NCAA BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT : Connecticut to Enjoy Home Fire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Connecticut, once considered little more than sort of a bookend to Rhode Island, earned the No. 1 seeding in the East Regional of the NCAA basketball tournament Sunday and will have to be taken seriously.

Connecticut, home of firsts--football's first tackling dummy, the first cookbook written by an American and the first telephone exchange--will play Boston University in the first round, Thursday night.

Coach Jim Calhoun's Huskies will be in a familiar place, the Hartford Civic Center, which was Connecticut's home court for much of the year.

Traditionally, the Huskies have played their bigger games in Hartford because the old Storrs arena held 4,400 people and the Civic Center can seat more than 16,000.

Does this give Connecticut (28-5) an advantage? You could tie a sled to these Huskies, blindfold them, turn them loose in the snow and they probably would show up at the Hartford Civic Center, where Connecticut played six games this season until Gampel Pavilion, with more than 8,000 seats, was completed in Storrs, Conn., about 30 miles down the road.

The NCAA does not allow teams to play postseason games on their home courts, but decided its policy did not apply to Connecticut playing in Hartford. Technically, the NCAA selection committee said, the Civic Center is not Connecticut's true home court.

And while it could be a real dogfight when the Huskies play the Terriers of Boston University (18-11), chances are that Connecticut might not require a home-court advantage to win. Even so, the placement of the Huskies in their own back yard was one of the biggest surprises when the post-season bids were announced Sunday.

Some observers were surprised that Notre Dame (16-12) was included at all, much less seeded No. 6 in the Southeast Regional.

One of the more surprised might have been Irish Coach Digger Phelps. Almost as surprised as DePaul Coach Joey Meyer.

"I think a lot of people didn't think we'd make it," Phelps said. "I told these kids all year long to just play hard and do the things we have to do against the power teams on our schedule."

The Irish climbed out of a 3-5 hole to begin the season and beat Syracuse and Missouri. DePaul (18-14) beat Notre Dame twice but wasn't called to the post-season party.

"It doesn't make sense to me," Meyer said. "This is very tough on me and it is very tough on this young ball club.

"I can't explain why Notre Dame was selected over us. Maybe 14 losses had something to do with it.

"This is my first time not in the tournament and it is really tough to deal with. It will probably set in later tonight."

Syracuse (24-6), which cooperated in Connecticut's ascendancy by losing the Big East tournament final to the Huskies Sunday, 78-75, rebounded by taking the No. 2 seed in the Southeast behind No. 1 Michigan State (26-5) of the Big Ten, which has a record seven teams in the field.

First up for Syracuse is Coppin State (26-6) of Coach Fang Mitchell, who may have bitten off more than he can chew this time.

Coach Billy Tubbs' freewheeling Oklahoma team (26-4) was seeded No. 1 in the Midwest and can anticipate a potential second-round matchup with Coach Dean Smith's eighth-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels (19-12) in what might be the ultimate culture clash.

However, there may be an even bigger test of wills in the first-round battle between the dunk-until-you-drop LSU Tigers (22-8) with fiery Coach Dale Brown and the cool, calm Villanova Wildcats (18-14) with fiery Coach Rollie Massimino.

As far as fiery coaches go, no one can match Indiana's Bob Knight. The Hoosiers (18-10) got into the NCAA tournament despite an 8-10 conference record, riding the coattails of an unprecedent invasion of Big Ten teams into the tournament.

Other Big Ten teams in the field include conference champion Michigan State, Michigan (22-7), Illinois (21-7), Purdue (21-7), Minnesota (20-8) and Ohio State (16-12), Indiana is least among these after losing to Illinois, 69-63, Sunday in Bloomington, Ind.

The Big East put six teams in the tournament, the Atlantic Coast Conference had five, the Big Eight and Pacific 10 had four and the Southeastern and Western Athletic conferences had three.

Nevada Las Vegas (29-5) is seeded first in the West with Pac-10 champion Arizona (24-6) second and Michigan third. The Running Rebels were sent off to Salt Lake City to meet Arkansas-Litte Rock (20-9) instead of keeping them in Long Beach, which has been more cordial than Las Vegas for UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian. He is 16-0 at Long Beach with the Rebels and has won 81 in a row, including his days as coach at Cal State Long Beach.

LaSalle (29-1) has the best record of anyone, but is only fourth-seeded in the East behind Connecticut, No. 2 Kansas (29-4) and No. 3 Duke (24-8). Ohio State and Notre Dame have the fewest victories, but only because North Texas lost in the final of the Southland Conference tournament. The Eagles were only 5-25, but would have earned an automatic bid if they hadn't lost to the Indians of Northeast Louisiana, 84-68.

Georgia Tech (24-6), starved for an ACC tournament title for five years, found one with a 70-61 victory Sunday over Virginia. Tech was paced by Dennis Scott, who lost 25 pounds during the off-season. The Yellow Jackets, seeded fourth in the Southeast, will play East Tennessee State (27-6) in the first round.

Arkansas (26-4) is ranked No. 9, but was only sixth-seeded in the Midwest after winning both the Southwest Conference regular season and conference tournament. Houston (25-7) and Texas (21-8) of the SWC also made the NCAA tournament, although the Longhorns did it the hard way.

Texas lost on its home court to Cal State Long Beach, which didn't make the NCAA tournament, and in the SWC tournament to Houston, which did.

The Pac-10 sneaked a fourth team into the field when California (21-9) earned the ninth seed in the East (and a first-round date with Indiana) with quantity of victories, not quality--Prairie View, USIA, Cornell, Columbia, Cal Poly Pomona.

Arizona Coach Lute Olson, whose team was the Pac-10 regular season champion as well as the conference tournament winner, said he thinks the Wildcats may have caught a break.

"The fact that we're the second seed really gives us a chance to get a decent start," Olson said. "We didn't want to go have to go to Salt Lake--not that I have anything against Salt Lake. But playing on Thursday wasn't very appealing."

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