NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT : West Regional at Long Beach Arena : Too Many Teams for Tarkanian, but at Least Las Vegas Is One of Them

Times Staff Writer

The NCAA basketball tournament field has expanded over the years, from 32 teams to 48 and now to 64.

Growth is not necessarily progress or a commitment to quality, according to Nevada Las Vegas Coach Jerry Tarkanian.

Tarkanian, whose Rebels will begin first-round play today at the Long Beach Arena against Northeast Louisiana, yearns for a return to a more compact field of 32.

"I think the tournament should be a reward for teams, and I'm opposed to a team that wins only 50% of its league games getting into the tournament," he said Thursday. "A league champion should get in, along with two or three teams that were strong contenders for league championships during the season.

"Look at football with some teams with 6-5 records going to bowl games. I don't think that's right."

With television money being showered on the NCAA, there is little likelihood that the tournament field will be shrinking.

Tarkanian is aware of that, but he believes that the NCAA has diluted the quality of its tournament with its all-comers policy of recent years.

He doesn't have any quarrel, though, with a conference, such as the Atlantic Coast Conference, getting six teams into this year's tournament.

"That's all right as long as we have a 64-team field," he said. "But I'd like to see it get back to 32."

Tarkanian was speaking generally, but he's not knocking the quality of teams playing in the West Regional this weekend.

Five of the teams playing in the sub-regionals at Long Beach and at Ogden, Utah, are among the top 14 ranked teams in the nation, according to the latest Associated Press poll: St John's, 4th; Louisville, 7th; North Carolina, 8th; Las Vegas, 11th, and Bradley, 14th.

"Just look at the seedings in the West," Tarkanian said. "There isn't a better No. 2 seed in the country than Louisville. Or, is there a better No. 3 or No. 5 seed than North Carolina and Maryland.

"I just hope we prove to be the best No. 4 seed in the country."

Las Vegas (31-4) will get the early time slot in its first-round game, starting at 11:37 a.m. against Northeast Louisiana (20-9).

Other games with starting times:

Pepperdine (25-4) vs Maryland (18-13) at 2:07 p.m.; St. John's (30-4) vs. Montana State (14-16) at 6:07, and Arizona (23-8) vs. Auburn (19-10) at 8:37.

Tarkanian said there isn't a team in this year's tournament that casts such a giant shadow as Georgetown, the Beast from the East, did last year, even though the Hoyas were upset by Villanova in the title game.

"Last year Georgetown was a notch above everyone. I think everyone would agree with that," Tarkanian said. "There isn't a Georgetown-type team this year, but I think Kansas, Duke, Georgia Tech and North Carolina can play real well and get to the Final Four.

"I think there are about 15 or 18 other teams that have to play great to get to the Final Four. But there isn't a team in this field that is as clear-cut as Georgetown was last year."

Tarkanian, who has brought Las Vegas into the NCAA tournament for the seventh time in his 13 years at the school, covered a range of subjects Thursday at the Long Beach Arena, where his team practiced.

On the decline of West Coast basketball and the emergence of the Big East as a power:

"I think the lack of television exposure has hurt the teams in the West. I think Dave Gavitt (Big East Conference commissioner) has done a great job of getting TV exposure for the Big East.

"There was a time when the Big East was nothing. If we would lose a kid out here to an Eastern team, we would write him a nice letter. We knew he'd be back after seeing all that snow."

He also said that Eastern teams are now taking talent out of the West when the schools once considered it a wasted trip or a long shot in the past.

"As for the Pac-10, I think it will make a comeback because administrations are placing more emphasis on basketball and the conference has some good new coaches, like Lute Olson at Arizona and Lou Campanelli at Cal," he said.

On NCAA rules:

"The NCAA has too many rules, like the one where you can have only three visits with a kid. Kids are not going to schools anymore just because of their rapport with a coach. Kids used to select a school because they felt comfortable with the coach."

On his first-round opponent:

"I think Northeast Louisiana's conference (Southland) is very underrated. They've had an automatic bid for the last seven years, and in six of those years Southland teams have won their first-round NCAA games. Some very good teams come out of Louisiana."

