, but the Atlantic Coast Conference will probably be the league to be reckoned with next season.

The ACC is mostly a conference of undergraduates. North Carolina doesn't lose a significant player, Georgia Tech loses only Yvon Joseph, Duke loses only Danny Meagher and North Carolina State presumably will return troubled Chris Washburn and will welcome a blue-chip freshman class.

There isn't much suspense in this year's tournament. Favored Georgetown has had its scare against Georgia Tech and has a psychological advantage over the two other Big East teams in the Final Four.

John Thompson's team beat Villanova twice during the regular season and, after losing to St. John's early in the season, destroyed the Redmen in two subsequent meetings.

Memphis State, despite its customary lapses, could be the team, though, to stop the Hoyas. The Tigers have the size in 6-foot 10-inch Keith Lee and 7-foot William Bedford, and they won't be flinching at the prospect of meeting Georgetown.

Vince Askew, Memphis State's 6-5 freshman guard, is already looking ahead to a matchup with Georgetown, while giving lip service to Villanova, his team's semifinal opponent.

"That's the one I'm really looking forward to," Askew said. "You can't hold anything against Villanova, because it is a good ballclub.

"But everywhere I go, I hear Georgetown this and Georgetown that. They can't be beat and all that. They've lost two games; that proves they can be beat, and I believe we can beat them."

Memphis State was the last team to beat Georgetown in a tournament game. The Tigers eliminated the Hoyas, 66-57, in 1983 in the second round when Ewing was a sophomore.

Since then, the Hoyas have won nine straight in the playoffs, including last year's national championship final.

Kirk predicted last Friday that the winner of the Memphis State-Oklahoma game would play for the national championship Monday night.

Reminded of his prediction in a national television interview Sunday after Villanova had beaten North Carolina and become Memphis State's opponent, Kirk avoided the subject.

"Kirk already has his team in the finals. Unfortunately, they have to play a game prior to that," Villanova Coach Rollie Massimino said wryly. "Our kids are mentally and physically ready for anything."

If Georgetown repeats as national champion, it will become the sixth school in NCAA history to win consecutive titles.

The others were UCLA, 1964-65, 1967-73; Cincinnati, 1961-62; San Francisco, 1955-56; Kentucky, 1948-49, and Oklahoma State, 1945-46.

Massimino said it was just a whim for him to start sophomore guard Harold Jensen in the second half of the Wildcats' Southeast Regional final game with North Carolina Sunday.

What a whim.

Jensen was virtually 0 for the tournament before he fired in 10 second-half points along with a nifty assist to lead Villanova to a 56-44 win over North Carolina.

There was no indication that he would become a catalyst. He was 0 for 1 from the field while playing 11 minutes in the first half. He had been 0 for 5 in a regional semifinal win over Maryland, and 0 for 1 in his team's subregional upset of second-ranked Michigan.

His last previous basket? A layup in a first-round win over Dayton.

"The coaching staff has never given up on me, and because of that I wasn't going to give up on myself," said Jensen, who broke his left hand in a January practice and missed four games. He also told Massimino a few weeks ago that he thought he was letting his team down.

"When I talked to Mass (Massimino), he said, 'You're working hard. You've got to hang in there and not make playing such a chore.' He could tell that I was burning up inside."

Then, he burned the Tar Heels.

Ewing, now a senior, has been shielded by Thompson from the media during his productive career at Georgetown.

But he opened up a bit recently at a function in New York, where he received the Eastman award as the college player of the year.

On the challenge of being on a team that everyone wants to beat, he said:

"It's been that way right from the start. I love it. It's a challenge when you know they're coming after you. It makes you know you're doing something good. It draws the team closer together, makes you play harder, I think."

On the satisfaction of possibly winning another national championship: "I was hoping I could win four. I came here (Georgetown) with that in mind."

There has been talk of parity in college basketball since UCLA dominated the NCAA tournament in the '60s and '70s. It isn't evident in the '80s.

Georgetown is making a third appearance in the Final Four. Louisville and Houston have been there three times. North Carolina and Virginia made it twice. Those teams have occupied 13 of the 24 Final Four berths in the '80s.

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