With the start of the NCAA tournament still two weeks away this seems to be an opportune time to take it out to half court and try a few. If I miss, nobody will remember. But if I hit, I won't let you forget.
Of the 64 teams that will make the draw (yes, after beating North Carolina, Maryland should get in no matter what) there will be an elite group of teams that, by their seeding, would presume to contend for the Final Four. This is the short list, the chalk bets. Right now these definitely include Duke, Georgia Tech, Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky, and perhaps Michigan and St. John's. Syracuse, which routinely self-destructs, is a category unto itself, since no Orange lead ever is safe and there's no evidence the team can win on the road. I try my best never to think about Memphis State. Vegas? Bradley? Am I in the wrong room? Is this Fantasy Island?
Part of today's sermon is about some teams which are not on the short list, but may get to Dallas all the same. These aren't sleepers. You know their names and their reputations, and you can locate their campuses without a compass or a native guide. There's no point in picking a real sleeper, a North Idaho AT&T, to ride out of the fog. This isn't a Chip Hilton novel. With the NCAAs bloating to 64 teams, sleepers are now likely to emerge from the middle level of a powerful conference, as Villanova did last year and Virginia did the year before. In the last five years the 20 teams in the Final Four represented but six conferences: ACC, five; Big East, five; SEC, three; Metro, three; SWC, three; Big Ten, one. The SWC is the only weak conference among them, and its one legitimate, traditional power -- Houston -- made the Final Four all three times. Not since Larry Bird's Indiana State made it in 1979 has a team from a small, weedy conference reached the Final Four.
Submitted then for your consideration, five teams with a good, if not a very good, shot at the Final Four: Georgetown, Louisville, North Carolina State, Virginia and Navy. Navy is the closest thing to a real sleeper, a thin team out of a Yuppie league. But David Robinson's 21 points and 13 rebounds per game make him, statistically, the best center in the country. The NCAAs are the perfect setting for an able-bodied man to carry a team on his back, and even in this Year of the Guard, a big man is the most coveted able body.
Because tournament teams no longer are compelled to stay in their natural geographic regions, Virginia and N.C. State might escape butting heads with their ACC betters for a few rounds. Like Navy, both schools have excellent centers who can dominate: Olden Polynice for Virginia; Chris Washburn for N.C. State. Unlike Navy, both schools' coaches have lately made the Final Four. That experience is a valuable friend and teacher.
Georgetown and Louisville may not have dominating centers, but they clearly have experience in the Final Four. Louisville was there in 1980, 1982 and 1983; the Hoyas in 1982, 1984 and 1985. Louisville is big, young and deep with a fine lead guard in Milt Wagner and a realistic confidence borne of a tough schedule. Georgetown hasn't the same intimidating presence without Patrick Ewing, but the Hoyas are a distinguished tournament team, losing rarely and never badly. To my mind, it's still an upset when they do.
The other part of today's sermon concerns Coach of the Year. Handed a blank sheet of paper, I'd write in the following names as finalists: Larry Brown, Lou Carnesecca, Mike Krzyzewski, Eddie Sutton and Dick Versace, all of whom deserve thoughtful consideration. Then, because we have to have a winner, I'd eliminate whoever didn't have 10 letters in his last name.
Versace has bounced Bradley from 17-13 last season to 28-1, the best record in the country. But the Missouri Valley is a marginal league this season; it's hard to get a feel of how good Bradley truly is. In his first year at Kentucky, Sutton is 24-3, compared to Joe B. Hall's 18-13 curtain. Sutton has won despite a small team and the omnipresent cloud of scandal, but Sutton had four starters including Kenny Walker there to meet his plane. Brown is 27-3 at Kansas, pushing his record there to 53-11. He has been a great coach in a great many places. He gets cut here because he had all his starters back.
Krzyzewski ought to win this award. He has Duke 27-2 and ranked No. 1. Yes, he kept four starters from a 23-8 team. But Georgia Tech (now 21-4) kept four from a 27-8 team, and North Carolina (now 25-3) returned all five from a 27-9 team. Duke played a brutal nonconference schedule. And in the toughest conference of all, the ACC, Duke is 10-2, losing only on the road, at Carolina and at Tech.
But all things considered my vote is for Carnesecca, even with the loss to Duke. St. John's is 25-4 now, reduced from last season's 31-4. But Carnesecca's offseason losses were far greater than the others' -- three starters including two NBA first-round draft choices: Chris Mullin, if not the best, certainly the second-best college player in the nation last year, and center Bill Wennington. On the top shelf only John Thompson and Rollie Massimino suffered comparable losses to Carnesecca, and Carnesecca beat them both this season. Twice. Smile, Looie, it's yours.