Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Twin Cities, are fraternal burgs
whose very nickname implies replication. The last time an NCAA
champion repeated, the game was played in the Metrodome, where
this week Michigan State will try to match the 1992 victory that
gave Duke a second straight crown. Whether the Spartans do so--or
whether one of the others in the Final Four, the Blue Devils,
Arizona or Maryland, claims this season's prize--in all likelihood
will depend on four difference-makers, players on whom each
team's fate rests or, in one case, wobbles.
When Duke became the only school to repeat in the last 28 years,
it did so by relying on Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley and Christian
Laettner, its core from the previous season. The Spartans are
trying to win a second in a row after losing their core of Mateen
Cleaves, A.J. Granger and Morris Peterson. Much of Michigan
State's season, therefore, has been spent indoctrinating freshmen
Zach Randolph and Marcus Taylor into the ways of a championship
program. It's a task that coach Tom Izzo delegated to 6'8" senior
forward Andre Hutson. "Look," Izzo told Hutson earlier this
season, "I don't want to be the bad cop all the time."
Enter Hutson and his distant-thunder bass voice. After the
Spartans lost at Indiana on Jan. 7, Izzo moved both freshmen into
the starting lineup to add more scoring punch. Unfortunately,
each saw the promotion as a license to freelance, especially
Taylor, a guard who grew up just a few miles from the Michigan
State campus and who heard daily whispers from friends that
caused his head to swell. Late in the Spartans' 64-55 loss at
Ohio State on Jan. 27, Hutson pulled Randolph and Taylor aside to
plead with them to sacrifice themselves over the final five
minutes. "I thought they didn't do it, and I sort of went off on
them after the game," says Hutson, who's from the Columbus area
and had counted on a victory on his last pass through his
hometown. "I think that's when the freshmen really started to
understand what we were all about."
Following Michigan State's loss at Illinois several weeks later,
Izzo returned both to the bench--but that humbling broke them
down, and now they've been built back up. "Andre really
challenged Zach [after the Ohio State loss]," says Izzo. "I
talked to Zach the next day to be sure he was O.K. Andre took him
from a guy who was just playing on a team to a guy who was part
of a program."
Hutson has been the Spartans' link to the warrior spirit that
Cleaves embodied a year ago. "Dre doesn't get vocal much," says
senior swingman David Thomas, "but when he does, you know he
means business." On the eve of Sunday's South Regional final,
after the coaches had left a tape session, Hutson challenged each
teammate. The next day, in Michigan State's 69-62 defeat of
Temple, he filled Cleaves's other role, that of the Spartans'
ball distributor. When not grabbing one of his 10 rebounds or
scoring some of his 11 points--Hutson is shooting 73.3% through
four tournament games--he flashed into the middle of the Owls'
notoriously unyielding matchup zone, called for the ball and then
kicked it out to the wings or sent it down to the blocks ably
enough to lead the Spartans in assists with four. "We threw him
in the middle of their 2-1-2 and said, 'O.K., be a point guard,'"
In Minneapolis, against Arizona's man-to-man, the muscular
Hutson will return to his usual position, and it's not, as the
Wildcats' 7'1" Loren Woods will discover, point guard. Woods is
by turns a star and star-crossed. This season alone he has been
suspended by the NCAA for accepting illegal benefits and by coach
Lute Olson for insubordination in practice. He got tossed by a
ref in a game at Cal after drawing two technicals and disappeared
for long stretches of games over the final weeks of the season.
After going 0 for 4 against Oregon State on March 1, he said he
regretted not having left for the NBA following last season, and
he insisted that his best days in an Arizona uniform were over.
Before the Wildcats' tournament opener against Eastern Illinois,
he pronounced himself "a nervous wreck."
After Arizona beat Mississippi 66-56 in last Friday's Midwest
Regional semifinal, Woods was asked the usual softball question
about which team he'd prefer to play next, Illinois or Kansas.
"Tell you the truth, I'd rather not play either of them," he
said. "Can't we just skip the next round and go directly to the
Those don't sound like the words of a warrior. "He's more of a
burden than an asset," one NBA scout said of Woods two weeks ago.
"And he's the weakest guy in the country. His wingspan is useless
if you take the ball up in his face and shoot it through his
nose, because he can't back you out."
Even as Woods gets roasted in the press and by scouts and
opposing fans, like those of Illinois, who chanted "C-B-A!" at
him during the Wildcats' 87-81 victory in the regional final on
Sunday, his harshest critic is often himself. Against the Illini
he drifted through the first half like a ghost. He didn't take a
shot from the floor, didn't get a rebound and--as a reminder that
Arizona knows enough not to run its offense through him--failed to
contribute an assist. "Come on, Loren, we need you," his
teammates chorused at halftime. Woods took more than 10 minutes
of the second half to respond to their plea, but it was worth the
wait. Over the final quarter of the game he swatted away three
shots (giving him seven in the game), grabbed five critical
rebounds (every one in the final 3 1/2 minutes) and scored 13 of
his 18 points (including 7 of 7 free throws).