A capsule look at some of the tournament teams:

NEVADA LAS VEGAS "Everybody tries to play slowdown against us, but we haven't been an all-out running team since 1977," Tarkanian said. "The only team that beat us twice this year (UC Irvine) was a running team. But we like to run."

Three players, forwards Armon Gilliam and Anthony Jones and guard Fred Banks, account for 80% of Las Vegas' scoring.

The Rebels virtually breezed through the recent Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. tourney, but Tarkanian is concerned about encountering any team with a mobile big man.

NORTHEAST LOUISIANA Bobby Jenkins, a 6-6 forward type who is now a center, led the Southland Conference in scoring with a 19.6-point average and was second in rebounding with 8 a game. He became a center when 6-8 Michael Saulsberry suffered a torn Achilles' tendon in the opening game and was lost for the season.

Arthur Hayes, a nephew of Elvin Hayes, averages 11 points and teams in the backcourt with Elgin James, who averages 13 points. It's a good shooting team, making 51.3% of its shots from the field, but doesn't have much size.

ST. JOHN'S Lou Carnesecca's team is top-seeded in the West Regional in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year after getting to the Final Four last season.

Last year, the Redmen prospered with the college player of the year, Chris Mullin. Forward Walter Berry got that award this season and has been a catalyst with his scoring, 23 points a game, and rebounding, 11. The 6-8 forward has also blocked 74 shots.

Berry's supporting cast has delivered, with forward Willie Glass, a defensive specialist, and guards Ron Rowan and Mark Jackson averaging in double figures. Forward Sheldon Jones, only a sophomore, broke the NCAA single-season assists record with 311. The Redmen figure to be formidable again next season because Rowan is the only senior on the team.

St. John's represents one of the most prestigious conferences in the country, the Big East, and could be a Final Four team again.

MONTANA STATE The Bobcats, the 16th-seeded team in the West, have the dubious distinction of being the only team in the tournament with a losing record.

To make this impossible journey, Montana State had to win five straight games, three of them in the Big Sky tournament.

Montana State Coach Stu Starner says his team doesn't have a lot of size and is guard-oriented. The Bobcats were an accurate shooting team from the three-point line during the conference season, but the bonus shot isn't used in NCAA tournament play.

ARIZONA Lute Olson could be considered the coach of the year in the country as well as the Pacific 10 for what he has done with this year's team, which was picked to finish eighth in the league in a preseason coaches' poll.

The Wildcats start two freshmen at forwards, Anthony Cook and Sean Elliott; a 6-6 center who wasn't highly recruited, John Edgar, along with the best backcourt pair in the Pac-10, Steve Kerr and Craig McMillan.

It was only three years ago that Arizona had a 1-17 league record, 4-24 overall. Then, Olson, the former Iowa coach, began to build his program in a hurry.

Arizona, the Pac-10 champion, and Washington are the only schools representing the conference in the NCAA tournament this year. Last year, four schools got berths--USC, Washington, Arizona and Oregon State--and they were all eliminated in first-round games.

The Wildcats hope to redeem themselves and the conference this season.

It's homecoming here for Olson, who formerly coached at Cal State Long Beach and Long Beach City College.

AUBURN The Tigers may have the best non-All-American player in the country in 6-8 senior forward Chuck Person, who is the school's all-time leading scorer with 2,216 points.

Auburn was projected in preseason polls to be a top 10 team. But the Tigers got off to a sluggish 6-4 start before winning their final six regular-season games to finish 13-5 and tie Alabama for second place in the Southeastern Conference.

There are other talented players to support Person, namely forward Chris Morris and guards Frank Ford and Gerald White, who averages 6.3 assists a game.

Auburn Coach Sonny Smith said he was resigning midway through the 1984-85 season. When his team surged to win the SEC tournament and two NCAA playoff games, however, he decided to stick around.

The Nevada Las Vegas-Northeast Louisiana winner will play the Pepperdine-Maryland winner in a second-round game Sunday at 1:37 p.m. The St. John's-Montana State winner will play the Arizona-Auburn winner at 4:37 p.m. to complete the bracket.

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