We're going beyond the bromides. We're banishing the hackneyed phrase. We'll let someone else take that clichè sashay down the road to the Final Four. Tell us these teams are taking it only "one game at a time," and we'll tell you we're taking two Thorazine. To win an NCAA crown a team must win six straight. And with four teams—Arizona. Arkansas, Duke and Florida—that have each won four in a row, we simply want to know this: Who can win two more?
Each of the Final Four teams has turned the game inside out to some degree, getting much of its scoring from beyond the three-point arc. All play obnoxious defense, irritating defense, Pat O'Brien-like defense. And every survivor is guided by a coach who has sacrificed some of his cherished control to get more out of his players.
Know what? There is a way to a national championship besides the dreaded OGAAT. It's to treat each venue as a two-game tournament—to take things one place at a time. That's the approach that the Michigan players adopted in reaching the title game the last two seasons and in almost making a third final Four last week. The team that beat the Wolverines, Arkansas, has employed the same attitude, according to coach Nolan Richardson: Two games in Oklahoma City, two in Dallas, now two in Charlotte. It's as if each city were the site of some holiday classic, for goodness' sake. So, welcome to the Queen City Invitational.
Your host in Charlotte will be Duke. Actually the Blue Devils' season ended three weeks ago in that very city, with a loss to Virginia in the semifinals of the ACC tournament. Or so coach Mike Krzyzewski tried to get his players to believe in that calamity's aftermath. He declined to ride back to Durham on the team bus, a trip his senior tricaptains, Grant Hill, Antonio Lang and Marty Clark, turned into a team-meeting-on-wheels. And once back on campus, Krzyzewski went ahead with "exit interviews"—player evaluations that are usually conducted at the end of each season—so the team would get a palpable sense of closure and renewal. "I told them their list of positives was very long and their list of negatives was small," says Krzyzewski. "It was like I wanted to move into a new home and not take any garbage. But I still wanted to take that beautiful sofa we had."
April 3, 1994
When you've been to the Final Four seven times in nine seasons, as Krzyzewski has, you're entitled to ask when you don't go: What'd I do wrong? And Krzyzewski posed that very question to himself after last season's second-round NCAA loss to California. He decided he had spread himself too thin in the wake of Duke's 1992 national championship, when he made numerous public appearances and helped coach the Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics. This season he learned to say no, rededicated himself to his team and family and began exercising regularly, a routine that has kept him fresh mentally. Krzyzewski even got behind the wheel of a limousine last week to film a spoof of those Doctor Galazkiewicz beer ads for CBS. Says Coach K, "I thought it would be fun, and if our kids saw it, they would see that we were having fun."
The Blue Devil who has borne tournament pressure most effortlessly, Hill, won an NCAA championship as a freshman with a Duke team that wasn't supposed to win. A year later he won another title with a team considered such a prohibitive favorite that, he says, "our attitude was, 'They have the audacity to come out and try to play us, so we should punish them.' " Now Hill says he feels like a freshman again; no one is really expecting much, even though Duke beat out North Carolina for the ACC regular-season title. "I call us the silent assassins," he says.
Put those Michael Jordan comparisons on the shelf, if only because it's sacrilegious to compare a Dookie and a Tar Heel. Besides, Hill looks more and more like Scottie Pippen each time out. (One NBA scout said last weekend, "Scottie Pippen should be so lucky.") In addition to his scoring and leadership, Hill, with the help of center Cherokee Parks, fought through pick after pick to hold Purdue's Glenn Robinson to an unthinkable 13 points during Duke's 69-60 win in the Southeast Regional final in Knoxville.
To get a fix on Arizona, winners by an average of 17.8 points in their four tournament games so far, one can do no better than contrast Lute Olson, the Wildcats' blazer-wrapped, perfectly coifed coach, and 6'2" guard Reggie Geary, the team's snarling, smack-spouting defensive specialist. Olson hoists flash cards to signal the defense he wants the team to play. Geary begs his coach to let him cover the opposition's best scorer, so he can pour all his passion into Olson's coldly limned schemes, as he did during the Wildcats' 92-72 victory in the West Regional final in Los Angeles, holding Missouri All-America Melvin Booker to 14 points while scoring that many himself.
Olson is a man of righteous probity who prides himself on never swearing. The same evidently cannot be said of Geary, who ignited a confrontation between Olson and Cal coach Todd Bozeman with some ill-timed trash talk during a game earlier this season. "Reggie gets under people's skin," says Olson. "He gets under my skin." From the tension between Olson's control and Geary's anarchy, however, springs Arizona's essence, which puts the lie to some of the easy generalizations about the testosterone level of basketball west of Fayetteville. Yes, one of the Wildcats' contributors off the bench, guard Dylan Rigdon, is a four-time world skimboarding champ. But last week both Louisville and Missouri wound up vainly trying to beat the Cats by jacking up three-pointers, so thoroughly did Arizona defend the interior. "Yes, we do play defense, for those who were wondering," said Olson, who continued to lash out at the nattering nabobs in the media who have dumped on his team for its first-round exits from the last two NCAAs.
