Thursday, March 20, 2003

Vermont out of the snow, into the fire

Catamounts finally escape storm, but Arrizona awaits

By Bob Baum
The Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY - Getting to the NCAA tournament was an unprecedented triumph for Vermont. Getting to Salt Lake City was almost as tough.

The Catamounts, headed for the West Region and the school's first NCAA appearance in 103 years of playing basketball, could have used a little help from the their ski team, a perennial national power. Vermont's players and coaches were stranded overnight in snowbound Denver and still hadn't made it to Salt Lake City by Wednesday night. The team bused to Colorado Springs, Colo., then took a charter flight to Utah. The flight was late in arriving to Colorado Springs, so the team didn't land in Salt Lake City until 11 p.m. MST.

"It's been all right. Our guys are just thrilled to death to be playing in this tournament," said assistant athletics director Jeff Schulman, who was traveling with the team. "A few extra hours en route isn't going to bother anybody on this basketball team."

Waiting for the Catamounts was Arizona, seeded No. 1 in the West. The game should start at 1 or 1:30 Thursday afternoon, giving Vermont just enough time to catch a few hours' sleep, eat and get to the arena.

"The great news is we're going to get there," coach Tom Brennan said by cell phone from a Colorado Springs steakhouse earlier Wednesday night. "The bad news is Arizona's already there."

The Wildcats were the top-ranked team in the country for 13 weeks, and they know that anything short of a national championship will be considered a failure.

"We've been ranked No. 1 most of the year, but our main goal all year has been to win a national title," Arizona's Luke Walton said. "I think we're coming out to prove to ourselves and our coaches that we are the best team in the country."

The Wildcats (25-3) play 16th-seeded Vermont (21-11) in the second game at the University of Utah's Jon M. Huntsman Center on Thursday. Eighth-seeded Cincinnati (17-11) faces No. 9 Gonzaga (23-8) in the opener.

Vermont had intended to arrive in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, but a massive snowstorm closed the airport in Denver, forcing the team to spend the night there. Brennan said the team expected to arrive in Salt Lake about 10 p.m. MST, but that was pushed back when the charter was late getting to Colorado Springs.

"I really do feel bad for the kids that they're missing the fanfare," Brennan said. "But we're a resilient group. We're not whiners. No matter how many mountains we have to cross to get there, we'll get there."

The Catamounts practiced at Colorado College in Colorado Springs before making their flight.

Arizona fell to No. 2 in the rankings behind Kentucky after an overtime loss to UCLA last Thursday in the opening game of the Pac-10 tournament. Coach Lute Olson showed no disappointment over the early exit from a tournament he feels is a waste of time.

He gave the players two days off for only the third time this season, and the layoff was beneficial to Walton and Salim Stoudamire, who have been bothered by nagging ankle and tendinitis problems.

"I thought our Sunday-night practice was really a good practice, because Stoudamire's tendinitis had been really flaring up, and obviously with Luke, the more rest we can get him the better," Olson said. "To get two days in a row to just sort of let the aches and pains go is valuable."

Vermont, which edged Boston University for the America East Conference tournament championship, features a lineup with no one shorter than 6-foot-4. Taylor Coppenrath, the conference player of the year, averages 20.2 points per game. The Catamounts will have a hard time, though, keeping up with the likes of Stoudamire, Jason Gardner, Hassan Adams, Andre Iguodala and Chris Rodgers.

"We're quicker," Olson said, "and we need to take advantage of that quickness."

Gardner was 2-for-20 in the loss to UCLA and 0-for-12 from 3-point range - his ugliest offensive performance in four seasons as Arizona's starting point guard. It was, he is certain, a one-game problem.

"I'm fine with it. I'm positive. I'm confident," Gardner said. "The team kept my spirits up; the team still wants me to shoot the ball."

Extra reports on UC, Xavier and Kentucky and complete tournament coverage

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XU can make its point twice

No.1 Kentucky suffocates opponents
Sun shines brightest on Wildcats basketball
Review of Kentucky's title seasons
Sweet redemption for Kentucky's Smith

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All 63 women's games on TV

NCAA games on Channel 12
Vermont out of the snowstorm, into the fire
Duke in unusual territory
Howard grows into leader Wake Forest needed
Texas on guard against upset
No. 2 seed Kansas feels slighted
Notebook: ESPN, CBS reach deal on tourney
Ohio St. loses in NIT
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