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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Foe Not Worth a Plugged Nicholls

West Regional: Arizona's 99-60 victory is as close to a first-round bye as it gets.

March 13, 1998|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Give Nicholls State credit for showing up. The Colonels arrived with a starting five, coach, trainer and cheerleaders.

They even managed to stay in the game for three or four minutes.

The Colonels' trip out from Thibodeaux, La., for Thursday's first-round NCAA game may have been life enriching, but the outcome was never going to be in doubt.

As sure as the sun shines in Tucson, top-seeded Arizona crushed No. 16 Nicholls State, 99-60, in what amounted to a West Regional tuneup before a crowd at 15,298 at the Arco Arena.

It was the third-largest margin of victory in West Regional history.

The game played like an exhibition: The Harlem Globetrotters versus Washington Generals immediately came to mind.

"I thought they were horses and deer," Nicholls State guard Russell McCutcheon said of Arizona's athletic players. "I thought I was in the woods."

In stark contrast to last year's title run, in which Arizona narrowly survived first and second round games against South Alabama and College of Charleston, the Wildcats' road to a repeat is off to a running start.

Not only did Arizona (28-4) receive as close to a first-round bye as a team can get without not actually having to play, the Wildcats also will benefit from the misfortune of others.

Two weeks ago, a second-round matchup against Illinois State might have sounded intriguing.

But while the Redbirds advanced to the second round with their overtime victory against Tennessee on Thursday, Illinois State will likely have to attack the vaunted Arizona backcourt on Saturday with a pair of substitute guards.

Already playing without shooting guard Skipp Schaefbauer, out because of a broken leg, the Red Birds may be without point guard Jamar Smiley because of a back injury.

Smiley played only one minute of Thursday's game.

"To do what we did without him is amazing to me," Illinois State Coach Kevin Stallings said.

So, to do it again against Arizona would be, what. . . . impossible?

Smiley, whose average of 6.9 assists per game ranks 12th in the nation, is one of the nation's unheralded point guards.

Without Schaefbauer and Smiley, Illinois State gets to dig in against Arizona guards Miles Simon and Mike Bibby with backup guards Steve Hansell and Kyle Cartmill.

Good luck there.

After years for NCAA frustration--those exasperating opening-round losses to Santa Clara and Miami of Ohio in particular--Arizona Coach Lute Olson at last appears to be catching a few breaks.

Writers actually wondered whether Thursday's game was too easy for Arizona.

"No, I'm not disappointed, " Olson said. "We've had enough close games."

Thursday's wipeout allowed Olson to tinker with his substitution pattern. No Wildcat played more than 31 minutes, while eight players played 13 minutes or more.

There was no secret to the game plan. Arizona opened the game by pounding the ball inside, where center A.J. Bramlett and forward Bennett Davison had a distinct size advantage.

"The big guys had such a size advantage, we basically just needed to feed them the ball," Simon said.

Bramlett finished with 17 points, Davison with 12.

After the Colonels collapsed to protect the middle, Simon made consecutive three-point shots in the span of 16 seconds, then scored on runner in the lane soon after to extend the Arizona lead to 27-12 with 13:40 left in the half.

The rest of the game was showtime, a dizzying sequence of backdoor passes, slams and passes.

"There's no tape you can watch that gives them justice," Nicholls State Coach Rickey Broussard said. "When they're out on the floor in front of you, they're really good."

Simon led all scorers with 24 points, making nine of 14 shots and three of four three-point attempts. Bibby finished with 19, while Michael Dickerson had 16.

Forward Kenderick Franklin figured it might be a long night for Nicholls State (19-10). He had no idea how long.

"We all saw we were overmatched out there and there was nothing we could do about it."

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