If the NCAA tournament can recover from the general astonishment over its having five freshmen starting for one team and 10 transfers representing another; if it can get over the embarrassment of a middle-aged man in a red sweater performing one stupid pet-coach trick after another; and especially if it accepts that whatever happens in Minneapolis this weekend may necessarily be an anticlimax after the Latest and Greatest Game Ever Laettnered, then maybe the Final Four can grab a bit of center stage after all.
When Michigan's Fab Five—they now prefer to be called the Five Times, spelled, rap fashionably, 5X's—takes on Cincinnati's itinerant 10 on Saturday at the Metrodome, or even when the Killer Koaching K's—Indiana's Bob Knight versus his spiritual scion, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski—kollide in the other semifinal, no one has any right to expect the same artistry and pathos that was provided by the Blue Devils' wondrous overtime victory over Kentucky in the East Regional final. Michigan's overtime win over Ohio State meant that for the first time two regional finals were decided in an extra period. And though the victory didn't gain the Wolverines another Rose Bowl bid, it did give Jalen Rose and his rookie mates a chance to bid for their own piece of history: A national championship would place the infant Wolverines in the pantheon of storied youths who won the NCAA title on their very first try: Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek (1960, Ohio State), Lew Alcindor (1967, UCLA) and Bill Walton (1972, UCLA).
Speaking of famous names, this is the very first Final Four in which each school is a former champion, and the participants share no fewer than 24 Final Four appearances and nine NCAA crowns.
Reigning champ and No. 1-ranked Duke's primary obstacle may be the painful disease, bigbritchesitis. Even after Christian Laettner got caught stomping on a Kentucky player, he kept clawing and swiping away, daring the refs to foul out his pretty face. They didn't. And remember Grant Hill's one-hand spear dunk against Kansas in last year's championship game? "One thing I didn't like about it was my haircut," Hill said last week. "Every time I see it, I think, 'Terrible haircut.' " Then there was Mickie Krzyzewski, Wife K, relating that Chicago Bears quarterback Jim Harbaugh thought Hill's 75-foot regional-winning assist to Laettner was "a great pass."
"Oh, you were sitting with Harbaugh?" somebody asked.
"No, he was sitting with us," she said.
Come the semifinals in Minneapolis on Saturday and Coach K will be sitting on the right hand of his former god, the Knight errant who turned the West Regional into (Attempted) Comedy Tonight with his bullwhip, his tale of being on assignment for The New Yorker and his theory of something called "cerebral reversal," which was supposed to be...aw, forget it. "Hell, you'd think I taught Krzyzewski how to go to 19 Final Fours in 20 years, or whatever the hell it's been [six in seven]," Knight said. "I hope you guys [the media] aren't going to do that teacher-pupil stuff."
We'll have to, because Duke-Indiana will be a majestic battle between mirror-image teams devoid of gimmicks and balanced both in strategy and scoring. The game should be full of motion, back-screens and passes by the bushel. Though Knight loves to poor-mouth his team as "soft"—the easier to remain a genius—these Hoosiers include junior forward Calbert Cheancy, sophomore guard Damon Bailey and freshman forward Alan Henderson, players whom every coach in the land would die for. "You don't get this far with just coaching," says UCLA's Jim Harrick. Ouch! (And that wasn't even a bullwhip.)
Among the coaches of the nine common opponents shared by Duke and Indiana, perhaps Florida State coach Pat Kennedy has the best peg on the game. "Indiana isn't as quick as Duke, but they're equally quick thinkers," he says. "They're hard to force into turnovers because they usually have five guys who can handle the ball. And they're exceptional at recognizing defenses." Moreover, in senior center Eric Anderson, Indiana has a poor man's Laettner who will not be uncomfortable guarding the Duke star on the perimeter and who will force Laettner to come out and guard him as well.
In 1987 Indiana beat Duke in the Midwest Regional semifinals, a crucible that a friend of Krzyzewski's describes as the "divorce" between the two coaches, because Krzyzewski wanted so badly to eliminate the notion that he was nothing without Knight's patronage. Since then Coach K has taken every opportunity to outline their many differences while still staying on Knight's good side—wherever that is—undoubtedly a stickier task than teaching dozens of trophy makers how to spell his name.
Before Laettner performed his heroics against Kentucky, Duke's wingmen—Brian Davis, Grant Hill, Thomas Hill and the garbage specialist, Tony Lang—were accepting hosannas for helping beat Seton Hall by committee in the regional semis. Five Blue Devils scored at least 13 points that evening. Overall, five Blue Devils average more than 10 points per game, making Duke the most difficult team, among those traveling to Minneapolis, to prepare for. But it is Laettner and little Bobby Hurley who provide Duke with the verve to respond to late-game crises. Just as they earned tough victories in road games at Michigan, Florida State, LSU and UCLA, so should the Blue Devils prevail against the Hoosiers.
On the undercard the Wolverines will look at Cincinnati's vaunted press and see...bigger game. "Runnin' up and down? That's what we do," Rose said, incredulously, after beating the Buckeyes. As he spoke, he stood in front of a locker room blackboard on which was scribbled, "To payback...Duke."
The Michigan kids are a crew so fresh and loose and unafraid that Chris Webber makes blind, over-the-head half-court shots in practice and Jimmy King slides headfirst across the court into a team victory photo. They wear those baggy shorts below their knees and call their delay offense "keep-away," like the children's game. Juwan Howard barks at the enemy, winks at the crowd and says his team will win it all if "we do our homework." This isn't a quest for the national title, it's Romper Room.
In its fifth game of the regular season, Michigan fell behind Duke by 17 points in the first half at Ann Arbor, went ahead by five with 1:41 left in regulation and then lost 88-85 in overtime after Webber (27 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks) fouled out. The game was played on the same day that fellow Wolverine Desmond Howard won the Heisman Trophy, but the Michigan basketball team got no prizes that day, what with all its fumbling (21 turnovers) and stumbling around on defense, which led to Laettner and Hurley swishing 23 foul shots between them. Still, after the game a Michigan band member, holding his fingers inches apart, shouted at Laettner, "That much, Christian! That much!"
Past being prologue, the Wolverine teenagers are not merely older by three months but smarter, sounder and immeasurably advanced defensively. And Duke, weary from its intense semifinal and perhaps even still a little too full of itself, could be stunned in the face of such improvement. Emboldened by their marvelous attitude, their zest for the game and their insouciance, the freshmen always knew they were good enough to win. Now they know how to win.
"That game is our reference point," vows Rose. Which is another way of saying that "that much" won't be enough for Duke to survive and that it's a new time—time for the 5X's, time for a brand-new dynasty in college basketball.