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A Tall Order Awaits Giddy Northridge

Midwest Regional: First-time Matadors are upset-minded despite taking on a storied and bigger Kansas team.

March 16, 2001|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DAYTON, Ohio — Cal State Northridge will be a small fish in a big pond tonight when the Matadors play Kansas in a Midwest Regional opener of the NCAA tournament.

Will the Matadors sink or swim?

Never has unheralded Northridge (22-9), making its first tournament appearance, found itself in such a fishbowl. And how the No. 13 Matadors cope with bright lights and a media blitz could be an intangible in their first meeting against seasoned No. 4 Kansas.

Even guard Carl Holmes admits feeling jittery about playing the Jayhawks.

"A little bit," Holmes said. "We're excited. I walked out [on the court] and it was a circus out there. It's a great honor to play on this basketball team and be a part of history."

Northridge held its final practice Thursday at Dayton Arena in preparation for tonight's 4:30 p.m. PST tipoff. Despite a whirlwind season that has carried them into uncharted territory, the Matadors appear loose.

During a media session, Coach Bobby Braswell poked his head through a curtain and made faces at Brian Heinle while cameras were trained on the 6-foot-9 Northridge center.

"I told our guys to enjoy this," Braswell said. "Just to experience things. We're excited about being here, of course. But when the ball is tossed up in the air, you can be sure our guys are going to be ready."

The tournament already has produced upsets: No. 12 Utah State over No. 5 Ohio State, No. 11 Georgia State over No. 6 Wisconsin. Improbable outcomes become reality every year.

"There are always upsets in the tournament," guard Markus Carr of Northridge said. "Some teams come in ready to play, some teams come in not so ready to play. It's going to be a battle."

But Northridge over Kansas? A team with a 1,600-seat arena taking on a storied program making its 12th consecutive tournament appearance?

"Just watch the game," Braswell said.

Kansas (24-6), eliminated in the second round each of the last two seasons, can ill-afford to overlook Northridge. The Jayhawks hold a significant size advantage, but depth is a question mark.

Kansas has only seven scholarship players. The roster is depleted by the late-season departure of forward Luke Axtell, who quit the team because of a lingering back injury.

"They're a good team," Kansas center Eric Chenowith said. "I hope we're peaking at the right time."

Northridge counts depth among its strengths, with players moving on and off the court frequently. Guard John Burrell and forward Jeff Parris, starters early in the season, average 14.5 points and 13.9, respectively, off the bench.

Heinle, the Big Sky Conference's player of the year, averages 20.4 points and 9.4 rebounds.

"This time of year, college basketball is exciting," Heinle said. "I don't think it's anything that will affect us.'

Northridge is used to the underdog role. Kansas is favored by 13 points.

"We have shown a lot of character this whole year," Braswell said. "We love being the underdog."

If the Matadors can exploit Kansas' lack of depth, things could get interesting.

"I'd rather have some more depth this time of year," forward Kenny Gregory said. "But we've had some injuries and we just have to go at this point of the season."

Said Chenowith: 'I'm not worried about it. You play with five guys on the court. I think we'll be fine."

Kansas players knew next to nothing about Northridge a few weeks ago. Few teams did. The week has been a case of hurried preparation.

"We haven't had a chance to look at a lot of film," Kansas Coach Roy Williams said. "I don't know if I feel pressure. The feeling is more hunger than pressure.

"It's fantastic when you look at what they've done. I think Bobby knew they had a chance to go to the tournament. He's done a great job."

Northridge is toughened by a formidable schedule that includes five games against teams in the tournament field. It includes the 78-74 victory over UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, as well as respectable showings in losses to USC, Marquette and Georgia State.

Knocking off Kansas will be no easy task.

"They're a very, very good basketball team," Gregory of Kansas said. "We're excited to be playing them."

CAL STATE NORTHRIDGE vs. KANSAS

MIDWEST REGIONAL

Today, 4:30 PST, Ch. 2

at Dayton, Ohio

*

COVERAGE

Get to the Point

Point guards Markus Carr of Cal State Northridge and Kirk Hinrich of Kansas figure to have the biggest impact on today's game. W7

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