Thursday, March 12, 1997
Where's Northern Arizona? In UC's way

The Cincinnati Enquirer

BOISE, Idaho - Until Sunday night, D'Juan Baker did not know Northern Arizona University existed. As of Wednesday afternoon, he was still not sure he could find it on a map.

The University of Cincinnati guard had heard of Arizona and Arizona State, and ''knew there were other schools in the state.'' But his scouting reports skimped on geography.

Asked if he knew where Northern Arizona was located, Baker cringed.

''I guess Northern Arizona,'' he said, sheepishly.

For future reference, the correct answer is Flagstaff.

Among the annual challenges of the NCAA Tournament is to show respect for an upcoming opponent without revealing your ignorance. Coaches often refer to opposing players by their numbers because they are hard-pressed to remember their names. Players speak in broad generalities because they have nothing specific to say. Sportswriters who can type Krzyzewski from memory find themselves checking the correct spelling of ''Smith.''

One of the difficulties of being a prominent team at the Big Dance is that you have to deal with some wallflowers. You can't ignore them. You can't make fun of them. And there's always the chance Cinderella might step on your toes.

3 No. 2s have fallen

Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, no 16th seed has survived a first-round matchup with a No. 1 seed. Yet three No. 15 seeds have defeated No. 2s: Richmond over Syracuse in 1991; Santa Clara over Arizona in 1993; and Coppin State over South Carolina last year.

Northern Arizona versus Cincinnati would not figure to be the fourth. The Bearcats are too muscular, too athletic, too tenacious and are playing too well to be susceptible to an upset by the little-known Lumberjacks. They should not be so smug as to overlook Northern Arizona, but they are obviously looking at a bigger picture.

''I feel our destiny is to win the national championship,'' Baker said. ''I don't want everybody to say, 'He might eat his words,' but what's in my heart is in my heart. You only get one chance to be a college basketball player. I don't know what I'm going to be in the next life.''

As a senior, Baker must win now or await reincarnation. He is playing for a legacy. The Lumberjacks are playing, at least in part, for laughs.

To simulate Cincinnati, Northern Arizona coach Ben Howland said, his team might have to set up a scrimmage with the Phoenix Suns. ''That's not feasible,'' he said. ''Or legal.''

Life's tough for No. 15

Now in its 99th year of higher (altitude) education, Northern Arizona is making its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament. As the lowest seed in the Boise sub-regional, the Lumberjacks get the hardest draw and the dreariest hotel. They have a lovely view of the airport terminal, and an excellent chance to be back in Flagstaff for dinner if they can shower quickly after today's game.

Still, the Lumberjacks are thrilled just to be part of these proceedings. If their expectations are more modest than those of the Bearcats, their enjoyment is unsurpassed. Last year, in an on-campus home game against McNeese State, the Lumberjacks played before 505 people. Today, they're on national television. ''A lot of people aren't giving us a chance,'' said Andrew Mavis, the Northern Arizona's leading scorer. ''And we're not getting a lot of publicity. Maybe we can sneak up on them. We have to come in not scared of them . . . We have to believe we can beat them, not just stay (close) for the first half.''

The Lumberjacks' best shot - probably their only shot - is perimeter shooting. They lead the nation in three-point accuracy, which can be a great equalizer if you can secure open shots. Their problem is that the Bearcats' defense barely allows one to breathe, and that it has grown progressively suffocating as the tournament grew near. Seedings notwithstanding, there isn't likely to be much letup this afternoon.

''We're not going to take them for granted,'' UC's Ruben Patterson said of Northern Arizona. ''We've got to go in there like we're playing the No. 1 team in the country.''

The Bearcats need not know much about Northern Arizona to recognize a team that's in their way.