Along with suntan lotion and a Grapefruit League schedule,
please toss a volume of Coleridge into the knapsack you're
taking to St. Petersburg. A willing suspension of disbelief, to
use the poet's phrase, is necessary as we ponder the
Duke-against-the-field look of this year's Final Four.
(Question: Did anyone in any office pool anywhere not have the
Blue Devils in St. Pete?)
Remove from your mind the vision of Michigan State, Duke's
semifinal opponent on Saturday, clanging jump shots and turning
their games into rock fights at 10 paces. Forget that the
preseason goal of Ohio State, which could play the Blue Devils
in the championship game, was, in the words of coach Jim
O'Brien, "maybe to get invited to the NIT." Ignore the fact that
Connecticut, Duke's other final-game possibility, barely beat
Gonzaga 67-62 to make the Final Four and seems to go through
more emotional ups and downs during one game than the Blue
Devils have gone through all season.
Most of all get amnesiac about Duke's eye-popping statistical
dominance this season (chart, page 42); the formidable specter
of coach Mike Krzyzewski, Mr. March, directing traffic from the
sideline in his fifth Final Four of the decade; and the learned
opinions of most of America's hoop heads, including Oklahoma
coach Kelvin Sampson, who says, "When I think of a great team, I
think of Duke. When I think of another great team, I think of
Duke's bench." Just get your mind to accept the notion, for a
moment, that the Blue Devils can be beat.
After all, Duke was the last team to beat a seemingly invincible
opponent in the Final Four, when it upset unbeaten UNLV 79-77 in
1991 for the first of Krzyzewski's back-to-back titles. "Coach
told us, 'I'm going to be talking to the media all the time
about how great UNLV is,'" says Bobby Hurley, the point guard on
that team, "'but I'm going to tell you guys right here, right
now, I think we can beat them, and I want you to believe we can
beat them.' That kind of confidence rubs off." This year's
first-time-to-the-Final Four coaches--Michigan State's Tom Izzo,
the 1998 national coach of the year whose team seems to reflect
his smiling-assassin persona; Ohio State's O'Brien, who worked
so many miracles this season he should hold his summer camps at
Lourdes; and Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, an edgy sideline sentry
who lives and dies with every possession--will be working the
mental game, too, and all are experts at it.
Do we really think any of these supporting acts in St. Pete can
beat the Blue Devils? We do. (Please note that can is different
from will.) Here's how:
MICHIGAN STATE OVER DUKE, Saturday night. In the Spartans, the
Blue Devils will be meeting a true modern Stone Age fam-i-ly.
Though they frequently fail to draw iron, the Spartans rarely
fail to draw blood. Witness the collision between point guard
Mateen Cleaves and Oklahoma's Eduardo Najera, who was setting a
pick in the Midwest Regional semifinal last Friday night. Najera
ended up with a concussion and a lacerated chin, while Cleaves
walked away with just a head bruise. In the ensuing huddle,
assistant coach Tom Crean cracked up the Spartans by saying of
Cleaves, "It's not like he's missing an arm or anything." In one
practice this season, center Antonio Smith says he was elbowed
in the face a dozen times, sustaining two chipped teeth, and had
to get stitches in his right elbow after he used it to knock out
one of guard Doug Davis's teeth. Saving Private Ryan was a
cotillion compared with the average Michigan State scrimmage.
The Spartans come about their toughness naturally. Cleaves,
Smith, shooting guard Charlie Bell and forward Morris Peterson
(Michigan State's leading scorer even though he comes off the
bench) are all natives of Flint, the blue-collar Michigan city
that defines gritty. They played together on various schoolyard
and AAU teams, but high school was another matter. For example,
during one game between Northern High (Cleaves and Smith's team)
and Northwestern High (Peterson's), Smith went after Peterson
when Peterson committed a hard foul on Smith's brother Robaire.
A scuffle ensued until Cleaves played peacemaker--by pushing
Peterson away. All four of the Flintstones proudly sport FLINT
tattoos on their arms. Even Sparty, Michigan State's
broom-headed mascot, was wearing a paste-on skin FLINT during
Sunday's 73-66 win over Kentucky in the Midwest final.
This Duke team is supposed to be tougher than previous Blue
Devils teams, which, rightly or wrongly, were thought to have
had a soft, preppy aspect to them (SI, Feb. 22). In any case
there's no reason to believe that the Blue Devils will recoil in
terror at the sight of a few tattoos, particularly since they
rolled the 'Stones 73-67 earlier this season. But Duke has spent
so much time playing above the fray, refining the art of clean,
surgical basketball, that one has to wonder how they will do if
their semifinal turns into a contest of rim-rattling jump shots
(the Spartans outrebounded the Blue Devils by an absurd 41-25
margin in their Dec. 2 meeting) and tooth-rattling picks.
