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Al McGuire Riding Well-Rested Stanford Into NCAA Tournament

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Handicappers know rested horses have an edge over exhausted ones. Pick a nag with some gas left in the tank and it might be an advantage in a sprint like the upcoming NCAA tournament.

So while ex-coach Al McGuire acknowledges that Duke has established itself as the nation’s No. 1 team, he has a little love affair going with No. 6 Stanford, still equipped with the core of last year’s Final Four team.

“They’re sitting nice at the top of the stretch,” said McGuire, who will broadcast the NCAA tournament for CBS. “They’re sitting perfect because they’re in the only major conference without a tournament. I believe that’s an asset.”

The Pac-10 has never figured out the need for an end-of-season conference tournament, an exercise everyone else, except the Ivy League, will be conducting this week.

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So while the heavyweights play some more games, not exactly something they need at this stage of the season, Stanford and Pac-10 partners No. 7 Arizona and No. 15 UCLA will enjoy a little rest and relaxation. Don’t underestimate the importance of R&R; at this stage of the season.

McGuire certainly doesn’t.

“There are just two reasons for the conference tournaments,” he said. “Number one is the green, the scratch, the money. No. 2 is maybe some seventh-place team can get hot and pick up another check for the conference.”

Sometimes, an also-ran sneaks into the NCAA tournament through the conference back door by muscling up in the postseason tournament. But if a week’s worth of good games can wipe out three months worth of bad ones, then what were those three months all about in the first place?

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McGuire suspects that teams with NCAA tournament berths safely tucked away might not be heartbroken if they bailed out early in their conference tournaments.

“As a coach, I always was concerned with what was better for me,” he said.

“I’d rather see an early exit. I think of the big picture and that’s the NCAA tournament. I’ve always thought coaches get blinders sometimes and are too narrow in their thinking.

“The NCAA locks don’t need the possibility of injuries or Asian flu and three more games.”

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The idea is to reduce the risk of something bad happening to a team when there is no time to recover. Duke doesn’t need to see Trajan Langdon taking stitches over an eye right now. Connecticut cringes at the thought of Richard Hamilton coming down the wrong way after a jump shot this week.

This was never a problem when McGuire coached because he had the good sense to work for non-conference Marquette, an independent that didn’t have to worry about the vagaries of what might happen in a postseason tournament--except the one with NCAA in front of it.

So he was able to concentrate on the main goal, unencumbered by peripheral issues. As long as the won-loss numbers were good enough to impress the selection committee, he was all right.

McGuire did that by fattening up on what he called cupcakes, teams that posed little problem. “We had to control the schedule,” he said. “You need those built-in W’s.”

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Then he would sprinkle in a supply of warm weather teams, invited to Milwaukee in the middle of January or February, when the snow was high and the temperature low.

“All you’d want to do is get out and it didn’t much matter whether you won or not,” Arizona coach Lute Olson said.

That was perfect for McGuire’s purposes.

“As a coach, my MO was how do you get ready for the NCAA tournament,” he said. “You want to keep the whole package together for the Final Four. I tried different ways--rest them, work them hard; go early, go late; stay outside of town, stay in town. I was around long enough to try every one.”

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The one conclusion he reached was simple: Avoid the speed bumps that can interfere with more important goals.

“First, it’s getting to the tournament,” he said. “Second, you want to see the grass popping the third week in March. Let me get through that and I’m happy. Hoops is the dance. That’s the new contract. That’s the recruiting.

“The conference tournaments--they’re just bragging rights for freshmen basketball junkies. Who knows who won them two weeks after they happen? Two weeks after the NCAA, who doesn’t know who won that?”


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