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NCAA BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT : They’re on Road to Seattle : Robert Morris Is Arizona’s First Hurdle

Times Staff Writer

Arizona has been here before.

Not precisely here in southern Idaho, perhaps, but in the general vicinity.

And in a metaphorical sense, Arizona was in precisely the same spot last year, as the top-seeded team in the West Regional of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament, which begins today with 16 first-round games at four sites.

For Robert Morris, the Wildcats’ first-round opponent, it is a different story.

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Although the Colonials, champions of the Northeast Conference tournament, have made two previous trips to the NCAA tournament, this is their highest-profile appearance yet.

And although the team and its fans had begun to anticipate the likelihood of a matchup against Arizona, it was still a daunting prospect when it came true.

The idea of playing top-ranked Arizona in faraway Boise is beyond the ken of many on the campus in Coraopolis, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh.

Suffice it to say that the view from the Ohio River does not include Boise.

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“It’s a long way to go, the other end of the world,” Robert Morris Coach Jarrett Durham said when he learned his team was assigned to Boise. “It’s somewhere out West, I know that. Somewhere past Chicago.”

The Arizona Wildcats (27-3) hope it is just a stop along the way to Seattle, where Arizona could make its second consecutive Final Four appearance.

Since the Wildcats swept through the Pacific 10 Conference tournament last weekend, Coach Lute Olson has said he believes this team is playing better than the team that went to the Final Four last year, losing to Oklahoma in the semifinals, 86-78.

Sparked by Sean Elliott and Anthony Cook, the only returning starters from last season, Arizona has won 19 of its last 20 games.

Robert Morris is still out to give it a shot.

“It would be madness if we won,” forward Vaughn Luton said. “Even if we play a close game, it’s going to shock a lot of people. It would be definitely crazy for us to win, but we’re going out there with confidence and we expect to play well.”

One of Arizona’s chief competitors in the West is likely to be Nevada Las Vegas, a team the Wildcats handled early in December, 86-75. That was a long time ago, but if the Wildcats get past the Rebels again, they could play Indiana or Louisiana State in the regional final.

Notable in the West: The tournament selection committee has scripted a second-round game between Indiana and Louisiana State, which would match Bob Knight and Dale Brown--avowed philosophical and personal opponents.

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Best first-round games: Memphis State (21-10) vs. DePaul (20-11); Texas El Paso (24-6) vs. Louisiana State (20-11).

A look at the other regionals:

MIDWEST

Illinois, by virtue of its finish, Indiana’s late skid and Kendall Gill’s recovered foot, is the top-seeded team, and may not face a terribly difficult path. Louisville is the best team in the Illini’s half of the Midwest bracket, and the Cardinals have shown a late-season fold.

The other half, which includes Georgia Tech, Texas, Missouri, Florida and Syracuse, is considerably more difficult. But Illinois, should it survive, would only have to beat one of those teams to get the the Final Four.

And if it is Syracuse, Lou Henson should relax. The Orangemen’s free-throw percentage should keep them out of the Final Four.

Illinois has some Final Four history--three times in 11 tournaments. But the catch is that the last trip was in 1952.

Notable in the Midwest: Missouri (27-7) has lost Coach Norm Stewart to illness this season and assistant Bob Sundvold to suspension because of alleged NCAA violations. Senior Gary Leonard advised his teammates on dealing with reporters: “Just talk, but don’t say anything. It’ll be just like the Iran-Contra hearings.” But despite all the trouble, acting Coach Rich Daly guided the Tigers to an upset of Oklahoma in the Big Eight tournament final. A run could be in the making.

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Best first-round games: Pittsburgh (17-12) vs. Ball State (28-2); Georgia Tech (20-11) vs. Texas (24-8).

SOUTHEAST

Oklahoma (28-5) the top-seeded team in the regional, bumbled its way through the Big Eight Conference tournament, needing two overtimes to dispatch last-place Colorado, a three-point shot at the buzzer to beat Iowa State and then losing to Missouri in the final.

Does this smell of a burnout? Don’t mention that to Coach Billy Tubbs.

“One thing we’re really confused about is we really crushed people last year, and got criticized,” Tubbs said. “Now we don’t do that, and everyone wants to know what’s wrong. . . . (In the NCAA tournament), you’re talking about something that revitalizes everybody. We’re playing new people. That gets us going.”

North Carolina, the second-seeded team, won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament for the first time since 1982--which, coincidentally, was also the last time North Carolina made the Final Four, beating Georgetown for the NCAA title.

Another team to reckon with is Florida State, led by senior guard George McCloud.

Notable in the Southeast: Michigan, which made it past the second round only once under Bill Frieder, may have a chance now that Frieder has been named coach at Arizona State and athletic director Bo Schembechler has forbidden him to coach the Wolverines any further. Or, they could fold even more quickly than usual.

Best first-round games: Virginia (19-10) vs. Providence (18-10); UCLA (20-9) vs. Iowa State (17-11).

EAST

In Princeton, top-seeded Georgetown draws a team with a little NCAA history--14 tournament appearances, and one Final Four team, Bill Bradley’s 1965 aggregation. But the recent history belongs to Georgetown, which won its only NCAA championship in 1984--the last time the Final Four was in Seattle.

The strongest competition should come from Duke and North Carolina State, but with Charles Smith, Alonzo Mourning, Jaren Jackson and others, Georgetown appears to be in position to revive John Thompson’s reputation as a coach, which was sullied by the U.S. Olympic team loss to the Soviet Union.

Duke, will be trying for its third appearance in the Final Four in four seasons.

If Danny Ferry is to be voted player of the year, he probably will have to take his Duke team farther than Elliott takes Arizona.

Notable in the East: Stanford still has the NCAA tournament’s only undefeated record at 3-0. The Cardinal, which meets Siena in the first round Friday, won the 1942 NCAA championship and has not been in the tournament since.

Best first-round games: North Carolina State (20-8) vs. South Carolina (19-10); West Virginia (25-4) vs. Tennessee (19-10).


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