Say you're the coach of Kansas or Las Vegas or of another team about to land a lofty seeding in the NCAA tournament. Even as you go through your conference tournament, you're already thinking in the back of your mind about whom you might play in the first round of the NCAAs. You want an easy W, but there are only so many Coppin States and Robert Morrises to go around. What you don't want is to face an unranked team with the ability to do to you what Princeton almost did to Georgetown in last year's first round. Here, then, are four teams you don't want to be bracketed with when the NCAA tournament selection committee announces the pairings on Sunday night:
? Princeton may be just as dangerous as it was last March, when it played the Nikes off Georgetown before finally losing 50-49. The Tigers are still coached by Pete Carril, who always makes you wonder what he would do if he had the tools available to a big-time program, and they have a smart center in 6'7" junior Kit Mueller, who leads the team in scoring, rebounds and assists. Princeton also leads the nation in scoring defense, allowing foes only 51 points per game.
? Murray State comes from the much underrated Ohio Valley Conference, whose teams have eliminated Illinois, N.C. State and Florida State, respectively, from the last three tournaments. The Racers won 15 of their last 17 regular-season games and may be better than they were in 1987-88, when they came within three points of upsetting Kansas, the eventual national champion, in the NCAAs. Murray State's best player is sophomore center Ronald (Popeye) Jones, who became a force in the middle—he averaged 18.5 points and 11.1 rebounds in the regular season—after shedding 51 of the 309 pounds he was carrying on his 6'7" frame last June. According to Racer coach Steve Newton, Popeye-the-tailored-man is now so active that "we're thinking of playing him at guard some."
? East Tennessee State, which ran its record to 27-6 by winning last week's Southern Conference tournament, has pretty much the same team that shook up Oklahoma in last year's first round before falling 72-71. The man who makes the Buccaneers go is 5'7" point guard Keith Jennings, known to friends and foes alike as Mister, which is what his father called him during a childhood lecture. He's No. 3 in assists nationally and a perfect complement to one of the country's best three-point shooters, Major Geer, who converts 50% of his treys.
? New Mexico State may be the most overlooked 25-3 team in the country, which is too bad considering all the fun the Aggies have brought to Las Cruces. The students are so bonkers over their team that they have created Effigy Heaven up near the ceiling of the arena, hanging stuffed animals there in memory of various victims. In addition, last week the student government voted to allot $5,000 toward the $17,000 it took to have New Mexico State's final regular-season road game, an 82-68 win over Fresno State, televised back home. Considering that the Aggies have four starters from the Chicago area, their ideal first-round opponent would be DePaul, but the Blue Demons need a strong finish to qualify for the NCAAs.
PEAKING ON TIME?
By the time some of you read this, Oklahoma may be out of the Big Eight tournament, having exhausted its emotional resources in a historic week in which it defeated two No. 1-ranked teams. First came a 107-90 win on Feb. 25 that knocked Missouri out of the top spot. That was followed two days later by a 100-78 thrashing of the new No. 1, Kansas. The Sooners then went to Stillwater last Saturday and beat archrival Oklahoma State 107-94.
Of course, it could be that Oklahoma is beginning a roll that could carry it to its first national championship in basketball. Cowboy coach Leonard Hamilton leans to the latter theory. "We got beat by a team that I think is the Number One team in the country," said Hamilton, and Sooner coach Billy Tubbs immodestly agreed.