It’s Time to Begin the March To Madness

With the exhibition season winding down and the prospects of meaningful basketball approaching, it’s time to reflect on the campaign to date, namely, how Michigan could play Michigan State in a nonconference game, Brigham Young could start February with as many wins as its football team had losses, one, and how Dean Smith and Bob Knight could be coaching teams with losing conference records.

Is it March yet?

Football gets ripped for not having a playoff system, but at least in football, the regular season counts.

In basketball, thrills are disproportionally backloaded to conference tournaments and the all-wonderful NCAA tournament.


Wondering: What is a regular-season title worth if you can only get an automatic NCAA bid by winning your conference tournament?

Wondering: Does it really matter if No. 1 Kansas wins the Big 12 championship, or even its postseason title?

You may recall Kentucky lost last year’s Southeastern Conference title game to Mississippi State and ended up doing OK in the NCAA tournament.

College basketball’s regular season has become one long prelude, just like the NBA’s, except in college the games are needed to pay the coaches’ salaries.


Losses by top teams in February mean . . . nothing.

Take Kansas. That heart-wrenching defeat against Missouri on Tuesday night was actually just what Dr. Naismith ordered.

At 22-0, Kansas appeared in knots as it walked the plank toward a possible undefeated regular season.

Who needs that kind of pressure?

Jerry Tarkanian, the last man to coach an unbeaten team into the NCAA tournament--his 1991 Nevada Las Vegas Rebels--offered Kansas Coach Roy Williams some unsolicited advice this week.

“I think if I’m Roy, I want to win them all, but I do think if he loses one it might help him win the big one,” Tarkanian said.

Tarkanian’s ’91 team was unscathed until a national semifinal loss to Duke.

UNLV had beaten Duke by 30 in the 1990 title game, and Tark thought his Rebels had become full of themselves.


“I do think a loss [in the regular season] would have helped us,” he says now.

With Tuesday’s blip out of the way, expect Kansas to take a deep breath and make a bull run toward the national title.

Wondering: What’s a regular season worth?

Only three conferences--the Pacific 10, Big Ten and Ivy League--do not have conference tournaments, although the Big Ten recently caved and will start a postseason tournament next year.

Indiana’s Knight was a strong dissenter and, this time, Knight was right.

Conference tournaments were created to make money and afford longshot teams a chance at that NCAA montage dream CBS so loves to package.

The 1996 flip side was two schools with losing records--San Jose State and Central Florida--qualified for the tournament by winning their tournament title game, while more worthy teams such as Minnesota and Fresno State sat home.

To me, the only major conference races worth following this year are the Pac-10 and Big Ten, because those leagues don’t have tournaments.


UCLA (12-6) may not make the NCAA tournament unless it wins the Pac-10 regular-season title.

Now, there’s a reason to sell out in February.

In the Big Ten, Minnesota, which finished sixth in the conference last season, has come to understand that the only way to guarantee its NCAA fate is to win the conference title outright.

The best of the rest are merely jockeying for NCAA position.

Other midwinter observations:


Tim Duncan. A Milwaukee Buck scout charting Duncan at Saturday’s Wake Forest-Maryland game wasn’t impressed. At the half, the senior center had scored four points. The scout wondered to a Philadelphia writer why everyone was drooling over the Wake Forest standout.

In the second half, Duncan scored 25 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the Deamon Deacons’ victory.

“I changed my mind!” the scout screamed to the reporter.

Best player with fewest clippings: Adonal Foyle of Colgate. He may be the second-best center behind Duncan, but he toils in obscurity for a struggling Patriot League team.

Best of the rest: Raef LaFrentz (Kansas), Ed Gray (California), Reggie Freeman (Texas), Bubba Wells (Austin Peay), Ron Mercer (Kentucky), DeJuan Wheat (Louisville), Keith Booth (Maryland).

Best freshman: Tim Thomas (Villanova).


1--Ricardo Patton, Colorado. He inherited a mess after Joe Harrington resigned in January 1996, but Patton somehow transformed a 9-18 team with no basketball tradition into a top-25 power in less than a year. It helps that Patton has a premier point guard in sophomore Chauncey Billups. Barring a collapse, the Buffaloes will make their first NCAA appearance since 1969.

2--Rob Evans, Mississippi. It has taken Evans, a career assistant, only five years to turn around one of the worst programs in the country. The Rebels already have beaten Kentucky and swept Arkansas and have a shot to make the NCAA tournament for only the second time in school history.

