The NCAA shouldn't sell a program in Indianapolis this weekend.
Vendors outside the RCA Dome should hawk a self-help manual
instead, something called The Road to the Final Four Less
Traveled or some such. There would be no better way to address
all the psychological traumas, physical hurts, emergency
meetings, remedial workouts and disrespectful newspaper
clippings that have beset Arizona, Kentucky, Minnesota and North
Carolina this season. None of the Final Four is a surprise
exactly, but all have had years marked by slights, blights or
both. Quick, someone: Is four too few for an encounter session?
Maybe a team has to hit some kind of bottom before it can really
begin climbing toward the top. And perhaps that's why the lone
No. 1 seed unable to reach the Final Four was Kansas, taken out
by fourth-seeded Arizona 85-82 in a semi of the Southeast
Regional in Birmingham. The Jayhawks weathered their adversity
easily, scarcely bothered by injuries that struck guard Jacque
Vaughn and forward Scot Pollard during the season. Contrast the
Jayhawks with, say, North Carolina, which lost its first three
ACC games and stood 3-5 in the conference at the end of January.
"It made us mentally mature," junior guard Shammond Williams
said after the Tar Heels defeated Louisville 97-74 in the East
Regional final in Syracuse, N.Y. "It taught us that we had to do
all the little things to be good."
No team is better at working through its issues than the one
based in the rehab capital of the U.S., Minneapolis. When two
cabin-fevered Minnesotans hoisted a sign reading HEY CBS, JUST 2
MORE WINS AND WE'RE SLEEPING IN THE LINCOLN BEDROOM in San
Antonio's Alamodome on Saturday, their banner addressed the
network that failed to feature Minnesota, now 31-3, on any of
its regular-season telecasts. And before the Golden Gophers beat
UCLA 80-72 in the Midwest Regional final, a comment made to the
Los Angeles Times by Bruins forward Charles O'Bannon and faxed
to Minnesota trainer Roger Schipper by a fan, helped goose the
Gophs. "He talked about us like we were a no-name team," said
Bobby Jackson, the most prominent of the Minnesota names that in
all fairness could not be characterized as household, after
knocking off UCLA. "We just wanted to show him what a no-name
team looked like."
If the Gophers aren't a collection of individuals, it's by coach
Clem Haskins's design. Winner of eight games by five points or
less during the regular season, Minnesota came from six points
behind in the first overtime in the Midwest semifinal to defeat
Clemson 90-84 in double OT and from 10 points behind in the
second half to beat the Bruins. Humorist Garrison Keillor, a
Minnesota alumnus, calls the Gophers "the right team for a state
of Germans and Scandinavians who believe in hard work,
perseverance and don't think you're somebody special, because
Jackson may not think he's somebody special, but he is. His two
overtime jumpers put away the Tigers, and for much of the game
against UCLA he filled in at point guard for Eric Harris, who
was suffering from a shoulder bruise. But what makes the Gophers
this season's most surprising team is that they have eight other
players who, like all the children inhabiting Keillor's Lake
Wobegone, are above average. Haskins uses each of them to
particularly good effect against teams like the Bruins, who play
a core of six. "I'm tired," confessed UCLA forward J.R.
Henderson to Minnesota forward Courtney James during the second
half of last Saturday's game. The Bruins' three-point
shooting--they were 3 for 16 for the day--suggested that
Henderson's teammates were gassed too.
Under Haskins's direction the Gophers' team meetings aren't
exactly group-therapy sessions. In San Antonio, Haskins warned
his players to stay away from women and carousing, and he found
new reason to light into freshman guard Russ Archambault.
Haskins famously forbids tattoos on his players, but for
cultural reasons he faced something of a dilemma with
Archambault, whose father is a full-blooded Lakota Sioux and
whose epidermis is essentially a fresco. "He told me since I
already had 'em, he can't take 'em off," Archambault says. But
when the Gophers gathered after their game against Clemson, he
made the mistake of wearing a baseball cap, touching off a
10-minute philippic from Haskins about another pet peeve. By
never letting anyone think he's somebody special, Haskins has
ensured that his Gophers get their due, collectively.
