Tuesday, December 3, 1996
Great Eight: Progress report for powers

The Cincinnati Enquirer

CHICAGO - Georgetown's John Thompson is interested in his players' threshold of pain. Wake Forest's Dave Odom is looking for ammunition to battle the boredom he sees in practice. Purdue's Gene Keady seeks a learning experience and a listening incentive for his seven freshmen. Kansas' Roy Williams wants to know if his Jayhawks are worthy of their No. 1 ranking.

Like all December basketball, this week's Great Eight extravaganza is more about entertainment than enlightenment. Still, it should carry some clues for future reference. Four of the nation's top six college teams will be competing tonight and Wednesday on Michael Jordan's home court. They have not all gathered here just to gape at MJ's locker.

They are after some answers. Specifically, they want an early read on how good they are. Much as they might prefer to schedule more pliable opponents, coaches appreciate the chance to measure their teams while there is still time to mold them.

''You really don't know until you get involved in competition how people are going to react,'' Thompson said Monday. ''I think it's important, particularly early in the year, to see a threshold of pain.''

Used to be, these sneak previews were as rare as rubies. During my undergraduate days, the UCLA of Bill Walton met the North Carolina State of David Thompson in a midseason showdown in St. Louis, and I gladly paid a premium price for an obstructed view. Now, there is a clash of intersectional titans nearly every night.

College basketball's burgeoning popularity, television's insatiable thirst for programming, and coaches' craving for national exposure have combined to compel top teams to meet each other more often before March.

''It eliminates Cupcake City,'' said Dick Vitale, the ESPN analyst and shill. ''We all win to see these kind of matchups early.''

Spectators clearly benefit from these contests. Whether the same can be said for the contestants is debatable. Kentucky arrives at the Great Eight fresh (stale?) from the Great Alaska Shootout. Kansas is one game removed from the Maui Invitational. Travel is an education in itself, but the primary field of study for most big-time college basketball players is jet lag.

''You go everywhere, you see nothing,'' said James ''Bruiser'' Flint, the new coach at Massachusetts. ''You get in there for just enough time to practice.''

Coaches do not schedule these games for cultural enrichment. They see television as their best recruiting tool, and they like games that are exempt from the NCAA's regular-season limit. (Great Eight games are generally exempt from that count, as are contests outside the continental United States).

''I started about five years ago trying to schedule (exempt) games in November and December,'' said Keady, whose Boilermakers meet Kentucky tonight. ''It may be bad for us, though, 'cause we're pretty young. Watching Kentucky on television for three nights, I think they're playing the best in the country.''

If their teams are not yet finished products, Great Eight coaches are already in postseason form in terms of gamesmanship. While Keady expressed awe at Kentucky, University of Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins says he has long considered Kansas the best team in the country. Kansas' Williams called the Bearcats, ''As good as you can be in college basketball these days ... If we don't turn it over 75 times against them it will be a miracle.''

Right. And Rick Pitino's winter wardrobe will feature Nehru jackets and tie-dyed trousers.

Coaches are conditioned to understate their talent and exaggerate their flaws. The beauty of competitions like the Great Eight is that some truth is sure to emerge.

''I haven't seen a lot of basketball,'' said Dave Odom, of Wake Forest. ''But I'm amazed that the teams are as far along as they are. I think the teams are fairly developed right now, and I think it's going to be an exciting year for college basketball.''

Huggins, for his part, was a little less bubbly.

''I wish I had a team as good as Dave's,'' he said. ''Then I could watch everybody else play and not worry so much about us.''

Published Dec. 3, 1996