3--Gary Williams, Maryland. Picked to finish eighth in the Atlantic Coast Conference after losing three starters from last season’s NCAA team, the Terrapins have rebuilt around Booth and sophomores Laron Profit and Terrell Stokes. The team is so good now it lost twice last week, to Florida State and Wake Forest, and still stayed in the top 10.

4--Bob Thomason, Pacific. Won 16 consecutive games, including a 17-point victory over Georgetown, with a team whose best player, Michael Olowokandi, picked the school randomly from a college directory.

Others: Steve Lavin, UCLA (only Freud could have fared better), Ben Braun, California (kept program on track after Todd Bozeman fiasco), Steve Alford, Southwest Missouri State (rising star; a young Knight without the meltdowns).


1--Colorado. See “Top Coaches,” Patton, Ricardo.

2--Pacific. See “Top Coaches,” Thomason, Bob.

3--Louisville. Denny Crum survived the loss of center Samaki Walker and a full-court NCAA inquiry to field one of his most pleasing teams--until that ugly loss to Temple. Scouting tip: All three losses came against zone teams.

4--Miami. This football school has a lot of nerve beating Georgetown twice.

5--Minnesota. Figured the Gophers would be solid, but a top-five team?

Others: Hawaii, St. Joseph’s, California, Xavier.


Fresno State (14-8). Uh, Tark, about that schedule. The Bulldogs played 10 consecutive away nonconference games, lost seven of them, and ran out of gas somewhere over the Grapevine. The team can’t rebound worth a raisin, and sharpshooter Dominick Young is wearing an arm band as he mourns the loss of his jump shot.

Look out next season, though, when another truckload of prep standouts arrive.

Cincinnati. It’s tough to knock 15-4, but weren’t the Bearcats the preseason No. 1 in that glossy magazine with the cover jinx? In fact, Cincinnati has stumbled against every tough test--Kansas, Xavier, Temple, Louisville--and is upholding the axiom that you can’t win a national title without a great point guard. At this point, Coach Bob Huggins would settle for a good one.

Indiana. The Hoosiers are 3-6 after a 14-1 start, not the type of tournament momentum you expect from a Knight-coached team. Indiana is 4-6 in Big Ten play after Tuesday’s loss to Iowa. Can a team with a losing conference record still make the NCAA tournament? Yes, Clemson qualified last year after finishing 7-9 in the ACC.

Others: North Carolina, George Washington.


Worst public-address announcer: After Baylor upset No. 23 Texas last week, Bear announcer Brad Cox proclaimed: “The Baylor Bears Embarrass Tom Penders and his No. 23-ranked Longhorns at the Ferrell Center!”

Worst P.A., runner-up: Penders, who twice had to take the microphone during Monday night’s victory over Texas Tech to keep his own fans from throwing objects on the floor.

Best coaching job on an empty stomach: Clem Haskins, Minnesota. The Gopher coach, who had heart surgery two years ago, has led his team to a 19-2 record while being restricted to a lunch of grape juice and low-sodium popcorn.

Worst interpretation of the NCAA manual: Kenny King and Ricky Moore of Connecticut, who apparently thought it was OK to receive free airline tickets from an agent.

Best use of campus resources: Brigham Young. The Cougars are so depleted they borrowed five players from Lavell Edwards’ Cotton Bowl champion football team just to get through practice. Question: Why aren’t those football guys starting?

Best quote from the most unlikely source: Knight, remarking on his Hoosiers on his coach’s show: “I don’t think this team is real well-coached.”

Coach who won’t let it die: St. Joseph’s Phil Martelli is still blasting Lute Olson about the game Arizona canceled last season in Philadelphia because of “bad” weather. On his weekly show, Martelli does a “Carnac the Magnificent”’ schtick based on Johnny Carson’s old “Tonight Show” routine. Sidekick: “A mistake, a Japanese pitcher and Lute Olson.” Martelli: “What are a no-no, a Nomo, and a no-show.”

Worst signing of letter of intent: Lester Earl, at Louisiana State.

Best use of brain power: Since Penn State joined the Big Ten, two teams play each other only once each season. Rather than dissolve a home-and-away rivalry that goes back decades, Michigan State and Michigan agreed this year to play each other in a nonconference game.

What took so long: To the College Basketball Hall of Fame, which finally voted in Texas El Paso Coach Don Haskins.

Doesn’t give a hooey: Tarkanian, on being snubbed again by the hall of fame: “Believe me when I tell you, I give that very little thought.”

Best use of physical ability: George Washington point guard Shawnta Rogers began the week rebounding his height. Rogers, who is 5 feet 4, was averaging 5.5 rebounds a game.