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COLLEGE BASKETBALL : Odds Are Against Repeat by Arkansas

November 16, 1994|DON MARKUS | THE BALTIMORE SUN

The "D" word was heard last season, before Rasheed Wallace and the rest of North Carolina's freshman class didn't show the proper respect for the seniors, causing the Tar Heels to flunk chemistry and get bounced by Boston College in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

"Dynasty" was heard four years ago, before the Nevada Las Vegas went from blowing out Duke by 30 in the 1990 championship game to getting shocked by the Blue Devils in the 1991 semifinals. The Runnin' Rebels haven't been heard from since.

It was heard 10 years ago, before a couple of guys named Harold and the rest of the Villanova Wildcats shot the lights out against Georgetown and Patrick Ewing in the 1985 final. The Hoyas were never the same again.

This time, in Arkansas, there are no blue-chip freshmen waiting to take jobs away from established seniors. There is no scandal lurking around some Fayetteville street cor ner. There is a team oozing with confidence, a coach hoping to take his place in history.

Nineteen years after UCLA ended its run of 10 championships in 12 years, the Razorbacks are being mentioned as successors to a throne that has been mostly empty, filled by the same team only once in back-to-back seasons (Duke in 1991 and '92). "It doesn't scare us," said junior forward Scotty Thurman. "We want to be known as one of the best teams ever."

The Razorbacks are the consensus No. 1 team headed into the 1994-95 season, which begins Wednesday night with the Preseason National Invitation Tournament and ends April 3 at the Kingdome in Seattle. They are the first championship team since UCLA won the title in 1967 to return all five starters.

Led by All-Americans Corliss Williamson and Thurman, whose three-point shot in the waning seconds helped lift Arkansas past Duke in last year's final, the Razorbacks are as big a favorite to repeat as any team in the past decade.

"There's luck involved with winning a championship," said Arkansas Coach Nolan Richardson. "But the luck comes from chemistry, and we know each other. If we can improve 10 percent over last year, we'll be pretty good."

But getting a championship team to improve can be problematic. Ask Dean Smith, whose seniors last season weren't as good as they had been as juniors or maybe as good as freshmen Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse. There was tension that came to a boil at the worst time -- during the NCAA tournament.

Though Smith said recently, "Chemistry didn't have anything to do with it; if we don't miss a couple of shots against BC, nobody would bring that up," he also said getting a team mentally prepared to defend its national title is one of the toughest things a coach has to do.

"You talk as if I had a lot of practice," said Smith, whose only other NCAA championship before 1993 came in 1982. "But it's harder because everyone thinks they're capable of doing more. Obviously, Arkansas has everyone back. It's going to be hard to maintain that chemistry, but it can be done."

But why hasn't it been done more often?

Certainly, parity has played a part. In the years when UCLA dominated, the Bruins had the pick of any blue-chip player in the country. But the spotlight provided by television and the emergence of new, made-for-TV leagues such as the Big East spread the wealth of talent.

Injuries have been a factor as well. Smith says his Tar Heels teams might have won at least two more titles had it not been for a string of injuries that caused key players to miss the NCAA tournament. Indiana likely would have won back-to-back titles had Scott May not been hurt in the 1975 tournament.

"You have to stay healthy, and you have to be a little lucky," said Louisville Coach Denny Crum, whose Cardinals won national championships in 1980 and 1986.

Teams defending their titles don't often return intact. Crum recalls losing only one player off his 1980 team, but that player was star guard Darrell Griffith.

"It's not like football, when you're replacing 1/22nd of your team," said Crum. "You're replacing 20 percent of your starting team. And then when you take a player as dominating as Darrell was in college, it makes a big difference."

After Duke won its first national championship in 1991 on the school's ninth trip to the Final Four, the Blue Devils had to replace two regulars: Billy McCaffrey, who transferred to Vanderbilt, and Greg Koubek, who graduated.

Though the heart of the team returned -- Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill -- Coach Mike Krzyzewski spent the entire 1991-92 season defending the notion that the Blue Devils weren't defending anything. "It's a different team that's trying to win a national championship," he said over and over.

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