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Wooden Goes, and the West Is History

February 24, 1986|MIKE DOWNEY

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — If you live in California and you love college basketball, you have to go east to catch a decent game. Not east as in Riverside or San Bernardino. East as in Memphis or Syracuse or Raleigh.

Some people fantasize about vacations in the Far East. Not me. I fantasize about vacations in the Big East.

California has sun, fun, sand, water, mountains, oranges, right turns on red lights and Cybill Shepherd. (Is this a great state or what?) But it doesn't have college hoops worth a hoot.

This, from the state that once gave you UCLA.

It used to be so exasperating for Easterners and Midwesterners. UCLA had all those sunshine supermen like Lew/Kareem, Bill, Sidney, Curtis, Keith/Jamaal, Marques and the others who beat you all the time. Taking a team to Pauley Pavilion was like taking a head of lettuce to a Veg-o-Matic.

Later came recruiting time. All the best high school players from the Bronx or Washington or the South Side of Chicago would take one visit out West, see the ocean, get fixed up with somebody who placed in the top five at the Miss Zaftig pageant, then sign on the dotted line. St. John's, Georgetown and DePaul had to make do with kids from da neighborhood.

Now, the top high school prospects from California are signing with universities in Carolina and New York. Any day now, we'll hear about a Beverly Hills kid signing with Cleveland State.

This all started shortly after John Wooden retired in 1975. And for the last few winters, UCLA and the other Left Coast schools have not been so scary. East is East and West is West, but suddenly the twain met and headed the other way.

The ascent and attendant publicity of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball had something to do with it. So did the down-home recruiting by coaches such as Looie Carnesecca, John Thompson and Rollie Massimino in the Big East. And drill sergeants such as Bob Knight maintained performance and discipline in the Big Ten.

Whatever and whenever it was, it became obvious a while ago that the sand had shifted. Michigan State, Louisville, Indiana, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Georgetown and Villanova ran off NCAA titles. The farthest west of these campuses is Bloomington, Ind., home of the Flying Chairs.

This year's weekly polls are dominated by teams such as North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, Memphis State, Georgia Tech, Michigan, Kentucky and Syracuse. Last week's Associated Press Top 20 did not include a single team from a state that borders the Pacific. Nevada Las Vegas was in it, but there wasn't another ranked team west of the Rockies. Pac-10 Conference schools continue to turn out winning records and quality players, but if any of them have the talent to take the national championship this season, they are masters of disguise. Maybe UCLA should stick to football and soccer.

The most interesting college basketball game played all winter in Southern California was between Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount. I hate to break this to the student bodies of these fine schools, but the interest in this game nationally did not exactly have people waiting up until 2 a.m. to call SportsPhone. If CBS had televised it, Bill Cosby would not have been threatened in the Nielsen ratings. "Hee Haw," maybe, but not Cosby.

Maybe there will be a surprise come tournament time. Maybe Pepperdine will make the Final Four in Dallas. Maybe the Monsters of Malibu are for real.

Or maybe one of those hundreds of Cal States will make the tournament. One or two always seems to get invited. Cal State Anaheim or Cal State Azusa or Cal State Cucamonga--one of those. Somebody to upset Notre Dame in the first round.

You can never tell what is going to happen in college basketball. Very few people picked North Carolina State over Houston in 1983 or Villanova over Georgetown in 1985. Very few people thought Penn would make the Final Four in 1979 or Georgia in 1983.

I can't guarantee anything that is going to happen in this year's NCAA tournament--except that Michigan won't win it.

Thursday night, I saw Michigan in person. Just happened to be in the neighborhood. The Wolverines had only three losses and had won 24 games in a row at home. But they lost by 15 points to Michigan State.

Guard Antoine Joubert of the Wolverines guaranteed before the game that his team would win. Joubert is a smart, nice young man who "guaranteed" the victory just for fun, as part of the pre-game needling that exists between good teams, and promptly had his freedom of speech taken away by Coach Bill Frieder, who, like Bo Schembechler, is a great believer in letting college-aged men say things, as long as they say the things he wants them to say.

Michigan players are no longer permitted to publicly speak. So, I'll have to do it for them.

Coach, we're big, but we're slow. If our opponents fast break, we look like our tennis shoes are filled with cement. And by the way, our tennis shoes are yellow and blue and really ugly.

I do guarantee, though, that the national champion will not be from the Far West. I like Duke, for the moment, and this Michigan State team isn't bad. Good guards. Even Navy has a nationally ranked team.

Well, Navy always did have good recruiters.

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