If Bob Knight is screaming at Damon Bailey and the NCAA is snooping around in Nevada, then the Final Four must be just around the corner. Well, it is and it isn't. The season has barely started and already we're hearing denouements: Coach K's got his Dukes up.... It's Arizona, wimps no more.... It's Alabama, Wimp's got more....
Time out. The NCAA championship won't be decided until April 6. That leaves enough time for Mike Tyson to appear in a rape trial and in another championship fight (maybe), and for Liz Taylor to be married three times. That even leaves enough time for Mario Cuomo. What's the rush? As the game's grandest event has grown to a level of interest somewhere beyond the Super Bowl but still shy of the Thomas-Hill hearings, college basketball seems in serious danger of falling into the same trap that dry-rotted most of professional sport long ago: allowing the regular season to drift into insignificance.
That's not about to happen. What with the evil colossus of UNLV fading from view and a pastiche of familiar candidates jostling to take over, the 1991-92 college basketball season should be more meaningful than ever. Why, on Dec. 21, the 100th anniversary of the game, Indiana plays St. John's at Madison Square Garden and Arizona visits Arkansas. Who's to say that's not a Final Four preview right there? Although the NCAA tournament remains the ultimate collegiate test of character—wherein the national champ is determined on the actual playing surface rather than by faxed vote—let's not lose sight of what every team in the nation endures in the four months leading up to the main event.
Everyone acknowledges the Final Four's ability to live up to its pretournament hype and vinegar—of the 12 championship games since 1979, only four were decided by more than five points. But examples from the last three decades reveal that a rematch at the Final Four can be a superfluous letdown following a gloriously enervating regular-season game.
•1968: Houston upsets UCLA 71-69 in January, but then the Bruins prevail in the national semifinals by 32 points.
•1976: Unbeaten Indiana defeats Michigan 72-67 in overtime in February and then wins the NCAA final over the same team by 18.
•1985: St. John's shocks Georgetown 66-65 in a Big East spectacle in January, but then the Hoyas get revenge in an NCAA semifinal when they win by 18.
But what about the Michigan State-Indiana State championship showdown in 1979? That was unmatched excitement, right? Wrong. It was a lousy game; the Spartans won 75-64. But on Feb. 1 of that year, Magic Johnson rescued Michigan State against favored Ohio State with 13 points in the last nine minutes, including OT, as the Spartans began their march to that fateful championship meeting with undefeated Indiana State—which on that same night against New Mexico State got 37 points from Larry Bird, tied the Aggies with a 50-footer at the buzzer and then beat them in OT. That's what the regular season is all about.
Listen to my alltime hero, coach Rick Majerus of Utah: "If all we were judged by was making the NCAA tournament, we would be no better than the pros who play 82 games to eliminate eight or nine teams. Thanksgiving through March 1 is the trench stuff. The one factor that doesn't enter into the college game is complacency."
Especially not in the regular season. Bobby Cremins revitalized the Georgia Tech program from 1981 through '85 when the Jackets increased their victory total, season by season, from 10 to 27. California turned its program around with one game, beating UCLA on Jan. 25, 1986, to end a 52-game losing streak to the Bruins.
Traditional rivalries during the regular season are the stuff of indelible memory: After a bitter New Mexico-New Mexico State contest in 1971, 1 asked the Lobos' Willie Long why he had coldcocked an opponent. "When a man's gotta be hit, I gotta hit him," said Long. In the mid-to late '80s, the Big Eight triumvirate of Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas always seemed to be playing for the No. 1 ranking. Then there was Ohio State's 97-95 double-overtime thriller over Indiana last February. Was that the game of the year, or of the decade?
Intersectional matchups also have upstaged the NCAA tournament—such as underdog Maryland losing at UCLA 65-64 in the Terps' 1973-74 season opener. "It ain't got a W after it, but I sure am proud," said Maryland coach Lefty Driesell. Then there was 15-0 Vegas losing at Oklahoma 89-88 in '87 after a Rebel trey at the end of the first half was ruled a deuce, even after the refs viewed a replay of the shot.
For noise no NCAA final ever matched the game at North Carolina in 1974 in which Walter Davis led the Tar Heels from eight points down with 17 seconds left in regulation to beat Duke in overtime, unless it was the night in '83 when Michael Jordan brought Carolina from 16 points behind with 8:43 left to defeat Ralph Sampson and Virginia.
So hold the clock on the Final Four. We've got all this: Georgetown vs. St. John's...vs. Duke...vs. LSU...vs. Arkansas...vs. Arizona...vs. UCLA...vs. Notre Dame...vs. West Virginia...vs. Temple...vs. Wake Forest...vs. Tulane...vs. Louisville...vs. Kansas...vs. Missouri...vs. Memphis State...vs. Minnesota...vs. Illinois...vs. Indiana...vs. Kentucky...whew!... before the tournament tips off.
Plenty of grape before the wine.