Sunday, March 12, 2000

This March will be madder than most




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ATLANTA — As their deliberations draw to a close today in Indianapolis, the NCAA Basketball Selection Committee can be confident of two conclusions:

        1) There is Duke.

        2) Then there is doubt.

        A wacky weekend of undergraduate hoops winds up this afternoon, and things are cloudy when they ought to be crystalized. Cincinnati and Stanford — the most dominant teams of the season — are suddenly suspect. Eight ranked teams were beaten Friday, five of them by unranked opponents.

        The national title picture has never been more blurry. Kenyon Martin's broken leg has brought the Cincinnati Bearcats back to the pack, replacing the comfort of a consensus favorite with the chaos of a tournament totally up for grabs.

        “There is no clear-cut national champion,” Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson said. “I thought Cincinnati was close. But without Martin, that changes it.”

        “It seems very wide open to me,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “Particularly in light of Cincinnati's misfortune, it doesn't seem like there's a dominant team. A lot of years, it seems like there's a big difference between the No.1 and 2 (seeded) teams. It doesn't seem like there's much difference this year.”

        Stanford is probably a 1, but has been beaten twice by Arizona. Michigan State may be a 1 with a healthy Mateen Cleaves, but has lost seven times. Temple could rate a 1 with a healthy Pepe Sanchez, but is tainted by the atrophy of the Atlantic 10 Conference. Ohio State was in contention for a 1, but the Buckeyes broke down against Penn State. LSU fancied itself a 1, only to be ambushed Saturday by Arkansas.

Uncertainty is good
        Teams that should be peaking are stagnating. Teams that should have been sent home have survived. The hoops world has been turned upside down in recent days, so much so that players find themselves fantasizing about spending next weekend in Cleveland or Buffalo.

        Generally speaking, this is a good thing. Uncertainty builds interest, boosts television audiences, raises rights fees and puts coaches behind the wheel of fine automobiles. But it is a little bit disorienting. Office pools are tricky enough without worrying about which star players are liable to be suspended on short notice, and which of them might be missed.

        Auburn advanced to the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship Saturday despite the continued ineligibility of the estimable Chris Porter. Suspended for accepting money from an agent, Porter has forced his teammates to become more self-sufficient.

        “We know we still have some precious time left together,” said Auburn swingman Daymeon Fishback. “The heart of this team has been brought out.”

        There may be a message in this for Bob Huggins' Bearcats. While Kenyon Martin is clearly college basketball's Player of the Year, his absence does not eliminate UC from the Big Dance. UC still has more talent than most teams in America, and will likely open the NCAA Tournament no worse than a No.2 seed. Huggins' challenge is to redeploy his remaining resources and remind his players of their possibilities.

UC could win it all
        “We know what they're going through,” Auburn's Doc Robinson said of UC. “We had time to come together and adjust. I'm sure they will, too.”

        Ryan Fletcher will never be mistaken for Kenyon Martin, but he can fill space and he can make shots. Pete Mickeal can reassert himself. DerMarr Johnson could catch fire from 3-point range.

        This year's NCAA Tournament could be won by any of a dozen different teams, UC among them.

        “I'd be hard pressed to tell you who the best team is right now,” LSU coach John Brady said. “Maybe Duke. I do think it's wide-open. Even with the top 10, top 15 teams in the country, there's a lot of balance out there.”

        Duke figures to be the favorite, but everyone's odds are long.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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