Dean Smith, who is beginning to sound more like a doctor than the coach of the injury plagued University of North Carolina basketball team, today pronounced his No. 1 patient, guard Phil Ford, fit to start against Nevada-Las Vegas Saturday.
How well Ford's tender elbow will hold up in the NCAA semifinal game remains questionable, but he certainly will be in the lineup for the opening tap.
"He will start tomorrow, and we'll see what happens," Smith said. "He went 30 minutes Thursday in practice without any pain and then experienced severe pain. The same thing could happen Saturday or maybe it won't."
Ford's condition - and how it will affect any decision by Smith to use his four-corner delay game - was the main topic of discussion on the eve of the start of the Final Four round.
Even Marquette's retiring Al McGuire, who could coach the final game of his career against North Carolina Charlotte, found himself taking an unaccustomed second billing.
Marquette and UNCC will get things started at 2 p.m. (WRC-TV-4). Then attention will center on how well Ford lasts in the 4:15 p.m. confrontation with the run-and-gun Rebels of Las Vegas.
Ford participated in most of the Tar Heel drills today, but he took only about 10 shots on the advice of the team doctor.
"It isn't hurting right now because I didn't do that much," Ford said after the workout, "but I can't be reluctant to shoot (against Vegas). If it hurts and if I think it's hurting the team, I'll tell coach. If the shot is there, I'll take it."
Ford first hurt the elbow against Notre Dame 10 days ago. He did not practice this week until Thursday, when he again strained it and had to leave the workout.
His injury has served to heighten even further the intense interest surrounding the last stages of this unusual tournament.
Consider these elements:
Only one of these four teams (North Carolina) has won the tournament title. Two of the schools (North Carolina Charlotte and Las Vegas) are relative newcomers to Division I basketball. Vegas and coach Jerry Tarkanian are under NCAA investigation and McGuire is one of the organization's strongest critics.
And for the first time in 11 years, UCLA, the long-time king of the college basketball mountain, is not around to try for another national title.
The Bruins don't know what they are missing. McGuire, for example, went for a motorcycle ride Thursday after arriving here and wound up visiting Norm Van Brocklin, who lives in an Atlanta suburb.
On the way back to his hotel, the lights on McGuire's motorcycle went out and he was stranded for two hours on a desolate highway.
"It brought me down to earth," McGuire said. "Here I thought I was a celebrity and they thought I was a veteranian visiting a sick cow at Van Brocklin's. Then I can't even get a cop to stop for me on the highway. I finally had to knock on some guy's door to get help."
UNCC coach Lee Rose hasn't ridden any motorcycles since he arrived. Instead, he spent today fending off questions about how in the world his team got this far.
At various points Rose had to deny that the 49ers were flukes, that they play in a league and should get out and that pressure would bother his team. With each answer, his voice got sharper and his temper obviously shorter.
"We earned our way here," he finally snapped. "We're been a good team all year. But before the season began, we were working out at a high school and some kid wanted to know if we were a junior varity team. Stuff like that has struck in my craw all season."
The Marquette-UNCC game will be a study in contrasts. Marquette likes a nice and easy game on offense with a olt of pressure on defense. UNCC wants to hurry up court on offense and keep things under control on defense with the use of a zone.
Which tactic eventually wins out may be determined during the first five minutes. At least that's what McGuire thinks.
"By the first commercial (television) timeout, we'll get the nerves over with and we'll be able to see whether the tempo is fast or slow, who's on their game-things like that," he said. "Then the real game will begin, because the crucial adjustments will have to be made."
McGuire will be paying particular attention to the performance of UNCC center Cedric (Don't Call Meornbread) Maxwell, the man with the 39-inch long arms.
"He's their aircraft carrier," McGuire said. "We'll have to see if he is on top of his game. Sometimes players aren't and you don't worry. But if he's on, we're in trouble."
Maxwell, indeed, can be trouble. In UNCC's three previous playoff wins, he has made a sensational 72 per cent of his shots and 88 per cent of his 35 free throws. His 25.3 average is tops in the tournament.
Trouble for Las Vegas in the second game probably will be spelled f-o-u-r-c-o-r-n-e-r. Smith refused today to rule out use of his four-corner offense from the opening tip.
"I probably won't," is as far as he would go. Then he added: "We've been awfully good playing our regular game for the first 10 minutes and then seeing what type of strategy we should use for the next 30. Why should we change?"
Las Vegas isn't taking any chances. The Rebels have worked hard against delay tactics this week, just in case they fall far enough behind to allow Smith to go to the four corners.
"We've really worked on it all year," said guard Robert Smith, who will cover Ford or John Kuester, depending on which Tar Heel runs the delay. "But no one has tried it on us. Maybe it's time for us to see how we do."
The Rebels realize the one sure way to avoid seeing the four corners is to get off to a fast start, just as they did against San Francisco in the first round. But they are just as capable of shooting miserably in the opening half, as they did against Idaho State last Saturday.
"For two years, teams have tried to get us slow down," Tarkanian said, "and no one really has been successful at it.We determine the pace of the game ourselves. If we play intense defense and shoot well, no one is going to control us."
When things go right for Vegas, Tarkanian says, he has the best team in the country. Smith also thought his Tar Heels were No. 1 about a month ago, after they trounced Maryland by 27 points. Since then, though, injuries have disrupted his title plans.
Now he must face a pressing defense with two of his three best ballhandlers handicapped by injuries - Walter Davis has a broken finger. And even he has to wonder how long his squad's remarkable tournament foul shooting (48 of its last 51, including 21 straight) will hold up.
However, he still can fall back on the sticky, changing defenses that have propelled Carolina this far. That defensive prowess and Ford's intelligent floor leadership are two elements Tarkanian admits his team has not had to face many times this year.
"Utah was a smart team," he said, "but they couldn't do as many things as North Carolina. We're playing well, yet we've got to play better than we have."
McGuire, however, still got in the final word today - as usual. He was asked if the fact he was so near the end of his career would make his team more emotional.
"If I go in there one more time and use that, they're going to use the hook on me," he replied. "It'll be like I'm on the Gong Show. They'll hit the gong and toss me out.
"The players are going to win these games, not the coaches. That's why I won't get any technicals. This is a player's tournament, and that's how it should be."