If the NCAA basketball tournament has any parallel to the classroom, if raw ability and experience, dogged work, some suffering over the years and a sense of logical order mean anything, North Carolina will be the national champion this time next week.
Carolina has the most players with the most recent final-four experience, last season's second-place finish to Indiana, plus a coach long overdue for an NCAA title. In almost all of his six other near-misses, Dean Smith has had a decent excuse for losing. He won't be a heel if the Heels fail again, but this time even Carolina insiders can think of no pretourney problems.
Two gifted giants (James Worthy and Sam Perkins) ought to be better than one (Patrick Ewing) and the alleged Carolina weakness, outside shooting, has been wonderful lately. One thing, Dean: please give us 40-minute games. Anything close to what you did against Villanova in the last nine minutes will be fine. That wasn't a stall; that was a clinic.
A Carolina-Georgetown final is what nearly everyone outside Houston and Louisville covets before those teams dribble off to New Orleans in a few days; one major pothole could wreck that collision, it seems to one basketball junkie thinking through a cold: which of two Louisville teams will play against Georgetown in Saturday's semifinal?
If the sky-walking stylists who can run and think their way through the fiercest presses show up, the Hurryin' Hoyas are in trouble. This gang is as deep as Georgetown, as swift and shoots as well. If at times the Cardinals seem to have donned catcher's mitts, again, on the break and at the foul line, Georgetown will be smiling before the last television timeout.
Although casual fans might think otherwise, both Louisville and Georgetown should be comfortable in the most intense American semiamateur spotlight. Four of the Cardinals have final-four experience, as Darrell Griffith's supporting cast during their championship run in 1980.
The title often goes to the team with the wisest, quickest, most inventive guard. Jerry Eaves was the Louisville quarterback in '80, Griffith's feeder who helped that comeback to the championship with two late baskets and one sterling defensive play against UCLA's Kiki Vandeweghe.
Eaves is so classy, so confident in himself that he volunteered, after a relatively subpar performance against Alabama-Birmingham in the Mideast final Saturday, "I wasn't the glue out there this game (with six turnovers and just two assists). The best thing Coach (Denny) Crum did was get me out of there (for several minutes of the second half)."
Crum has recruited as well as John Thompson, with a former high-school all-galaxy at every position on the floor and four more coming off the bench. And the country's best forward prospect, Billy Thompson, waiting offstage in Camden, N.J.
Still, if these Cardinals hardly will shy from Ewing, one of their season-long problems was exceptionally tall fellows who can leap as well as their stable of 6-foot-8ers. Louisville lost two of three games to Keith Lee (Memphis State) and once each to Ralph Sampson (by 14 points), Steve Stipanovich (Missouri) and Terry Cummings (De Paul).
In truth, the Cardinals lost to most of the excellent teams they played during the regular season. Crum insists this was during their now-forgotten, ham-handed phase, when they made turnovers and missed free throws at a rate that would embarrass teams denied an NIT bid.
Georgetown will tell us whether Denny is dishing out more than a crumb of wisdom.
Although how they gained it is a bit more obscure, the Hoyas are nearly as familiar with final-four pressure as Louisville. Their seniors, the two Erics, Smith and Floyd, Ed Spriggs and Mike Hancock, believe they lost to Iowa in a fluke of sorts in the '80 East Regional finals.
The Iowa team that nipped the Hoyas lost to Louisville in the NCAA semifinals, so in Georgetown's mind Floyd and Eric Smith are going against Eaves and Derek Smith three seasons after they should have.
Also, Ewing and the other prominent Georgetown freshmen played in the National Sports Festival last summer, taking their losing lumps but getting tournament hardened. And can any atmosphere be more unsettling than Syracuse's?
Since it's easy to dismiss Houston, let's do it. We'll assume Guy Lewis has not taught these guys any more about team play than he did Elvin Hayes, although Rob Williams very likely is as spectacular as any guard in the country.
For basketball purists, the scary part about Williams is that he may be able to control a game in the manner of Magic Johnson or Isiah Thomas. The soothing part is that Jimmy Black has played terrific defense the last two games.
Carolina has been digesting giants most of the season, or putting them to sleep with a four-corners delay. Worthy and Perkins can score inside and outside, with finesse or a forearm or two. They were quick enough to get some fine Alabama and Villanova defenders in foul trouble in a hurry.
Houston's hessian, Akeem Olajuwon of Nigeria, was caught hacking the Boston College inside players.
Carolina evidently lost considerable fan support with that stop-action move against Virginia in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. But anyone who decided that a proper spanking for Smith, as well as something to assure game-long rushes toward the basket, would be for Houston to get the lead should remember some preseason analysis:
"The Cougars' delay game was one of the two best in the country last season . . . anytime they get a lead in the last 10 minutes of the game (and Williams can control the ball) . . . it is virtually impossible for the other team to get possession."