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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI : When Going Gets Rough, Hogs Will Keep Fouling

The coaches won’t come right out and say it, but the inferences are clear.

Arkansas--how do you put this tactfully?-- massages the rules during a game. And all because the NCAA outlawed the Razorbacks’ favorite defensive tactic--the beloved Arkansas hand-check.

Nobody used the hand-check better than the Razorbacks. They poked, they pushed, they pressured. Any closer and it would have been called a skin graft.

But when the hand-check was legislated out of the game during the off-season, Arkansas didn’t know what to do. The Razorbacks tried ignoring the new rule, but the referees didn’t. In the opener against Massachusetts, Arkansas Coach Nolan Richardson nearly suffered permanent ear damage, what with all the whistles that were blown.

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In all, there were 31 fouls called against the Razorbacks last November at the Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic. Not every foul was for hand-checking, but there were enough to send the Minutemen to the free-throw line 50 times and Arkansas point guard Corey Beck into serious depression.

“Last year, I was the worst at hand-checking,” Beck said. “I had to adjust to it, but I did.”

Relatively speaking, Beck is right. Arkansas’ foul totals averaged in the low 20s for the rest of the regular season, but as the NCAA tournament began, the numbers moved up. Twenty-three fouls against Texas Southern, 26 against Syracuse, but then back down to 20 against Memphis and 22 against Virginia.

What does it all mean? Not much until you listen to Virginia Coach Jeff Jones, or Richardson, or Memphis Coach Larry Finch. That’s when it becomes apparent that the Razorbacks, with their 12-deep roster, are content to push the officiating envelope.

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In other words, hack and take your chances. It isn’t illegal, but. . . .

“Arkansas is a heavier, bigger, stronger team, (with) more depth,” Jones said, when asked to handicap Saturday’s Final Four semifinal game between North Carolina and the Razorbacks. “Quite honestly, right now, I would say the key to the game is how it’s officiated and nothing else. North Carolina could shoot 40 free throws . . . 50 free throws if the officials don’t get bored.”

ARKANSAS FOUL PLAY, PART II

Jones, whose muscular team was worn down by Arkansas’ pressure defense in the Midwest Regional final, comes from the Atlantic Coast Conference, where the play is, uh, more gentlemanly than say, the Big Ten or the Big East. Only Clemson plays a true black-and-blue style, mostly because first-year Coach Rick Barnes came from Providence and the Tigers didn’t have much talent.

But Arkansas has both skill and muscle. The Razorbacks also have a general disdain for the softer, gentler rules. Just ask Finch, who was livid after a last-second hand-check call against his team help cost the Tigers a regional semifinal victory against Arkansas. Afterward, Finch said his players were “mugged all night” by the Razorbacks. The accusation was seconded by Tiger guard Mingo Johnson, who said, “They checked us like that the whole game.”

Even after making the necessary deductions for sour grapes, Jones, Finch and Johnson are worth listening to. The trend, as they see it, is for Arkansas to keep fouling until someone blows a whistle. With the team’s depth, it’s not a bad gamble. And seriously, what officiating crew wants to be known as the one that called 30 or 40 fouls in a Final Four game?

“All I know is that we’re going to play the way we’ve played all year,” Richardson said.

That isn’t exactly true. According to Richardson, it wasn’t until an 18-point home loss against Alabama Jan. 24 that the Razorbacks quit with the nice-guy routine.

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“We were afraid to attack, to pressure, to do the things that we do well,” Richardson said. “When we lost to Alabama, I said, ‘That’s enough. Foul out of every game.’ ”

A strategy was born.

As for Saturday’s game, keep a close watch on Tar Heel Coach Dean Smith and his conversations with the referees. Trust us, Smith won’t get bored. He’ll remind the referees of every Arkansas poke and push.

IS THERE AN ERASER IN THE HOUSE?

Dug up those pre-NCAA tournament predictions. The pitiful review:

EAST

First round--7-1. Done in by Villanova gag-a-thon against Old Dominion. Second round--2-2. Had Villanova winning and also figured Alabama’s athleticism would be too much for Oklahoma State. That was some pretty good thinking. Regional semifinals--0-2. In the immortal words of Bill Murray in “Stripes": “And then, depression set in.” Wake Forest doesn’t make it past Goober and the rest of his buddies down at the Oklahoma State fillin’ station. I also have Villanova over Massachusetts. Regional final--0-1. But with a feeble asterisk. I told you UMass’ lack of guard depth would doom it. Of course, I didn’t figure Oklahoma State to be the team to expose the weakness.