Kentucky has been routinely accorded respect, sometimes respect
laced with fear, ever since coach Rick Pitino came to Lexington
eight years ago, but this season even the Wildcats have had a
rough go of it. The NBA plucked four players from last season's
national champions. And when guard Derek Anderson, then the
front-runner for the SEC Player of the Year award, went down
with a torn right anterior cruciate ligament in January and
guard Allen Edwards joined him on the sidelines with a stress
fracture in his right ankle, diagnosed after the second round of
this NCAA tournament, the Wildcats lost more points than the Dow
after an Alan Greenspan utterance. Yet as 34-4 Kentucky returns
to the Final Four with only eight scholarship players and a
questionable Edwards, Pitino has lived in his favorite
catchphrase from a year ago, "the precious present," by not once
complaining about the Cats' circumstances. "He thrives on
adversity," says forward Scott Padgett. "He thrives on a
challenge. A lot of people thought, He's won one, he'll relax a
little. But he's driven even more to get a second one because
people think it's impossible."
Pitino actually called a staff meeting for 7 a.m. last April 2,
just seven hours after Kentucky beat Syracuse for the title.
Mindful of his experience as a greenhorn coach at Boston
University, when the Terriers followed 17-9 and 21-9 seasons
with a 13-14 stinker, he exhorted his assistants to work harder,
particularly at recruiting. Nothing changed once the season
began; after freshman center Jamaal Magloire casually allowed an
Iowa player to hoist a three-pointer in the second round of the
NCAAs, Pitino convened a special "practice" for his derelict big
man, devoted entirely to conditioning.
The most striking thing about last season's Wildcats was the
sheer numbers Pitino had at his disposal. "The horn would go
off, and they'd send in a new fleet of players," said Utah guard
Ben Caton after losing to Kentucky in the NCAA tournament for
the second straight season, 72-59 in the West Regional final in
San Jose last Saturday. "This year they didn't do that as much,
but they're still high-quality players. I'd hate to see them at
Swingman Ron Mercer represents the highest of that high quality.
There's no more majestic sight in the college game today than
that of Mercer cornering around a screen and rising like a hood
ornament for a jump shot. He went on two scoring binges in the
West final, one in the first half (eight points in less than
three minutes) and another in the second (six in four minutes),
to repulse two Utah challenges. "Last year's team didn't have
Ron Mercer, like we do," says Padgett. "As a freshman, Ron let
the game come to him. Now Ron takes over a game."
In its semifinal Kentucky will be in the unaccustomed position
of facing a team deeper than it is. And Minnesota features two
Kentuckians with a particular incentive: Haskins, as Clem the
Gem of Campbellsville, Ky., had to become an All-America at
Western Kentucky in the mid-1960s because there was no place for
blacks in Lexington at the time. And even though Gophers guard
Charles Thomas was Kentucky's Mr. Basketball in 1995 as star of
his high school team in the coal-mining hamlet of Harlan, he
didn't get a nibble from Pitino. He has spent idle moments this
season stretched out on his dorm room bed, imagining a matchup
with the Wildcats in the Final Four.
But the only team Minnesota has faced with a press comparable to
Kentucky's is Iowa. And although the Gophers beat the Hawkeyes
twice, the Wildcats' press is more remorseless. Kentucky may be
down to eight players, but it's such a balanced eight that until
guard Wayne Turner scored 12 points on his birthday against
Utah, former walk-on Cameron Mills was the Cats' leading scorer
in the tournament. And now that Edwards has had his cast removed
and could play in Indy, Admiral Pitino may once again be
amassing an armada at the scorer's table. Look for Kentucky to
win this more fascinating of the semifinals.
In January, when North Carolina began its ACC season 0-3, the
Tar Heels had plenty of alibis to choose from: a Christmas-break
trip to Holland and Italy that included an exhausting three
games in four days; an injury to sophomore forward Vince Carter
that had deprived them of their most versatile scorer; and a
point guard, Ed Cota, who was a freshman making his first tour
of the conference. But at a team meeting following a 12-point
loss at Virginia on Jan. 11, the Heels refused to make excuses.
"We met and said we had to stop caring who scored and who got
credit and who got attention," said senior center Serge Zwikker
last week. "If not, we knew we were going to be remembered as
one of the worst teams in Carolina history. You could tell
things just clicked after being put into perspective like that."
In their next game the Heels came from nine points back in the
last two minutes to beat N.C. State.
"I think they had more confidence in themselves than I did at
the time," said coach Dean Smith, who had done his part by
holding specialized practices for his big men and one-on-one
meetings with every player. Soon North Carolina began putting
together its current streak of 16 victories, which includes
comebacks at Georgia Tech (after having been down 16 in the
second half) and at Clemson (from 13 behind in the first half).