Remember this: Duke has trailed only five times in the second
half this season, but three of those times it was to
unintimidated urban teams--Cincinnati, St. John's and Fresno
State. If Michigan State keeps the game close, it just might
steal a win the way Cincinnati did in handing the Blue Devils
their only loss so far this season.
OHIO STATE OVER DUKE, championship game, Monday night. A few
months ago the Buckeyes, known as the Suckeyes during last
season's 8-22 campaign, weren't sure they were as good as
Northwestern, never mind dreaming about challenging the likes of
Duke. "Who ever thought this could happen?" O'Brien whispered to
point guard Scoonie Penn, as they embraced at midcourt after a
77-74 win over St. John's in the South Regional final. "Not me,"
answered Penn. If not you, Scoonie, then who? While Duke's 36-1
season has been an almost uninterrupted ascent, Ohio State's has
been nothing less than a magical mystery tour.
The tour leaders have been Penn, who has been mightier than just
about anyone in the tournament, and southpaw shooting guard
Michael Redd, who seems unstoppable once he decides to bull his
way to the hoop, which is a large percentage of the time he has
the ball. Two players, no matter how formidable (this duo
averages 36.8 of Ohio State's 75.3 points per game), do not an
upset make, of course, and, for the Buckeyes' backcourt to
dominate, it must find a way to get Blue Devils quarterback
William Avery into foul trouble and onto the bench.
Even while giving due consideration to the importance of
sweet-shooting senior Trajan Langdon, the MVP of the East
Regional, it's not hard to conclude that Duke's one
indispensable player is Avery, a 6'2" sophomore. Without Langdon
the Blue Devils could get outside shooting (albeit not as
proficient) from Avery, Chris Carrawell and Shane Battier.
Without center Elton Brand, it could plug in supersub Corey
Maggette and go with a smaller, quicker lineup that could up the
tempo and run by a lot of teams. But Duke without Avery simply
isn't so devilish. "Trajan and I can both play point," says
Carrawell, "but we're not comfortable doing it. We have to have
Will Avery out there." Never mind the decisions that Avery makes
on the run; it's the lightning-bug manner in which he runs
Duke's half-court zone offense that's irreplaceable. If there's
a seam in a zone, Avery is in it before it closes. If there's no
opening in front of him, he beats his man off the dribble, draws
another defender and kicks to Langdon or small forward
Carrawell. And with the shot clock running down and the
opposition in man-to-man, Avery will manufacture a scoring
opportunity for himself or somebody else. How important is he?
Keep in mind that when the Blue Devils upset UNLV in 1991, one
reason for their unexpected success was that they fouled out
Runnin' Rebels point guard Greg Anthony.
Right now, the only point guard playing at Avery's level is the
5'10" kid who used to snack on Scooter pies and buzz around on a
scooter. To Penn's estimable presence add one other Ohio State
virtue: the sudden emergence of heretofore unassertive 6'11"
junior center Ken Johnson, who had 12 points and seven blocks
against St. John's. We're not sure that Johnson, a
poetry-writing, piano-playing art major, would survive a
scrimmage in Bedrock, uh, East Lansing--O'Brien calls him "one
of the sweetest, nicest young men you could ever want to be
around," and Johnson acknowledges that he "wasn't raised by a
lot of hard-type people"--but he has shown himself to be a
clutch player. Before a game against Michigan in Ann Arbor on
Jan. 16, Johnson sat at a piano in the hotel lounge, drew a
crowd of Dairy Queen conventioneers and performed flawlessly.
If it wins the national championship, fourth-seeded Ohio State
will have beaten three No. 1 seeds--Auburn, Connecticut and
either Duke or Michigan State. That's exactly what another No. 4
seed, Arizona, did when it won the title by defeating Kansas,
North Carolina and Kentucky in 1997. From time to time magic
carpets do stay aloft.
