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What To Look For

March 18, 1997|CHRIS DUFRESNE

How they got here: North Carolina spotted No. 16 Fairfield a seven-point halftime lead and then was nearly perfect after intermission in an eight-point win. The Tar Heels then won their 14th in a row in dusting off No. 9 Colorado for Dean Smith, who won game No. 877 to pass Kentucky's Adolph Rupp on the all-time list. No. 5 California is a mini-NCAA miracle, having beaten Princeton and Villanova without injured star Ed Gray. The Bears are 4-1 since Gray broke his foot.

No. 6 Louisville appeared a mess when the tournament began, having gone 5-6 from Feb. 1 through the end of the Conference USA tournament. Yet Denny Crum somehow found a way to get his team to another Sweet 16. The Cardinals defeated Massachusetts, then narrowly escaped with a one-point victory over New Mexico. Some thought No. 10 Texas didn't belong in the tournament with a 16-11 record and having lost four of its last six, but the Longhorns responded with a first-round victory over Wisconsin and an 82-81 squeaker over feisty Coppin State.

* Difference maker: North Carolina's Ed Cota, freshman guard. Cota still doesn't start, but with his clutch shooting and interior bounce passes, he is perhaps the biggest reason the Tar Heels have turned an 0-3 ACC start into a 14-game winning streak.

* Four questions: How will North Carolina respond if it has to play without versatile guard Vince Carter, who missed the second half of the Colorado game because of an injured groin?

Can California continue to get amazing play from forward Tony Gonzalez, who scored a season-high 23 points in the victory over Villanova?

Can Louisville survive another round with its pipsqueak lineup and no bench?

Will Texas' streaky Reggie Freeman shoot his team in or out of the NCAA tournament?

* Looking forward to: North Carolina-Louisville would be a marquee matchup, what with those programs having won four national titles since 1980.

* Glimpse at the coaches: North Carolina's Smith is the one who might actually be able to coach, now that he doesn't have to answer questions about Rupp anymore. Cal's Ben Braun will lose national coach-of-the-year honors to Minnesota's Clem Haskins, but has done more with less. Louisville's Crum is working another masterpiece with a team that truly looked mediocre a month ago. Texas' Tom Penders never played a tough team he didn't lose to.

* How it shakes out: North Carolina and Louisville. California will give the Tar Heels everything it has, but heart and guile won't be enough. The Cardinals will beat Texas, with DeJuan Wheat outscoring Freeman, 35-34, and hitting the game-winning shot.

* Final prediction: North Carolina beats Louisville when Smith orders his team to protect a five-point lead by going into the four-corners offense.

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