Before this season began, University of San Francisco Coach Bob Gaillard said he was retiring at the end of the year because he had enough of coaching.

And he wanted to go out in style - like Al McGuire - with the national championship in his pocket.

But trouble started early. Seven-foot center Bill Cartwright, a second-team All-America as a sophomore last year, broke his left arm and missed the first eight games. Then forward James Hardy broke his right thumb and has missed the last five games.

But the Dons are nevertheless playing their best basketball of the season, and Gaillard, although his team is in the toughest region of all in the NCAA basketball tournament, feels his squad has as good a chance of winning as anybody.

San Francisco plays struggling North Carolina in a first-round West Region game Saturday in Temple, Ariz. The other teams in the West bracket are UCLA. Kansas, Arkansas, New Mexico, Weber State and Fullerton State.

Being in with all of those powers doesn't faze Gaillard.

"I feel pretty good about it, really," he said. "Anybody in it has a chance. With all of those good teams at one site, it means that the team that has a great shooting performance and gets the lucky breaks will win it. It's totally unpredictable who that will be."

Last season had a bitter ending for the Dons. After winning 29 straight, they lost the last game of the regular season and the first contest in the NCAA tourney.

Many people not close to Gaillard suspected that his announced plan to retire was a ploy to motivate his team, but Gaillard insisted it wasn't. He says he will retire on schedule-at-the age of 37.

"Nothing has changed my mind about retiring," he said. "I'm not even sure if I want to be in it (coaching) this long I don't think the retirement has had anything at all to do with the way we played.

"I've always done the best I could and I think my players have, too. This year hasn't been any different."

The Dons have practically gone through three seasons in one to get where they are.

We've handled adversity well," he said.

Without Cartwright, the Dons didn't have a "stopper" on defense and they played those eight games with no true center. They won five of them.

They started clicking after Cartwright came back and won 17 of their remaining 19 games to finish at 22-5

Even without Hardy, San Francisco won its last five which it had to do to win the West Coast Athletic Conference title and get into the NCAA tournament.

Hardy, as versatile a forward as there is in the country, averaged 16.1 points and 9.1 rebounds before he was injured.

"If we had Hardy right now, we'd definitely be among the top 10 teams who could win it all," Gaillard said.

Hardy's thumb is no longer in a cast and he will suit up for the Carolina game, "but won't be able to contribute much," Gaillard said. "He still has a lot of pain."

As talented as Hardy is, the Dons, are, perhaps, a better team with him out of the lineup.

Winford Boynes, the Dons' best player, who averaged 22 points and shot 58 percent from the field while playing out of position at guard, has moved back to forward in Hardy's absence and Rod Williams has moved in at guard.

With playmaker Chubby Cox and consistent Doug Jemison as the other starters, the Dons are steadier than before and they seem to work better as a unit.

"We just aren't as versatile," Gaillard said.

Cartwright still is the key to the Dons' attack. He is cumbersome at 270 pounds but is close to unstoppable inside. He is averaging 20.1 points a game on the strength of 66 percent shooting from the field, and hauls in 10 rebounds a game.