WEST

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First round--7-1. After Indiana lost to Missouri, there were reports from the nearby UCLA locker room that you could hear Hoosier Coach Bob Knight yelling at senior forward Alan Henderson about his shot selection. Actually, that was me shouting. Second round--3-1. So much for that Connecticut-

seems-ripe-for-an-upset theory. Regional semifinals--1-1. UConn plays its best game of the season, Maryland plays one of its worst. About a week later, Terrapin star sophomore center Joe Smith was asked during the Naismith Award presentation if he planned to return to Maryland for another season. “As of right now, yes,” he said. Well, at least it was a clever fib. He could have gone the traditional route and said, “The money will always be there. A college degree is what’s really important.” Regional final--1-0. It was lonely on that UCLA bandwagon back in February.

SOUTHEAST

First round--5-3. Overrated Michigan State couldn’t even make it past Weber State. Don’t know what was worse: Watching Florida lose to Iowa State, or having to endure shot after CBS camera shot of Iowa State Coach Tim Floyd’s wife shrieking with glee. Second round--4-0. Regional semifinals--1-1. Throwing caution to the wind (and my chances of winning an office pool with it), we boldly picked Georgetown to upset North Carolina. Rasheed Wallace’s ankle was tender, Carolina’s bench was iffy and anyway, there’s only so much of pretty boy Dante Calabria we can take. Calabria is a clever player, a deadly perimeter shooter, but he flops at the slightest nudge. Do that on the playground and they’ll laugh for days. Regional final--0-1. The holier-than-thou shtick gets old, but Smith has done one hellacious coaching job during the tournament. Getting quality play out of Serge Zwikker is the basketball equivalent of Jonas Salk discovering the cure for polio.

MIDWEST

First round--6-2. Our heart wasn’t in it when we picked Michigan over Western Kentucky, but we did it for the Fab Two. And speaking of a lack of heart, who can forget the Tin Man of the tournament--

Arizona and its upset loss to Miami of Ohio. Second round--2-2. The team we picked to come out of nowhere--Memphis--did exactly that, upsetting Purdue. We would have been 1-3 if it hadn’t been for Lawrence Moten’s timeout call against Arkansas. Regional semifinals--1-1. Now we know why Virginia took a chance on Jones in 1989, making him the youngest head coach in the ACC at 29. Regional final--1-0. After three near defeats, Arkansas played like the Razorbacks of 1994. And just in time too.

THE REST

Our all-NCAA tournament team headed into the Final Four: Tyus Edney, UCLA; Donald Williams, North Carolina; Bryant Reeves, Oklahoma State; Jerry Stackhouse, North Carolina; Corliss Williamson, Arkansas. Honorable mention: Ed O’Bannon, UCLA; Zwikker, North Carolina; Randy Rutherford, Oklahoma State; Junior Burrough, Virginia; Smith, Maryland. . . . Colorado Coach Joe Harrington, formerly of Long Beach State, scored a much-needed recruiting coup when 6-3 Denver guard Chauncey Billups recently committed to the Buffaloes. Billups, considered the best player to come out of the state in decades, reportedly chose Colorado over Georgia Tech, Kansas and California. The signing gives the Buffaloes a replacement for star senior guard Donnie Boyce and also takes some pressure off Harrington, who has struggled during his five seasons at Boulder to turn the program around. Colorado might do OK next season, especially with Georgia Tech transfer Martice Moore eligible. . . . Just wondering if Bill Clinton had Arkansas and Oklahoma State in his office pool. Clinton roots for the Razorbacks and is a longtime friend of Cowboy Coach Eddie Sutton. Chances are Sutton might be wearing a necktie given to him by Clinton. . . . Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun is sweating out another off-season of possible defections. Last year he lost one of two: Donyell Marshall left early for the NBA, but guard Doron Sheffer decided to return for his sophomore season. This year it’s only Sheffer, who has a standing offer to return to his native Israel and play in the pro leagues. Word is that he’s leaning toward coming back to UConn. But if he doesn’t, Calhoun will have three major roster holes to fill: Sheffer, senior guard Kevin Ollie and senior forward Donny Marshall. . . . Take it for the rumor it is, but Massachusetts sophomore center Marcus Camby is supposedly ready to jump to the NBA. Not so for Villanova’s Kerry Kittles, who told reporters after the Wildcats’ stunning first-round loss to Old Dominion that he planned to return. . . . What North Carolina wants, North Carolina usually gets. With sophomores Stackhouse and Wallace both considering a move to the NBA, Tar Heel Coach Dean Smith went hard after 6-6 forward Vince Carter of Daytona Beach, Fla. Carter, ranked among the top 20 high school players in the country, thought about signing with Florida State, but announced Monday that he’ll play at Carolina.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Top 10

As selected by staff writer Gene Wojciechowski

No. Team Rec. 1. UCLA 29-2 2. North Carolina 28-5 3. Arkansas 31-6 4. Oklahoma State 27-9 5. Kentucky 28-5 6. Virginia 25-9 7. Kansas 25-6 8. Massachusetts 29-5 9. Connecticut 29-5 10. Wake Forest 26-6

Waiting list: Memphis (24-10), Maryland (26-8), Arizona State (24-9), Tulsa (24-8), Georgetown (21-10), Mississippi State (22-8).


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