If the NCAA tournament gets any more taut or emotional or chaotic, Hollywood might as well pull from circulation all those cinema classics about the Lambada. Hey, studio heads, let's do lunch in the Rockies. The Final Four is the only dance movie left, and Denver has it.
For openers, there's Duke, which arrives on the lunging prayer of a Christian, no less, and has to be considered the sentimental favorite because of its 0-for-7 record in Final Four appearances. There's the marquee child star, Georgia Tech's Kenny Anderson, already the very best player in his very first national playoffs.
There's the mysterious stranger in snakeskin (boots) guiding some pigs—Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson and his dangerous Razorbacks. Finally, the villains—the troublin', trashtalkin' Runnin' Rebels of UNLV, some of whom were seen drinking beer in a parking lot the night before the semis of the West Regional. One of their tournament hosts in Oakland was (irony unintended) a bail bondsman.
These NCAAs have been an ordeal by fire, something you don't win but survive, reserved for those teams relentless enough to have endured the most delightfully wacky preliminary rounds in memory. Georgia Tech is living on borrowed time. That, and hearing impairment. As many times as the VCR replays the shot, Anderson still hasn't beaten that buzzer in the Louisiana Superdome against Michigan State in the Southeast Regional semifinals. But omens-wise, the Yellow Jackets are in terrific shape. When a team defeats LSU after the first round of the NCAAs, it almost always (six out of seven times since 1953) wins it all. This year that team is—envelope please—Georgia Tech.
April 1, 1990
Now pause...and forget what was just said. Although Anderson may be the best freshman guard ever—neither Magic nor Isiah had his kind of impact in their debut seasons—on Saturday he will be ricocheting off the UNLV defense like a pinball before his teammates can provide the help he will need to overcome the hungry legions from the desert. Tech is a unique three-man operation, but one of the trio, Brian Oliver, a literal Rambling Wreck, struggles on a stress-fractured left ankle. The third big gun, Dennis Scott, who preens as often as he shoots, will be checked by the best defender in college basketball, Stacey Augmon, who takes no prisoners. Nor poseurs.
One taste of Augmon's aggression, and Scott may retreat to the nearest ski lift to hoist his threes. Bo Kimble got those 42 points for Loyola Marymount against Las Vegas all right, but he scored only one basket in the first eight minutes of the game, during which time he was guarded by Augmon. At the end of that span, the Rebels led by 13 points, and the versatile Augmon had scored 12. It is a toss-up whether he or his charmingly vicious hulk of a teammate, Larry Johnson, is Las Vegas's most valuable player.
In the other semifinal, the Duke Blue Dèjà Vu's may also be in over their handsome heads against Arkansas. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski wouldn't agree, of course, but he does say, "They [the Razorbacks! pressure you with their defense and offense because of how quickly they get the ball up the court. I'm not afraid to run, but they could wear us out." Note that the Razorbacks are the fifth-highest scoring team in the country (95.9 points per game), while this young Duke squad—three freshman and two sophomores in their top eight players—is allowing more points (75.4) than any Blue Devil team since 1982-83.
Duke's frontcourt men, Christian Laettner and Alaa Abdelnaby, are peaking just so, and the Blue Devils have settled their differences with senior guard Phil Henderson, who, following the team's upset loss to Tech in the semifinals of the ACC tournament—which the Yellow Jackets won—called his, uh, mates "cop-outs...babies...with fake emotion, fake enthusiasm...a lot of fake." But though freshman Bobby Hurley broke the Connecticut press by dribbling. Arkansas's defense is designed less for steals than for, as Richardson says, "wear and tear." Hurley is easily frustrated into a jawing, complaining whiner.
Duke's two losing battles (by 19 and 12 points) against archrival North Carolina are instructive. Tar Heel coach Dean Smith never let the Blue Devils get into any offensive rhythm. In the semifinals of the Midwest Regional, Arkansas exploded all over North Carolina, matching Smith's second worst defeat ever in the NCAAs.
"Arkansas is so balanced, nobody really hunts a shot," said Smith after that game—primarily not the Razor-backs' secret-weapon-no-longer, Lenzie Howell, a 6'5" senior slasher who steadies the team until his younger teammates come around. Duke has size and Final Four experience on Arkansas, but if the Razorbacks' perimeter "Mayday" bombers, 6'6" Todd Day and the remarkably steady Lee Mayberry, start smoking, it will be a long night for the Devils in Denver, a city familiar with good teams who don't win big ones.
But get this: The Razorbacks were the fourth-seeded team in the Midwest, and no No. 4 seed has won the NCAA title. Which leaves UNLV, the grinnin' sons of gun and run, the progeny of Tark the Shark, the Rebels of the flashy cars and NCAA suspensions and bench-clearing brawls.
"You know our guys? Have you met them? Have you? They're great people," Tarkanian told reporters last week. What his players certainly are is an outstanding team, the best by far in all the land. After a season of injuries and unpaid hotel bills and acrimony—the usual distractions—Las Vegas is as focused as it has ever been.
On Dec. 30, the Rebels defeated Arkansas 101-93—"the best team we played all season," says Tark—even though Johnson fouled out after having played only 21 minutes. In Denver UNLV should nip Anderson in the bud, whip Arkansas again and win the national title. If the Rebels and Razor-backs do go at it on Monday night, it would be a marvelous tribute, in this season of turmoil and tragedy, to the late Hank Gathers. Only two of the eight teams in the regional finals wore black bands on their uniform straps: UNLV and Arkansas.