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Alexander Wolff
March 18, 1996
An Insider's Guide to the NCAA's
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March 18, 1996

A Method To The Madness

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Let Connecticut and Wake Forest celebrate their victories in last weekend's Big East and ACC conference tournaments. Recent history shows they won't be celebrating on April 1.

Since N.C. State, which went 17-10 in the regular season, sneaked into the NCAAs by winning the 1983 ACC tournament and then marched to an NCAA championship, only Georgetown in '84 and Duke in '92 have won a major-conference tournament on their way to the title. (Forget UNLV and Louisville; they beat weak fields in the '90 Big West and the '86 Metro tournaments, respectively.) Arkansas in '94, North Carolina in '93, Duke in '91, Kansas in '88 and Villanova in '85 all lost in their conference tournaments. As for NCAA champs that had no conference tournament, Indiana lost two of its last three in '87, and Michigan lost its regular-season finale at home in '89.

It's hard enough to win six games in a row under NCAA tournament conditions. Winning nine or 10 straight is well nigh impossible.


Now it can be told how UCLA coach Jim Harrick felt when he learned hours before last spring's NCAA title game in Seattle that point guard Tyus Edney wouldn't be able to play because of an injured right wrist. "I was absolutely devastated," Harrick says. How devastated? "I didn't want to come out of the locker room."

The Bruins beat Arkansas, of course, but not without a career game from off-guard Toby Bailey (26 points, nine rebounds) and an astonishing contribution from Edney's understudy, Cameron Dollar, who had eight assists and only three turnovers in 36 minutes. Such is the importance of guards come March.

From North Carolina State's Sidney Lowe and Dereck Whittenburg in 1983, to Indiana's Steve Alford and Keith Smart in '87, to North Carolina's Derrick Phelps and Donald Williams in '93, champion after NCAA champion has featured poise and experience in its backcourt. The reason is simple: Coaches must cede more control during the three weeks of the NCAAs when emotion, luck and defense all take on greater importance. As teams tend to play conservatively and scores get lower, the decision making falls to the guys in whose hands possessions begin and, under tournament conditions, more often end. "Guards are especially important in the second round," says Stanford coach Mike Montgomery, "when you have so little time to prepare."

"They say you have to have good frontcourt people," adds Long Beach State coach Seth Greenberg. "But without good guard play to go with them, big men can be ineffective." Defenses can sag when guards aren't hitting their shots from the outside. And even when big men are scoring, their efforts can be undone by sloppy guard play. Coach Jerry Tarkanian spent much of UNLV's 1990-91 season insisting that point guard Greg Anthony, not forwards Larry Johnson or Stacey Augmon, was the most critical member of his team. No one really believed him until those Runnin' Rebels lost to Duke 79-77 in the national semifinals after Anthony fouled out with just under four minutes to play. On UNLV's last possession the disorganized Rebels failed to get a decent shot.

Almost all the contenders in this year's draw—Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Cincinnati, Georgetown, Kansas, Villanova—have two good guards. But the fate of many of these teams will hang on questions about those backcourts. As reliable as the combo of Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso has been for UMass, will the 36 minutes a game each has averaged cause them to run out of gas during the postseason? Kansas looks good on paper with experienced leaders Jacque Vaughn and Jerod Haase, but Haase's jumper has been off this season (29.7% from three-point range). And is it clear yet which one of Kentucky's point guards—Anthony Epps, Jeff Sheppard or Wayne Turner—will run the team in the final minutes of a close game? The Wildcats haven't had any close games.

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