Against Ole Miss, Woods was the Wildcats' holler guy during a
cold stretch, bucking up his teammates with assurances that their
shots would drop if only they showed patience--"leading like a
fifth-year senior should," in the words of sophomore guard
Gilbert Arenas. The way he closed out the Big Ten co-champions on
Sunday, Woods proved that he can switch from burden to asset in a
trice. In the spotlight of the Final Four, which will he be?
The stars on the other side of the bracket don't pose such
questions. In a sport already lousy with Jason Williamses, not
many niches are left for a ballplayer who carries the name. The
guy with the Sacramento Kings has the punky-rebel-point-guard
slot; the one who recently retired from the New Jersey Nets, the
power forward who spells it Jayson, has the
chronically-injured-laff-riot slot. Duke's Jason Williams is a
departure from both. He's a stone-serious goody-goody--the former
captain of his high school chess team, a onetime poetry-contest
winner and an erstwhile altar boy who honors his girlfriend,
Wagner College forward Noelle Carter, by inscribing her uniform
number, 15, on his ankle tape. There's a measure of that
earnestness in this tale about Jason as a second-grader in
Plainfield, N.J.: He'd gotten in trouble with his mother, Althea,
who told him to prepare for a spanking. He went upstairs and
pulled on gloves, snow boots, two pairs of sweatpants, a ski
suit, a parka and a hockey goalie's mask before waddling
downstairs to tell Althea, "I'm ready."
She laughed so hard she couldn't whip him, and thus did Jason
score the first of many successes attributable to resolve and
careful preparation. After his first game as a Blue Devils guard,
an overtime loss to Stanford in November 1999 in which he shot 3
for 15 and committed six turnovers, he pulled out a black
notebook in which he makes his to-do lists. "What do you have to
do tomorrow?" he remembers writing. "You have to play better
His progress since is chronicled by various entries in that
journal. Watching last season's NCAA final on TV, he wrote, "I'm
bored with myself, and [the championship game] is where I want to
be next year. It's time to get to work." He dropped 10 pounds and
became the top scorer last summer for USA Basketball's under-20
team, which acquitted itself well against the NBAers on the U.S.
Olympic squad. All year long skeptics have doubted Duke's inside
game. In fact, the Blue Devils have a powerful one, and it
consists of Williams driving and rising to the basket. That, in
turn, holds the key to Williams's outside game: As a result of
his quicker cornering ability, defenders must now play a step off
him, so he has improved his three-point shooting percentage from
35.4% a year ago to 44.6%.
During a stretch early in the second half of Duke's 76-63 East
Regional semifinal defeat of UCLA on Thursday, after the Bruins
had pulled to within three, Williams left them grasping and
gasping. In eight minutes he scored all of the Blue Devils' next
19 points, a streak that ended only when he chose to pass to
teammate Shane Battier for a layup. Williams finished with a
career-high-tying 34 points. Two days later, in the regional
final against Southern Cal, he added 28 points as Duke won 79-69.
"You never know how many chances you'll get to play for a Final
Four," Williams had written in his journal before the USC game.
"Show everybody what you can do. It's now or never."
That was more or less the credo last week of another Williams,
Terrapins coach Gary. Eighty-seven schools have been in at least
one Final Four since the NCAA began its tournament in 1939, but
never Maryland. So after the Terps quailed through an 83-80
defeat of George Mason in the first round, Williams delivered a
25-minute philippic. George Evans, the Patriots' 30-year-old Gulf
War vet forward, had gulled Maryland's Lonny Baxter into foul
trouble and limited him to two points. "If you all want to go to
the Final Four, you've got to produce," Williams told Baxter.
"I'm putting all the weight on you and Terence [Morris, the
senior forward who had scored only four points]."
Williams might have used the word weight unthinkingly. "We're
always teasing him," says Terps forward Byron Mouton of Baxter.
"Say we're missing something. Like, Where's the camcorder?
Where's the bag with the shoes? It's always, 'Lonny ate it!'"
Yet, just as Duke's Williams credits weight loss for his improved
play, so does Baxter, who has dropped 12 pounds since a 72-62
loss at Georgia Tech on Feb. 6, in which he scored three points
and fouled out. "I've just been eating grilled chicken," says
Baxter, a junior center who goes 6'7" and, now, 255 pounds. "No
hamburgers, no fried food. I feel a lot quicker, more mobile."
