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HERE'S TO BOEHEIM; HE'S ONE OF US.

Byline: Michael Ventre

Jim Boeheim is my hero. For this weekend, that is. After this, he's on his own.

The reason? I have few options. There was Richard Williams of Mississippi State, who has the thinnest skin of any creature that doesn't shed it. Williams could take umbrage with Santa Claus. He gets miffed when someone says, ``Any questions for coach Williams?'' I can't say I'm sad he's taking that long bus ride back to the Deep South in a deep depression.

There was John Calipari. I think Calipari is a good guy. But his team Saturday night looked like it was coached by New Jersey governor Christie Whitman. The players were so nervous in the first half, they made Sean Penn's character in ``Dead Man Walking'' look like he was going to the prom. Missed opportunities were as prevalent as tickets in the Meadowlands were scarce.

And everything about Rick Pitino is just a little too stylish. His suits look as if they were made by Giorgio Armani - in the locker room during warmups. His players' uniforms look like hand-me-downs from Ralph Lauren. The entire Kentucky University basketball program is so steeped in tradition, so proud of its heritage, so aglow in sporting splendor that you just want to barf.

That's why I'm rooting for Boeheim. He's none of that.

Boeheim is the guy who comes over to fix your plumbing and asks if you have any tools he can borrow. He is the manager of the office-supply store who can't get his assistant in the stockroom to answer his page. He is the motorist who is too busy allowing someone to change lanes in front of him to notice that he missed his exit.

Boeheim is, in short, your basic guy.

After his Orangemen squished Mississippi State 77-69 Saturday, Boeheim explained his team's success thusly: ``We just rode a streak. That happens in the tournament.''

Those are not the dynamic fighting words of a fire-breathing mentor, a la Bob Knight or Gene Keady. This is aw-shucks territory. Boeheim's team played splendidly. It deserves a rip-snorting declaration of superiority. Instead, Boeheim said of his players' imperfections Saturday: ``They had to give me something to whine about.''

C'mon, Jimmy. Monday's the big night. Grit your teeth and snarl. If not, Pitino and his fashionable following will send you back to the nearest all-night greasy spoon and the underwaxed lane at the bowl-o-rama.

The Kentucky Wildcats are a fabulous team, don't get me wrong. They deserve all their success. I'm sure they've worked hard, although its impossible to tell by looking at them, since their uniforms are dry-cleaned during each timeout.

On Saturday, Pitino's crew showed what all the fuss was about. The UMass players handled the defensive pressure against them with all the composure of recent earthquake victims. I bet if they walk past a sign that says ``Press Room'' they'll probably drop whatever they're carrying.

It's a shame, because Calipari built the UMass program up from nothing, while the toughest task Pitino had was deciding if he wanted a full-figure statue or just his bust placed outside Rupp Arena.

Boeheim has been at Syracuse for what seems like eons. For years, I thought the Carrier Dome was a reference to his own head and an infectious scalp disease. He is an institution there, which suggests that pet rocks and lava lamps are probably big sellers in Syracuse still.

But I want him to win Monday night. I think he would strike a blow for every mope, nudge and schlub who ever laced on a pair of sneakers, only to discover that one end was way, way longer than the other.

He is the anti-Pitino.

What his Orangemen need to do is make only five turnovers against Kentucky, like they did against defensive-minded Mississippi State. I seem to recall that UMass made five turnovers Saturday on one inbounds play.

Yes, Kentucky has wonderful athletes and they double-team and rotate with precision. I would suggest pointing to their denim uniforms and yelling ``Wrinkle!'' as a possible strategy. Boeheim needs to remind his players that this Kentucky team was beaten at the end of the season by Mississippi State, which was beaten Saturday by Syracuse, which is in New York, which is part of this great land of ours. Something inspiring like that.

Meanwhile, Jim Boeheim has to remind himself that he isn't just a guy who eats McDonalds for breakfast, cuts his own lawn, knows all the folks at the hardware store by name and thinks ``Roseanne'' is the best damn show on television.

He is also one game away from a national championship. I really hope he doesn't screw it up.

MEMO: Michael Ventre's column appears in the Daily News four days a week.
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 31, 1996
Words:794
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