A Distaff Juggernaut
The Virginia and North Carolina State women's teams couldn't match the drama of their meeting earlier this season, but the top-ranked Cavaliers didn't mind. Virginia, which had edged the Wolfpack 123-120 in triple overtime on the road in January, completed a sweep of N.C. State with a 95-78 win at home last Saturday.
Cavalier guard Dawn Staley, who had a triple double in the first game, repeated the feat with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists to help Virginia break the game open in the second half. The Cavaliers completed regular-season play with a 26-1 overall record and a 14-0 conference mark and have been out of the top spot in the rankings for only one week, after a 73-71 loss to Penn State on Jan. 3.
North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell goes so far as to call the Cavaliers "pretty close" to being a women's version of UNLV. "Virginia would have to have a really bad game to get beat now," says Hatchell. "They're blowing out everybody. They are as good a women's college team as I've ever seen."
How much difficulty Virginia has reaching the Final Four in New Orleans will depend largely on where the selection committee places teams. Most of the ones with a chance to upset the Cavaliers-Tennessee, Georgia, Auburn and Penn State—are in the East. So the Cavs could be the top seed in a very tough regional.
Still, the Cavaliers' record makes "How do you beat Virginia?" the overriding question of the tournament. "And they only lose [senior forward] Tonya Cardoza," says N.C. State coach Kay Yow. "We've got to go through this again next year."
The Big Party B-List
Last week was a weird one for several of the so-called bubble teams—most notably Cincinnati, Vanderbilt and Iowa. They all pulled off upsets that solidified their chances for NCAA tournament bids, then turned around and lost in upsets.
On Feb. 20, Cincinnati beat No. 11 Southern Mississippi for the second time this season, 86-72, and Vanderbilt upset No. 12 Kentucky 98-87. The biggest surprise, though, came the following night when Iowa knocked off fourth-ranked Indiana 80-79 in overtime in Bloomington.
Iowa appeared to have an invitation locked up after defeating the Hoosiers, but the Hawkeyes then lost 79-74 at home to Illinois to fall to 18-9. After their big wins, Vanderbilt and Cincinnati lost to Mississippi (74-58) and Tulane (70-59), respectively, on Saturday. At week's end, the Commodores were 16-10 and the Bearcats were 16-9. "I would think that by twice beating a team that's been in the Top 10 and after playing everybody else tough, it puts us in great shape [to make the tournament]," says Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins.
He's probably right. Some quick figuring shows that a lot of berths remain up in the air and that more borderline teams than ever could slide into the tournament. There just aren't that many good teams available. Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri, three teams that are almost automatic invitees, are out of the running because they're on probation. Louisville is out unless it wins the Metro Conference tournament. Notre Dame is just awful. And Oklahoma and Michigan have seen their chances of getting bids all but disappear.
The result is that the NCAA tournament selection committee will have to dig deeper to fill the 64-team field. The prospect of teams with sub-.500 conference records getting at-large bids isn't out of the question. Nor is the possibility that some leagues, like the Mid-Continent, which are used to getting one invitation, may now receive multiple bids.
That's not necessarily a bad thing; new faces would be welcome. Still, it's a shame that the champions of the six conferences ranked lowest by the NCAA this season—the Big South, Mid-Eastern Athletic, Northeast, Patriot, Southland and Southwestern Athletic conferences—will have to "play in" for three NCAA berths. There's never been a better season than this one to invite all the conference winners to the party.
A Light under a Bushel
Chances are, you've never seen Marshall's John Taft play. He hasn't been on TV at all this year, and you won't sec him in the NCAA tournament. Still, Taft has had his moments in the spotlight. One of them came last Saturday, when he scored a career-high 43 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in the Thundering Herd's 107-103 overtime upset of No. 13 East Tennessee State. Taft, a 6'2" senior guard, probably figured it was the least he could do, inasmuch as Marshall had retired his No. 22 before the game.
Taft, who at week's end was averaging 27.3 points a game, must mean it when he says he's not bothered by the small amount of attention he has received. Otherwise, when Marshall was placed on NCAA probation last summer, he would have taken the opportunity to transfer without having to sit out a season. "Clem-son and Wake Forest were possibilities, but I stayed because I wasn't sure all my credits would transfer, and I didn't want to lose progress toward my degree," says Taft, who is scheduled to graduate with a degree in sports management after the summer semester. "And I thought it might take more than a year to fit in with another team. Most other schools would already have their 'go to' player, and I wanted to be that kind of player here."
Taft has been that kind of player for three years. Some of his better games have come against the best competition that he has faced. He scored 29 points against Pitt on Dec. 6 and got 28 points against Indiana on Dec. 27, before lighting up East Tennessee State.
NBA scouts have been finding their way to Huntington, W.Va., to watch Taft, which has made his lack of acclaim easier to take. "I don't mind if not everybody knows about me," he says, "as long as the right people do."
A Never-ending Tale
At first glance, it seems that James Madison coach Lefty Driesell will have the last laugh. After being forced out as coach of Maryland in the wake of a scandal triggered by the cocaine-induced death of Len Bias in 1986, Driesell may get a chance to return to the NCAA tournament with the Dukes, who at week's end led the Colonial Athletic Association with a 12-2 record (they were 19-8 overall).
However, the situation isn't as rosy as it appears to be for Driesell, who is in his third year at James Madison. For one thing, there has been some criticism of his open-door policy on transfers. He has relied on guards Steve Hood (from Maryland) and Fess Irvin (LSU) and forward Chancellor Nichols (Mississippi State) to build a competitive team, and next season forward Michael Venson (Georgetown) will join the Dukes. What's more, last season Driesell was accused of trying to run off three players from former coach John Thurston's team, a charge Driesell denies. But only one of those players is actually playing. Another has been out all season with tendinitis in his knee, and the third remains in school on a basketball scholarship but is not playing. Then there is the sexual harassment case Driesell's former secretary at James Madison filed against him in March 1.990, a charge he also denies. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled against her complaint, but she is planning an appeal.
On top of all that, Driesell's players aren't talking to the local press—or even, at times, to one another. "Sometimes we play together, and sometimes we don't," says Hood. "Certain members of the team are closer than others, and those guys look out for each other on the court."
So Driesell finds himself with a talented team but in the middle of controversy. The more things change....
Surely the three major networks could have done better than to carry six Notre Dame games this season. With so many good teams—Southern Mississippi, East Tennessee State, New Mexico State, to name a few—getting no network exposure, it's a shame to see the Irish, who were 11-17 at week's end, monopolize so many TV dates.... Look for Minnesota coach Clem Haskins to receive at least a reprimand from the Big Ten for calling the referees "jackasses" and "a disgrace" following the Gophers' 63-62 loss to Ohio State last Saturday. Haskins was incensed about a technical he got for complaining about a call. What he didn't know was that the officials were about to reverse the call in Minnesota's favor.
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Victor Alexander of Iowa State, a 6'9" senior center, converted 22 of 33 shots from the field, scored 59 points and pulled down 25 rebounds in wins over Oklahoma (97-88) and Missouri (89-76).
Daedra Charles, Tennessee's 6'3" senior center, had 21 points and 12 rebounds as the fourth-ranked Lady Vols beat Texas 64-55. She added 22 points and 12 boards in a 93-46 victory over Memphis State.
Myron Brown, a 6'3" senior guard, got 46 points, including the winning basket, to lead Slippery Rock to a 115-113 triple-OT win over California of Pennsylvania. He scored 28 in an 85-72 win over Shippensburg.