If you are a basketball fan, the phrase, "The Road To Lexington," will begin dominating your life today.
This afternoon, at four sub-regional sites, 32 basketball teams, including defending national champion Georgetown, start down that road toward the Final Four, which will be played the last weekend of the month in Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. Friday, 32 more teams begin play at four other sites and by Sunday night, the field of 64 will be chopped to 16.
Most everyone's favorite is Georgetown. The top-ranked Hoyas (30-2) certainly aren't likely to have any trouble when they open the tournament at noon today against Lehigh. The Engineers (12-18) have the only losing record in the field and are playing in the East Regional only because they won the East Coast Conference Tournament.
But around the country -- today's sites are Hartford, Conn., in the East; South Bend, Ind., in the Southeast; Tulsa, Okla., in the Midwest and Salt Lake City, Utah, in the West -- upsets are bound to happen and every coach of every favorite is nervously building up his opponent.
The king of the pregame buildup is North Carolina Coach Dean Smith. The Tar Heels (24-8) are the second seed in the Southeast Regional and drew Middle Tennessee State (17-13) as their opening-round opponent. Middle Tennessee has only a slightly better chance of pulling an upset than Lehigh. But Smith, who can find a reason for his team to lose against anyone, has one ready-made this time.
"I remember two years ago (actually it was three), Kentucky was getting ready to play Louisville in this tournament and their opening-round opponent was Middle Tennessee State," Smith said. "Middle Tennessee won the game. That shows what they're capable of."
It may show what the 1982 Middle Tennessee team was capable of; however, it tells little about this team. But it gives Smith something to talk about. Saturday, he may have more to talk about if Notre Dame (20-8) can get by Oregon State (22-8) tonight. The Irish are the host of this sub-regional and would get the Tar Heels on their home court if they can win their opener. This is Notre Dame's first NCAA appearance since 1981.
There are a number of intriguing first-round matchups today. In the East, Atlantic 10 champion Temple (24-5) and Virginia Tech (20-8) will duel for the dubious honor of facing Georgetown in the second round. The other half of the Hartford bracket today includes Southern Methodist. The Mustangs were once ranked No. 2 in the country but were a disappointment late in the season, finishing 22-9. If they can get past Old Dominion (19-11) tonight and then beat the winner of Iona (26-4) and Loyola of Illinois (25-5), they probably would get a crack at Georgetown next week. SMU lost to Georgetown, 37-36, in the second round of last year's tournament.
All the first-round games pit high seeds against low seeds. Most notable among those outside of Georgetown-Lehigh is St. John's (27-3) against Southern (19-10) in the West Regional at Salt Lake City.
As usual, the West is considered the weakest of the regionals. Virginia Commonwealth is by far the least known and least regarded of the No. 2 seeds in the field and N.C. State, the No. 3 seed, has nine losses.
The last four West Regional winners have come from the East Coast and that isn't likely to change this year. Virginia Commonwealth opens play Friday in Albuquerque against Southern Conference champion Marshall. N.C. State will also be there, returning to the site of its 1983 miracle national title to play Nevada-Reno, in a matchup of Wolfpacks. If State wins, it will probably face a good Tulsa team. Coach Nolan Richardson's team is 23-7, has a super scoring guard in Steve Harris and should get by Texas-El Paso to reach a second-round match with State.
"I would have preferred the Midwest because we would have been able to play at home," Richardson said. "But this is where we are and we'll do the best we can."
Oklahoma opens play today as the top seed in the Midwest in Tulsa against North Carolina A&T. The big question in that game is whether the Sooners' Wayman Tisdale can outscore A&T. In the past, Oklahoma Coach Billy Tubbs has shown little sympathy for outclassed opponents.
Also in Tulsa, Louisiana Tech (27-2), perhaps the sleeper team in the field, begins play against Pittsburgh. A year ago, with center Karl (Mailman) Malone in foul trouble much of the game, Louisiana Tech gave Houston a tough second-round game.
Memphis State (27-3), generally considered the strongest No. 2 seed in the field, opens play Friday in Houston, taking on Penn. The big question in that sub-regional is the hip-pointer injury of Duke's Mark Alarie. The 6-foot-8 junior hurt his hip in last week's ACC Tournament and has not practiced all week. Without Alarie, the third-seeded Blue Devils could even struggle with 14th-seeded Pepperdine.
Last, but certainly not least, is Friday's Southeast sub-regional in Dayton. Besides the host Flyers and Villanova, both Maryland and Navy will play there. The Terrapins (23-11), coming off last week's horror show at the ACC Tournament, will try to rebound Friday afternoon against Mid-American Conference runner-up Miami (20-10). The Redskins have one great player in 6-6 forward Ron Harper, who averages 24.9 points and 10 rebounds a game.
If they stop him, the Terrapins should advance. The Redskins have no one taller than 6-7 and guards that go 5-8 and 6-1. If Maryland can rebound, it can run, and it is at its best when it runs.
So is Navy. The Midshipmen (25-5) are in the tournament for the first time in 25 years and are a heavy underdog to Louisiana State (19-9). The Tigers have as much talent as anyone in the country but are more than capable of losing to the Midshipmen if David Robinson and Vernon Butler hold their own inside and if their guards can handle LSU's quickness.