TO PUT things bluntly--the way a Gothamite would--this week's
Final Four in East Rutherford, N.J., will have the character of
the place that's hosting it. College basketball's showcase event
is returning to the New York area for the first time in 46
years, so brace yourselves. There'll be obstinance (Refuse to
lose!). There'll be a seize-the-day attitude (Learn from the
past, but don't live in it!). There'll be hedonism (Let's just
have fun!) and braggadocio ('Cuse is in the house, oh my god, oh
my god!). As they say round New York way, You gotta problem with
The aforementioned team slogans belong to, respectively,
Massachusetts, the school that once brought you Julius (the
Doctor) Erving and now features Marcus Camby, M.D.; Kentucky,
whose home-state travel agents have been selling package tours
to the Meadowlands since last summer; and Mississippi State and
Syracuse, geographical and cultural opposites that have turned
the disrespect of others from a curse into a cudgel. After
losing to the Orangemen 60-57 in the West Regional final on
Sunday, Kansas knows all too well the truth emblazoned on those
T-shirts for sale in Times Square--NEW YORK: IT AIN'T KANSAS.
It ain't Connecticut, Georgetown or Cincinnati, either. But
here's what the Romp in the Swamp off Exit 16W of the New Jersey
Turnpike will be:
--The official eclipse of a question that burned during most of
the season--"Can anyone beat Kentucky?" No one will be asking
that this week. Both UMass and Mississippi State have already
beaten the Wildcats, and each did so by double digits.
--A convergence of two almost perfectly matched pairs of coaches.
In one semifinal Rick Pitino of Kentucky faces his paisano and
protege, UMass's John Calipari, who like his patron is a
precocious, hyperkinetic, well-coiffed, Armani-wrapped clipboard
jockey with roots at Howie Garfinkel's Five-Star basketball
camp. The other semifinal matches two guys who aren't exactly
disciples of Norman Vincent Peale: Richard Williams, Mississippi
State's sarcastic, unappreciated and charm-free coach, and Jim
Boeheim, Syracuse's sarcastic, unappreciated and charm-free coach.
More than that, though, this year's finals should be rude,
brusque and remorselessly in-your-face. That's the Big Apple at
its wormiest, and that's also the hallmark of good defense, the
phase of the game that, more than any other, has brought each of
these teams to the Final Four. Nine of the 12 losers in last
week's regionals shot less than 37% from the field, and elite
teams don't do that without some prodding from their opponents.
No defense is more withering than Kentucky's. The Wildcats bring
to the Final Four college basketball's most frightening weapon,
a press that forced 22 turnovers a game this season and
propelled Kentucky through its first four NCAA tournament
victories by an average of 28.3 points. "Sometimes we get
tired," says Wildcats swingman Derek Anderson of playing such
relentless D. "But so does the other team. Seeing them give in
is like watching a boxer take a dive."
Pitino led Providence to the 1987 Final Four with similar
defensive pressure, a scheme he called the Mother-in-Law for its
"constant pressure and harassment." But those Friars were a band
of etiolated gym rats who got the job done with conditioning,
pluck and little else. These Cats are fit and fiery, too, but
now Pitino has talented athletes down the length of his bench.
"I've never been pressed as hard in a game as I am in practice,"
says Kentucky point guard Anthony Epps.
The Wildcats actually deploy two basic pressure defenses, the
"black" and the "white." With their 80-inch-plus wingspans,
forwards Walter McCarty and Antoine Walker are the keys to the
white press, which the Cats use after scoring inside. One or the
other yells, jumps and waves his arms at the baseline as his man
tries to inbound the ball. Should the inbounder successfully
find a target, the unfortunate recipient will instantly have the
spidery appendages of, say, guard Tony Delk to contend with,
along with those of McCarty or Walker, who will bound over to
form a double team. If the opposition does advance the ball into
the forecourt, no matter. "It might take them seven or eight
seconds to get through the press," says Kentucky guard Jeff
Sheppard. "But then it takes them four or five seconds to get
into their offense. Then they have barely 20 seconds to run a
The Cats hop into their black press after they've buried a
three-pointer and find themselves farther from the baseline, or
when they've already been burned by full-court baseball passes.