Olson credits a summer tour of Australia, during which the Cats won nine of 10 games and routinely broke 100 points, with inspiring him to junk the forecourt-oriented offense he had used during most of his 11 years at Arizona. Instead he turned the team over to guards Khalid Reeves and Damon Stoudamire. "We were scoring 120 points on semipro teams in Australia," says Geary. "Khalid and Damon were each getting 40 a game. We were flying around and making things happen. To hold talent like that back would be a crime."
Like Arizona, Florida went Down Under to put itself on top. During the Gators' trip through Australia last May, coach Lon Kruger discovered that junior point guard Dan Cross had the maturity and moxie to run the team, and the coach vested him with new duties. Call Kruger the dele-Gator: When the shot clock ticks down into single digits, Cross gets the ball and the authority to probe the middle and decide whether to shoot or dish. "A lot of people say we don't have quality players," says Kruger, whose team is 9-2 in games decided by Ave points or fewer this season. "Well, what constitutes good players? I say results."
Kruger both looks and sounds like a motivational speaker on late-night cable. Find a way! is the motto he has adopted for his team. "Dictate on defense," the Gators tell anyone who asks about their strategy at one end of the floor; at the other, they pluck and plug until they can develop, as their coach says, "a working margin." In knocking off favored Connecticut in the East Regional semifinal, Kruger said his team aimed to make UConn star Donyell Marshall "as inefficient as possible." Small wonder Jim Calhoun, the Huskies' coach, called Florida the "most pragmatic" team he had seen.
Kruger's pragmatists include a fellow named Dametri from St. Petersburg, who is not a character out of a Yakov Smirnov routine, but Dametri Hill, the Gators' 6'7", 300-plus-pound forward. Andrew DeClercq, a charge-taking, take-charge 6'10" center who is also from the Tampa Bay area, put up 16 points and pulled down 13 rebounds in the Gators' 74-66 defeat of Boston College in the East Regional final in Miami. And guard Craig Brown helps Cross key a defense that's as wide and boggy as Lake Okeechobee. In four tournament games the Gators have held opponents to 22% three-point shooting while maintaining an overall rebounding edge.
For all his sloganeering, Kruger isn't without warmth. He is on his way to Charlotte four years after taking over a scandal-plagued team that had won seven games the year before he arrived, but he doesn't blow his own horn. "The satisfaction is in watching the faces of the players," he says. "It's like opening presents on Christmas. You get more joy out of your children opening theirs than you do opening your own." And if you call now, you get not only the 12-cassette, Find a Way starter kit in a special leatherette case, but also this Lon Kruger bobbing-head doll, absolutely free! Well, no, you don't, because that is actually Lon's 10-year-old son, Kevin, you see there on the bench. There's no doubt about paternity, though.
All the Final Four coaches might have been poured from the same mold. All except one. "I do not coach like anybody," Arkansas's Richardson says. "I do not think like anybody. I make my teams play the way I want 'em to look, and I want 'em to look so chaotic that I can't tell 'em what the keys are. Now if you get me some shooters, and this year I've got three or four who can stick it, and we hit on all cylinders, you in serious trouble."
The trouble comes from everywhere, for Richardson has abolished any meaningful distinction between starters and subs, between backcourt and frontcourt. He has only two double-figure scorers, but 10 Hogs play double-figure minutes. The biggest upset of the Midwest Regional final, in which the Razorbacks beat Michigan 76-68 in Dallas, was that 6'7" forward Corliss Williamson never took a scat in 40 minutes. "We get our big guys to think they got some guard in 'em, and the little guys to think they got some post-up in 'em," says Richardson.
"My grandmother told me something I've never forgotten," he says, referring to the woman who raised him in the west Texas town of El Paso. "You want to kill an ant, you take a sledgehammer and knock it out. Don't mess around with it." Richardson's genius is in how he has devised a system embodying that philosophy, one based on defense and conditioning, in which his players thrive.
Twenty years ago, when the Final Four last touched down in North Carolina, home-standing North Carolina State and David Thompson threw down a marker on the game's timeline by ending UCLA's string of nine titles in 10 years. A new era began in Greensboro that spring. It's fitting, then, that the four teams headed to Charlotte are so young. Duke wouldn't be playing so close to home were it not for freshman Jeff Capel's second half against Purdue. Arizona and Florida start only one senior each. Arkansas has only two seniors, seldom-used reserve Ken Biley and spidery Roger Crawford, who is out for the rest of the year with a broken ankle.
Florida is quick and deep in the back-court, and having played Arkansas once and Kentucky three times and with a non-league schedule that included Texas, Florida State, Villanova and Louisville, the Gators won't be fazed by Duke or its ACC pedigree. But there is no coach and senior class better equipped for tournament play than Krzyzewski and his Duke tricaptains, who are 17-1 in the NCAAs over four seasons.
In the other bracket Arizona and Arkansas are two bodies hurtling at each other, both supremely confident, each with a coach intent on proving a point. Anger will get one or the other into the final; it will take a more subtle mix of emotions to win on Monday night. Olson or Richardson will have to strike the right tone to give us our first non-Carolinian national champ since UNLV won in 1990. But when he finally puts that sledgehammer down, we expect Nolan to wear the Queen City crown.