BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The NCAA tournament, the one played here at the Southeast Regional anyway, has returned to form, placing old hands North Carolina and Villanova in today's final. No more Cinderella teams, no more Rockys. Just the same old teams, back again.
For Villanova, which beat Maryland Friday, 46-43, this is the third such regional final in four years. The first two times, in 1982 and 1983, the Wildcats had the misfortune to be matched against the tournament's eventual finalists. In 1982, they lost the regional championship to North Carolina, which went on to win the whole thing. In 1983, they were stopped by Houston, which went to the NCAA championship before losing to North Carolina State.
North Carolina (27-8) has gotten as far four times in the last five years. The Tar Heels, who hung on to beat Auburn Friday, 62-56, are normally locks once they get to the regional championship. Coach Dean Smith's teams are 7-3 at this level.
This tradition aside, there is some surprise in finding North Carolina so far along. Villanova might have figured, since its three stars--E-Z Ed Pinckney, Dwayne McClain and Gary McLain--have been nursing this dream for four years now. But North Carolina's players are so young and inexperienced that, early in the season, Smith was unfolding a two-year plan. The Tar Heels, with the loss of Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins, were picked to finish no higher than fourth in their own Atlantic Coast Conference.
The attraction of tournament play may be that such a team can come this far when last year's Tar Heels, possibly the best to ever wear the powder blue, got wasted by Indiana in a regional semifinal. "That's the beauty of the tournament," says Smith, who may have forgotten by now what a beast it can be, too.
The Tar Heels, young or not, are big. Their front line of Dave Popson, Brad Daugherty and Joe Wolf looms like the Manhattan Skyline. Popson and Wolf are the little guys at 6-10. This figures to give Villanova a problem as only Pinckney, at 6-9 1/2, can contest much inside. But Villanova (22-10) is used to playing with the big boys in the East Coast Conference and asks no sympathy.
"It's too late to recruit anybody," says Villanova Coach Rollie Massimino, shrugging the problem aside. "Our three people been up against that all year."
Yet Pinckney, who watched North Carolina play Auburn, was somewhat awed. "They just look like trees out there."
Still, this year's Cinderella team by proclamation, Auburn, nearly cut the Tar Heels down to size, packing the inside like a crowded elevator, with the only movement up and down. Which brings us to North Carolina's other strength: It can shoot.
The Tar Heels were the second-best shooting team in the NCAA this season, and they showed why Friday when 6-3 guard Kenny Smith began lobbing some up from outside. Smith, who's not afraid to score on breakaway dunks either, made 9 of 12 shots for a game-high 22 points against Auburn to keep things honest. "He's the person we really have to contain," Massimino says.
North Carolina will likely be giving Pinckney a good workover as he is the team's only real shooter. He's a do-it-all kind of player (16 points, nine rebounds a game) which is good because not all of his teammates are so versatile. So you just collapse on Pinckney, right?
Well, sure, but, says Dean Smith, "They sure do a good job of getting the ball to him, anyway. I saw he got the most free throws in the conference. He's quick along with big."
So these two old hands go at it, with the older hand, North Carolina, a slight favorite. Massimino, meanwhile, is hoping all those also-rans will have given his team the experience it needs to go further. "Hopefully," he says, "the third time gets us where we want to go."