Then, instead of pressuring the inbounder, they try to prevent
the ball from reaching the hands of the opposing guards. And
lest the black and white make the Cats too predictable, Pitino
may call an audible if there's a delay in inbounding. "I've been
here three years, and I still don't completely understand our
press," says Sheppard. "It's always changing."
Imagine how difficult all this must be for an opponent to grasp.
Says Wake Forest coach Dave Odom, a former high school football
coach, whose Demon Deacons lost to Kentucky 83-63 in the Midwest
Regional final last Saturday, "It's like playing that wishbone
team you face only once a year."
Massachusetts, which will play Kentucky in the national
semifinals on Saturday, is lucky. UMass will be facing the
Wildcats for the second time this season, having beaten them
92-82 on Nov. 28. And in recent weeks the Minutemen have been
getting plenty of exposure to pressing defenses. "Arkansas
[UMass's third-round foe] pressed the whole game," UMass point
guard Edgar Padilla said last Saturday. "Georgetown pressed the
whole game. We've been doing press drills in practice for a
month and a half now. We know what we have to do."
But the Minutemen have new cause for worry. In defeating Wake
Forest, the Cats not only made the afternoon miserable for the
Wake guards but also throttled Deacons center Tim Duncan by
taking the principles of their press and applying them to their
post defense. "You learn a lot from losses," Pitino said
afterward, recalling how inadequately Kentucky guarded
Massachusetts center Marcus Camby four months ago. "Against
UMass our double downs were just that--double downs. They were
not traps." Against Wake, by contrast, the Cats pinned Duncan in
so completely that the ACC Player of the Year could squeeze off
only seven shots. At the Meadowlands, Kentucky will try to slow
down Camby and the Minutemen with a defense that presses as
effectively on one baseline as the other.
Even more significant, the Wildcats have removed the single
greatest obstacle to Pitino's winning his first national
title--potential jealousy on a squad loaded with talent. At a
team meeting shortly after the loss to UMass, the Cats' most
likely malcontent, Walker, stepped forward and said he would be
the first to sublimate his ego for the good of the team.
Inasmuch as Walker is the chestiest Cat, his teammates took
notice, and when he became a model worker in practice and played
unselfishly over the following weeks, they fell eagerly in line.
"All year everybody said Coach Pitino couldn't keep us all
happy," Epps said on Saturday. "We're pretty happy right now."
Equally delirious were the Cats' SEC brethren from Mississippi
State, who rely on an old-fashioned half-court man-to-man
defense. "Push it, push it!" yelled UConn coach Jim Calhoun as
his Huskies, a No. 1 seed, tried to find traction for their
87.6-points-per-game offense in the Southeast Regional
semifinals. But Bulldogs guards Marcus Bullard and Darryl Wilson
held their UConn counterparts, Ray Allen and Doron Sheffer, to
12-for-39 shooting from the field, and the Huskies shot only
32.4% while going down 60-55. Two days later, in the regional
final, Mississippi State held Cincinnati to an even more
feckless 33.8% while beating the Bearcats 73-63. "Coach, these
teams keep choosing our games to shoot bad," junior forward
Dontae' Jones told Williams. "Does anyone see a pattern here?"
Williams is a former junior high school math teacher who once
admitted to his players that he "can be a d--- sometimes." Hence
their habit of referring to him as "Moby." And thar he blew
after being handed a Final Four cap following Sunday's victory.
"Some of us have gotten the opinion that I'm irritable," said
Williams. "Here's why. This cap says MISSISSIPPI on the back.
Not MISSISSIPPI STATE. MISSISSIPPI."
After the Bulldogs lost four of five during a mid-January cold
snap, Williams jawboned Jones, a high school dropout with
limited experience in organized ball, to accept a more
structured role. But Jones still embarks on delightful flights
of spontaneity. After one dunk against Cincinnati on Sunday he
froze, mimelike, savoring the moment with his own interpretation
of Man Leaning into Wind with Umbrella. "He's certifiable," says
teammate Whit Hughes. "He'll be drafted high in the first round.