North Carolina's great strength is knowing its strength and
going relentlessly to it. After California eased ahead by seven
points in the East Regional semifinal in Syracuse, the Tar Heels
got the ball to forward Antawn Jamison seven straight times and
wound up winning 63-57. In the final the Tar Heels sprinted to a
21-point halftime lead, saw Louisville close to within three and
then went on a 12-0 run to wrap matters up. Afterward even the
euphoria in the Tar Heels' locker room had a world-weariness to
it. "I've watched thousands and thousands of Final Fours," said
Carter, who turned 20 Jan. 26. "Now I'm finally in one."
Forget Providence's God Shammgod, and listen to God Deanngod,
who has been in thousands and thousands of Final Fours (well,
O.K., 11). "We handled it," he said of the Tar Heels' early
adversity. "And now we're going to the Final Four. And we're not
just going, we're going to the Final Four to win this thing."
Taking issue with that is Arizona--just as the Wildcats took
issue with an issue of the Birmingham News in which a headline
appeared reading, IT'S KANSAS AND THOSE OTHER GUYS. The News had
a point. Arizona's only senior rarely plays, and its lone
returning starter, junior guard Miles Simon, missed the season's
first 11 games for flubbing a math course. Skeptics who had
expected Arizona to go down to underdogs South Alabama and
College of Charleston in rounds 1 and 2 were on to something: In
the second halves of both games the Wildcats trailed by 10
points before coming back to win. And then Arizona, an
early-round upsettee in recent national tournaments, scored the
upset of these NCAAs by taking out No. 1 Kansas.
The Jayhawks had adapted splendidly to not having Vaughn and
Pollard at different times during the regular season. But first
Pollard and then Vaughn committed his fourth foul midway through
the second half, and to do without both at the same time proved
to be too much, as Simon and linemates Mike Bibby and Michael
Dickerson used their quickness to get open shot after open shot
against the slower Jayhawks defense.
But Kansas was beaten on the inside, too. During a morning
shootaround the day of the game, Arizona coach Lute Olson had
invited his four big men to claim white towels he had
brought--flags of surrender if they had any disinclination to
try to stop Pollard and 6'11" forward Raef LaFrentz. None of the
four stepped forward, and that night Pollard failed to score.
All season the Jayhawks had dominated the defensive boards; yet
37 times the ball went up on the Arizona glass, and 16 times the
Wildcats came away with it. Thus did the Wildcats rock the
chalk. "It was their quickness against our size," disconsolate
Kansas coach Roy Williams said afterward, "and this time their
quickness won out."
This time and more times than not. However math-impaired Simon
may be, he has surely mastered the lesson of the season, which
involves simply counting to three. A three-guard lineup beat
Kansas, and three guards represent Arizona's best chance against
The Wildcats will be playing a team that, like Kansas, looks
first inside. Only the Tar Heels' frontcourt has less mobility
than the Jayhawks', particularly at center, where Zwikker
suffers from a sort of Dutch-elm disease. The Wildcats also have
guards who are bigger than Cota and Shammond Williams. Arizona
has already beaten the Tar Heels, 83-72 in the Hall of Fame
Tip-Off Classic on Nov. 22, and that was without Simon. And the
Wildcats will try to stop Jamison by using 6'8" junior defensive
specialist Bennett Davison, who drove Kansas's LaFrentz off the
blocks, throttled Providence's Austin Croshere during Arizona's
96-92 overtime win in the Southeast final and held Utah
All-America Keith Van Horn without a single second-half basket
in a 69-61 Arizona win back in December.
But as the Tar Heels have played perhaps the best basketball in
the land for the last two months, Cota has been Bibby's equal as
a freshman floor leader. And a final between Kentucky and North
Carolina, college basketball's two winningest schools, is an
irresistible prospect, for the two have never played each other
in a title game. Two weeks ago Smith passed former Kentucky
coach Adolph Rupp as Division I's alltime winningest coach, and
if the Tar Heels were to win on Monday night he would move ahead
of the Baron (and remain behind only UCLA's John Wooden) on the
list of Final Four victories.
A Carolina-Kentucky final is where our encounter session breaks
up. Each of the Final Four has come around to feel I'm O.K.,
You're O.K. But with the chance to defend Rupp's honor, the
first champion to repeat since Duke will also say, We're UK.