Give or take a quick hand, A slow foot and the occasional son of a basketball legend—no, not you, Bob Ferry—there's little that differentiates three of the four teams that will meet in Kansas City this weekend to decide the golden anniversary NCAA championship. Arizona, Duke and mystery guest Kansas, which was rescued from oblivion by Rick Barry's kid, Scooter, are careful in execution. All three fell behind at half-time in their regional final games, and all buckled down defensively to hold their opponents to fewer than 60 points. All gained sustenance from a star who is also a leader: Sean Elliott of Arizona, Danny Ferry of Duke and Danny Manning of Kansas. And they've even engaged in some preliminary skirmishing: The Blue Devils beat the Jayhawks and lost to the Wildcats during the regular season.
O.K., does that make them boring, look-alike ciphers? Hardly. Thank goodness, though, for the genuine O.K.—Oklahoma, the loose cannon in the quartet, or as the Miami Sound Machine tune tells it: "Bad bad, bad bad boys...you make me feel so good."
The Sooners have averaged 104 points this season, scoring a high of 152 against Centenary. They've attempted 763 three-pointers. They've been accused of fouling deliberately so they could pour it on some more. They've yapped, preened, danced on graves and caused ill will. They have one twin, one guy with a rattail haircut and nicknames like Amazing, T Love and Bunk. They have given names like Harvey, Stacey and Mookie. What is this, The Muppets of Eastwick?
Actually, the Sooners are the most talented and entertaining crew to hit college basketball since Houston's Phi Slamma Jammas back in the early 1980s. "Loyola Marymount?" says Oklahoma's Billy Tubbs, the coach with the Will Rogers wit, who never met a man he didn't like...to run up the score on. "If we played them, it would be 160-107, and we'd have the 160. What this game needs is a 15-second shot clock."
As in past years the Sooners rampaged through the winter, launching shots over the guy wires, hurling passes into the orchestra and teetering on the verge of self-destruction. But what separates this edition from the rootin', tootin' Tubbs-o'-fun teams of the past is character. When the Sooners outsteadied the excruciating Villanova delay game, committed one turnover in the second half and won the Southeast Regional laughing—despite not shooting well—they proved that their superb athleticism is more than just skin deep.
Oklahoma will present Arizona with its first true challenge of the tournament when the two meet in Saturday's semifinals. In this delicious track meet, the Sooners will have a lot going for them, including the vast disparity in the strength of the two schools' conferences. While the Big Eight placed five teams in the tournament, three in the final eight and two—Oklahoma and Kansas—in the Final Four, Arizona was the Pac-Man of the Pac-10, gobbling up conference competition by an average margin of 23.6 points.
The Wildcats were also 9-0 against the Big Ten, Big East and ACC, but they've not been tested in the crucible of a close game since February. In Arizona's victory over North Carolina on Sunday, the Tar Heels' J.R. Reid got into foul trouble, but Oklahoma's left-handed Stacey King is not as mistake prone and is a much better scorer. Over his last 18 games King has averaged 26.5 points. Then there's the Sooners' other astounding weapons—the three-point sharpshooting of Dave Sieger, Ricky Grace and Mookie Blaylock and the McAdooian versatility of Harvey Grant.
Oklahoma loses about as many races as Edwin Moses. But after Arizona won the West, the Wildcats' Kid Kourage, Steve Kerr, said to his coach, Lute Olson, "Let's run with 'em."
And here's why. The Sooners live on Grace and Blaylock forcing turnovers, yet Arizona and Kerr rarely turn over the ball. Oklahoma shoots the three-pointer well; the Cats—Kerr and Craig McMillan—shoot it better. Although the Sooners have those five real scorers among their starters, Arizona's Elliott is more creative than any of them. Once a team beats Oklahoma's full-court press—and the Wildcats, as the best passing team in college ball, should do that easily—the Sooners' coverage weakens. In a helter-skelter game, look for Elliott to score, oh, maybe 60.
If Olson combats Oklahoma's quickness by slowing down the pace, Arizona's exquisite half-court offense should prevail as well. By any measure of who can better deal with variations in tempo, flow, shooting percentage and odd calls, 'Zona's been in a zone of its own all year.
By playing in some otherworldly dimension all his own, Manning has lifted Kansas out of stiffdom and into a re-rematch with Duke. The Blue Devils beat the Jayhawks by four points in the semifinals of the 1986 tournament (Manning: two baskets, five fouls) and by four in overtime six weeks ago in Lawrence, Kans. Guarded by Billy King, Robert Brickey, Ferry and a cast of thousands, Manning scored 31 points in that loss.
Still, Duke is much the better team. The Blue Devils are deeper, quicker and stronger and have a cruel defense. Witness King harassing Temple freshman Mark Macon into uncontrollable post-game sobbing on Saturday. As he waylaid the fabulous rookie, King kept telling himself, "Don't be afraid to get beat."
More of the same should be on view in the championship game, when Duke re-acquaints itself with Arizona, which was awarded 42 foul shots (to the Blue Devils' 22) and made 32 (to their 17) in its 91-85 victory at Tucson on New Year's Eve eve. Right, the Dookies outscored the Cats by nine points from the field. The referees were less responsible for the outcome, however, than Elliott, who left his imprint on King with an extraordinary 31-point, nine-rebound, five-assist performance.
At one point during that game, Ferry screamed at Olson, "We're getting homered." In response to which, Olson screamed at Ferry. In response to which, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski screamed at Olson. After which everybody shook hands and made up. "The Duke guys were great," says Kerr. "I had never met them, yet they called me by my first name."
Revenge is only one reason the Blue Devils will win this time. On their passionate journey toward recognition, the Wildcats have honed their skills, but Duke continues to make marked improvements. And Billy King, the charismatic secretary of defense, is not about to let Elliott kick sand in his face again. "My '86 team was hardened to the experience," says Krzyzewski. "This one, it keeps coming together. We can improve even this week. These guys are actually still kids."
And not afraid to get beat.