Last Thursday Baxter sprang for 26 points and 14 rebounds in
Maryland's 76-66 victory over Georgetown in a West Regional
semifinal. In Saturday's final, a 87-73 defeat of Stanford, he
alternately bulled and spun his way to 24 points and six rebounds
while helping limit the Cardinal's 6'11" and 7-foot Collins
twins, Jarron and Jason, to a total of seven rebounds. "Last
night all he had was two cookies," Mouton said later. "I think it
made him light on his feet."
Baxter gave up four and five inches to such ACC big men as North
Carolina's Brendan Haywood and Georgia Tech's Alvin Jones, so he
has had to be resourceful to compensate. "Because he's wide and
strong, Lonny sort of leans and initiates some contact first so
he can create space," says Maryland assistant coach Billy Hahn.
Then he might shoot a turnaround, or a jump hook, or an
up-and-under--or simply take a drop step, square up and shoot.
"The coaches tell me to turn and face, to use my moves," says
Baxter. "They tell me I'm quicker than almost anybody in the
country, so use that quickness." There's been a great deal more
of that quickness since LB, whose initials are tattooed on his
left biceps, began shedding those lbs.
The Final Four will be the fourth meeting of the season between
the Terps and the Blue Devils, but it shouldn't provide a repeat
of last year's forgettable national semi between two other
conference brethren, Michigan State and Wisconsin, in which
familiarity bred contemptible, gear-grinding play. "We're both
up-tempo, and we're almost the same size at every position," says
Mouton. "It has to be the best rivalry in the country this year."
Indeed, each Duke-Maryland game has been suffused with drama. The
Blue Devils made up a 10-point deficit in the final 50 seconds of
regulation on Jan. 27 and beat the Terps in overtime. A month
later, on Senior Night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke lost
center Carlos Boozer to a foot injury, and Maryland swept to a
91-80 victory that served as the centerpiece of its late-season
resurrection, in which the Terps beat five ranked teams over six
games. Then, in the breathless final 8.1 seconds of an ACC
tournament semifinal, first Maryland guard Steve Blake tied the
game with a three-pointer, and then the Blue Devils' Nate James
won it with a tip-in--but only because Terps guard Juan Dixon's
half-court shot at the horn glanced off the rim. "See you in the
Final Four," Battier told Dixon as the two teams left the Georgia
Dome three weeks ago.
Blake was a key figure in each of those three engagements. As
Jason Williams approaches Battier's high screens, either to pull
up for a three or to find his opening to the basket, Blake has a
knack for hedging out, using his long arms and active hands to
break Williams's rhythm. In Duke-Maryland I, Williams committed
10 turnovers, and only after Blake had fouled out did he go on
the eight-points-in-13-seconds binge that helped send the game
into overtime. "Blake has defended me as tough as anyone I've
faced all year," says Williams, who became friends with Blake
over the summer when the two were roommates in Brazil on that
under-20 team, "We've already played three wars with Maryland.
This is going to be World War IV."
For the other national semifinal to be anything more than a
skirmish, Woods will have to join the Spartans' Hutson, Randolph
and Aloysius Anagonye in battle, and do so for more than ten
minutes. "You're asking if Arizona can stay with Michigan State
on the boards?" Illinois center Marcus Griffin said on Sunday.
"The answer is a flat no. It will not happen."
As we contemplate a Final Four in which three of the participants
have won NCAA championships in the past nine years, it's worth
noting a pattern: The basketball gods seem to go down their
checklist every other year, granting providential reward to some
long-suffering coach. UCLA's Jim Harrick was delivered a title in
1995, as was Arizona's Olson in '97 and Connecticut's Jim Calhoun
in '99. Perhaps Temple's John Chaney will win in 2003, and
Kansas's Roy Williams in '05, and Purdue's Gene Keady in '07.
This year, though, only one coach has a chance to break through.
"There is no fear of Duke here," says Maryland's Mouton. "None."
Beat Duke, as they could easily have done three times already
this season, and the Terps would have both the bodies and the
tempering to take out Michigan State or Arizona and finally force
a smile to bespoil Gary Williams's face.
Nonetheless, toughness remains the byword of the NCAAs. It says
here that the Blue Devils and the Spartans are the two toughest
teams in the Twin Towns. And it says there--in the building in
which Duke won its second straight championship nine years
ago--that we should cast our lot with the school bidding for its
second consecutive title.
How to beat Michigan State
We asked coaches and assistants, who this season have broken down
hours of tape preparing game plans to use against the Final Four
teams, to tell us what they saw and offer insights on how to play
those teams. They were guaranteed anonymity in return for their
candor. Here are some of their observations.
"Offensive rebounding is the biggest part of their game plan, so
you have to make sure your guys are always looking for a body to
block out," says an assistant whose team lost to the Spartans in
the tournament. "Jason Richardson is their most explosive player.