Into an insane asylum."
Mississippi State could avail itself of Jones's services only
after he picked up a year's worth of credits--36 in all--in summer
school. Syracuse, too, nearly had to make do this season without
its star. Forward John Wallace put in for last June's NBA draft,
then withdrew his name with two days to spare. Without him the
Orangemen would be enjoying mud season upstate this weekend. In
the West Regional semifinal against Georgia last Friday night,
Wallace's looping inbounds pass found Jason Cipolla for a jumper
that forced overtime. In the ensuing huddle Wallace alluded to
Syracuse's elimination in OT from three of the last four NCAAs,
telling his teammates, "We haven't done anything yet." Then,
minutes later, his lunging 20-footer with 2.8 seconds remaining
beat the Dawgs 83-81.
In Sunday's final Wallace's long arms at one wing of the
Orangemen's 2-3 zone helped harry Kansas into 4-for-25
three-point shooting. Syracuse is one of those rare teams still
willing to stick with a zone in the age of the trey. Knowing how
intense tournament pressure can be, Boeheim dared the Jayhawks
to shoot three-pointers. "I don't care how good a shooter you
are, when you get to a regional final and you miss one, you
start thinking about it," Boeheim said. "None of them were
making anything, and none of them wanted to shoot."
This is so sound and sympathetic a Syracuse team--why, it
actually shoots free throws better than the national
average--that when Wallace missed the team flight on the eve of
the tournament, claiming his alarm didn't go off, you actually
believed him, even though he wears the same uniform number as
former Orangeman Derrick Coleman.
As for Boeheim, who has turned the fourth-best team in the Big
East this season into that league's first Final Four
representative since 1989, he seems perversely comfortable in
his role as basketball's most-maligned winner of 482 games. What
kind of job is he doing with this team? "One of my best,"
Boeheim said earlier this month. "Which probably means it isn't
Massachusetts is currently 9-0 against ranked teams this season.
The Minutemen have played 26 games away from Amherst, winning
every one of them. Most telling, none of the team's starters
ever seems to panic, and all are equally likely to take a shot
with the fate of a game in the balance. "Them holding us off at
the end is a sign of their greatness," said Georgetown coach
John Thompson after the Minutemen had carved up the Hoyas 86-62
in the East Regional final. "We go at people, but UMass is
poised. They don't beat themselves."
Carmelo Travieso, the Minuteman guard who did an inadvertent
half-gainer off the stage during media interviews on the eve of
his team's 79-63 defeat of Arkansas in the regional semis,
adroitly negotiated the Georgia Dome's center stage during
Saturday's semifinal. He and Padilla had more steals (nine) than
their Hoya counterparts, Allen Iverson and Victor Page, had
"There's nothing I can say to intimidate him," Calipari says of
Pitino, a UMass grad who sat on the search committee that chose
him as the Minutemen's new coach in 1988, "and nothing he can
say to intimidate me." Calipari has refused to read a profile of
Pitino that appeared in these pages last month, preferring to
leave undisturbed his notion of his benefactor as a cross
between John Wooden and Ward Cleaver. Excerpts from the piece
were, however, read to him, and that was enough to prompt
Calipari to pick up the phone and call a friend. "They called
him ... possessed!" Calipari said indignantly.
Even if all these Final Four coaches are possessed, unbridled
ambition is hardly unusual within the pale of New York City,
where this week much of the populace will be demoniacally
pursuing a ticket. If Chicago is the city of broad shoulders,
New York is the city of the quick first step--a place that fairly
screams, If it's there, go for it.
Four teams will be doing that on Saturday. And as certain as it
may seem that the national champion will emerge from that
collision of No. 1 seeds, the UMass-Kentucky semifinal, and as
much as it looks as if that victor will be the Cats, it's best
to keep in mind the old Woody Allen line from Sleeper: "I
believe an intelligent being governs everywhere, except for
certain parts of New Jersey."