CONNECTICUT OVER DUKE, championship game, Monday night. The
runnin' and gunnin' Huskies seem to be the most likely candidate
to spring an upset. They have a Northeast nastiness about them,
a we-be-bad sensibility that does not seem artificial. Some of
it comes from the pugnacious manner of Calhoun, a
heart-on-his-sleeve guy who surfs the Internet to read most
everything that's written about UConn and has been known to
challenge the wordsmiths with whom he disagrees. Some of it
comes from their beach ball of a point guard, 5'10", 203-pound
Khalid El-Amin, the only player in America who could go 0 for 12
from the floor, as he did against Gonzaga, and still act as if
he owns the arena. Some of it comes from the formidable
contributions of their X factors, guard Ricky Moore (a defensive
stopper) and power forward Kevin Freeman (15 rebounds against
Gonzaga, 10 off the offensive glass). Both are hard-nosed,
unselfish players who, like Duke's Battier, don't need the ball
to have a profound effect on a game.
Still, the Huskies must combine octane with attitude to beat
Duke. Alone among the Blue Devils' challengers, they'll be glad
to play an up-tempo game and challenge the wildly overstated
belief that Duke is deep. Anyone who has seen Connecticut's fast
break at its 4x100-meter-relay best knows it could happen like
Center Jake Voskuhl, who has three inches on the 6'8" Brand,
rebounds and outlets quickly to El-Amin. Forward Richard
Hamilton, the only Connecticut player who could possibly start
for Duke, catches El-Amin's lead pass on the run, takes one
dribble and jams it, no more than four seconds after the play
begins. That sequence or something like it is repeated a few
times, and suddenly Langdon and Avery get winded or commit
fatigue fouls and have to go to the bench.
This is where it would get interesting. Sampson and others tend
to overrate Duke's depth for one reason: Maggette, the 6'6"
freshman who is so good and so versatile (he would be the top
player on 95% of the nation's teams) that it seems as if he's
four different reserves. He's two, tops. After him Duke goes to
Nate James, a solid but unspectacular swingman; Chris Burgess, a
lumbering big man who won't outplay Voskuhl; and, though
Krzyzewski would rather not think about it, 6'10" Taymon
Domzalski, who won't be tamin' anyone.
Connecticut goes nine or even 10 deep. In Albert Mouring, a
sophomore three-point specialist, the Huskies get another potent
scorer to take pressure off Hamilton and El-Amin. In Rashamel
Jones, a battle-tested senior guard, they get a lot of
leadership and defense. In Edmund Saunders, a 6'8" sophomore
forward, they get a post player to battle Brand on the boards
and, from time to time, hit a midrange jumper. In E.J. Harrison,
a senior walk-on guard who has played in every tournament game,
they get someone to buy El-Amin a few minutes of rest--a
significant factor against Duke's relentless traps. And in
Souleymane Wane, they get a 6'11" body to collect a few fouls
against Brand and perhaps swat away a shot or two.
Then again Duke is that rare team that can play varied tempos,
and if it wants to slow UConn down, it can do so by battling the
Huskies on the boards, thus decelerating the transition game.
And at the other end the Blue Devils can work the clock by
running their seamless half-court offense.
Krzyzewski will have thought of all these things--and much, much
more--before tip-off. The blistering halftime lecture he gave
the Blue Devils after they led Southwest Missouri State by only
39-30 in last Friday's regional semifinal--"Do you want to go
home? Do you want to come here after the game crying?" he
screamed, calling them fat cats and grabbing the jerseys of
Avery and Maggette--is just one indication that he will make
sure the Duke players are keeping their eyes on the prize.
Yes, as much as we love Scoonie and the Flintstones and the
bundle of up-and-down-the-court energy that is Connecticut, our
suspension of disbelief was interrupted by the screeching sound
of chalk. We like the Blue Devils. We like them a lot.
Duke's 36-1 record going into the Final Four is impressive, but
a closer look at the numbers reveals even more clearly just how
spectacular a season the Blue Devils are having and why they're
heavy favorites to win the national crown.
1,485 Minutes Duke has played this year
111 Minutes it has been behind (7.5%)
24 Minutes it has trailed in the second half (3.2%)
5 Games in which it has trailed in the second half
25.9 Average margin of victory, best in nation and sixth
92.9 Points per game, best in nation
51.8 Shooting percentage, second in nation
38.8 Field-goal-percentage defense, best by Duke since 1959-60
765 Free throws made, 64 more than opponents have attempted
6.4 Average number of blocked shots per game, a Duke record
35 Charging fouls drawn by forward Shane Battier, a Duke
106 Three-point shots made by guard Trajan Langdon, a Duke
8-0 Record against teams in Sweet 16
38 NCAA-record number of victories
Duke will have if it wins the national title
not comfortable. We have to have Will Avery out there."