He's a 40 percent three-point shooter, but that's misleading
because he's not a great shooter; he's just selective. He likes
to come off screens and get himself set. If you can make him put
the ball on the floor, he's not the same shooter. You have to
respect Charlie Bell's outside shot, but it takes a little while
for him to get it together, so if you have a good defender who
can back off but still jump back on him, you can contain him.
Andre Hutson doesn't have any weaknesses, but you want to make
him an outside shooter rather than let him get the ball inside.
"On defense, they don't trap down on the blocks; they play you
straight-up, so a good big man can score on them inside. Their
biggest weakness is their offense against the zone, but you have
to mix up your defenses against them or they'll figure you out
because they're so well coached. If they're shooting the ball
well from three-point range and they're rebounding, they can win
the national championship, because they're athletic, they defend
and they can play at any kind of tempo."
How to beat Arizona
"The most important thing about Arizona is to block out the
Wildcats on the boards; they will fly over you if you let them,"
says an assistant whose team played them in the NCAAs. "The great
thing, though, is that they can be blocked out, all of them,
except for maybe Eugene Edgerson. To that end, although you have
to mix up your defenses on them somewhat, it's better to play
man-to-man. It's really hard to find them and keep them off the
boards when you're in a zone.
"Next, you have to stop their transition game. With all the talk
about Loren Woods being a pivotal player, their key guy is Jason
Gardner. He's a great point guard with a lot of energy, but he's
much more effective when he's on the run than in a half-court
game. The way you stop their transition game, of course, is to
make shots, which is easier said than done.
"Finally, do anything you can to make it a physical game. Take it
right to them in every respect. Woods is a classic 'soft' shot
blocker in that he's much better the farther away he is from you.
Richard Jefferson also doesn't like a rough game. Even Gilbert
Arenas, who's a fantastic athlete, gets frustrated in a physical
game. This isn't a reflection on Lute Olson, but I don't think
they're tough enough to win it all."
How to beat Duke
"Their spacing is so good that it's almost impossible to guard
them for 35 seconds and not give up an open shot," says one ACC
assistant. "But if they're vulnerable, it's because they depend
so heavily on the jump shot, and they're not always going to
shoot it well. We used zone defense effectively in spurts because
it makes them think twice about penetrating to dish for the open
three. Their three-point range is so deep that you have to guard
them a few feet behind the arc and try to force them to drive and
score over your post players in the mid-range game."
Says an assistant from a team the Blue Devils defeated in the
NCAA tournament, "You have to pick your poison against Duke.
Shane Battier and Jason Williams are All-Americas, so try to make
somebody else beat you. Keep the ball out of Williams's hands as
much as possible, but when he has it, make him go left because he
finishes better to his right. Make Battier go right because he
prefers to go left. Nate James has become a driver lately because
he's lost some confidence in his jump shot. When Chris Duhon
drives, play him to pitch it back out. Mike Dunleavy is a great
spot-up shooter, but if you can make him drive, he'll give up on
the play after a couple of dribbles. And also, you must have
poise against their defensive pressure and take good percentage
shots to keep them from running a fast-break clinic on you."
How to beat Maryland
"Maryland's offensive sets are really predictable because they
all end with flex motion out of a 2-3 offensive alignment," says
an assistant whose team lost to the Terps in the NCAA tournament.
"After huddles and timeouts they'll give a certain hand signal,
and it wasn't long before our players were yelling out their
plays. The hard part is keeping them from executing those plays.
"Lonny Baxter is most comfortable deep down on the right block.
They'll rub a wing off the opposing center to dislodge him so
that Baxter can get deep. You have to front him and not let him
catch the ball so deep, because he's not nearly as dangerous two
or three feet outside the block. Baxter likes to shoot a
right-handed half-hook, so force him to the middle. You should
also double down on him and make him pass, since he's not a good
passer. Terence Morris doesn't like contact inside, so be
physical with him when he doesn't have the ball, which makes it
tough for him to get the touches he wants. Morris has a lot of
talent, but he's up and down. I don't understand the hype.
"Morris and Baxter can make plays when those plays are available,
but Juan Dixon can create even when there's nothing there, so you
have to put a quick guy on him. At point guard, Steve Blake isn't
exceptionally quick, so you can wear him down with pressure by an
athletic guard. Byron Mouton is a bit of a wild card. He brings
energy, but you can help off him a little bit, and he won't kill
you on the perimeter. Danny Miller is headstrong, so if you
pressure him, he'll duck his head and try to drive past you,
which allows you to draw charges. For a big guy Tahj Holden can
really shoot, but like everyone else [except Dixon] he's a
standing jump shooter who doesn't create his own shots."
Hutson. "That's when they started to understand what we're all
Woods. "His wingspan is useless if you take the ball up in his
Four," Williams wrote in his journal. "It's now or never."