Finally, it's set: Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan and North Carolina will take this college basketball season to its end. They are the Final Four. But they are also a sort of first four—four schools that together account for 10 NCAA championships, 37 Final Four appearances and something close to 5,725 victories. Further, the Jayhawks, Wildcats, Wolverines and Tar Heels will be party to a summit meeting without precedent. Not once since 1979, when the tournament committee first began seeding teams, have as many as three No. 1 seeds reached the national semifinals. This time top seeds Kentucky, Michigan and North Carolina all safely swept their regionals.
If last weekend proved nothing else, it established the value of having eight, nine, even 10 players who can truly play, as all four of these surviving teams do. Regional-final losers Cincinnati, Florida State, Indiana and Temple each had out-sized talent through the first six or seven spots on their rosters. But once engaged in wars of attrition with deeper opponents, all were ultimately not just beaten but beaten down.
So Cinderella has been left a charwoman, and we're left to figure out what might happen in New Orleans. It's a task more difficult than divining the inner workings of Bobby Cremins's heart or Luther Wright's brain. No one will be "just happy to be here"; all four coaches of these powerhouse programs have been to the Final Four before. Two have won a national title. And North Carolina's Dean Smith has already won it in the very parish where this year's finalists will convene. Those who believed that the season-long scramble at the top of the polls, with six teams taking a turn as No. 1, was evidence of balance in the game, well, they were right. This Final Four is drawn entirely from the ranks of those splendiferous six.
What will they do when they face one another? Will the challenge of Kentucky's pressure defense jump-start the heretofore largely soporific sophomores of Michigan? Or will the Wildcats continue to rain down three-pointers as successfully (46.6%) as they have been doing throughout the tournament? North Carolina fire-walked through two of the most withering presses in captivity, those of Arkansas and Cincinnati, to advance, but can the Tar Heels now look in the mirror and solve the half-court schemes of Kansas, coached by that disciple of Dean's, Roy Williams?
For the last three months it would have taken a preternaturally active imagination to envision the Jayhawks going to New Orleans. Kansas lost 64-49 at home to Long Beach State in January. It didn't once shoot 50% in a game in February. And with March came the Big Eight tournament, in which the Jayhawks came up short in an ugly second-round loss to Kansas State. By that time Williams, who had been inconsolable after losing to Duke in the 1991 NCAA title game and had flagellated himself all summer over the Jayhawks' second-round loss to Texas—El Paso in the '92 national tournament, was a candidate to impale himself on one of those CBS promos for Picket Fences.
Instead he found solace in the supernatural. He took to rubbing the headstones on the graves of hoops pioneers James Naismith and Phog Allen during his morning jogs through Lawrence. And on his way to the St. Louis Arena last week, before each of Kansas's two games there, he ordered the team bus to stop at the bank of the Mississippi River so every last Jayhawk could spit in it. It seems that the last time Williams had been on the bank of Old Muddy in similar circumstances, as an assistant with the North Carolina team that won the 1982 NCAA championship in New Orleans, someone had told him that hawking one into the river brought good luck. "We had Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, James Worthy and Dean Smith," he says. "What could Roy Williams do? So I spit in the river."
With their great expectorations, the Jayhawks have finally fulfilled the great expectations of preseason forecasts. In the Midwest Regional semifinal they put a lid on Jason Kidd and California 93-76. Then they tied up Indiana and its valiant star, Calbert Cheaney, 83-77 with some chest-to-chest man-to-man defense and 47 points from the frontcourt committee of Darrin Hancock, Greg Ostertag, Eric Pauley, Patrick Richey and Richard Scott. Kansas had its way inside against the Hoosiers in part because 6'9" forward Alan Henderson, suffering from a bum knee, played only three minutes. To do to North Carolina and 7-foot Eric Montross what they did to Indiana, Kansas will require another sturdy group effort up front to go along with the customary contributions from its usual strength, the back-court of Rex Walters (page 22) and Adonis Jordan. "Thank goodness," says Williams, "that the Mississippi runs all the way to New Orleans."
One of the things Williams credits with turning the Jayhawks around is his decision to grant his players blanket permission to let fly any shot they believe they can make. Williams's old mentor has found success in similar fashion, by letting loose another Williams, Donald, the Tar Heels' sophomore shooting guard. Williams scored North Carolina's last nine points in an 80-74 defeat of Arkansas in the East Regional semi in Hast Rutherford, N.J., last Friday. Then, in Sunday's final, after doing little in the first half as Cincinnati's Nick Van Exel dropped six three-pointers on the startled Tar Heel defense, Williams watched the Exel fall off the Bearcats' offense in the second half and then tossed in two crucial treys of his own during overtime. The first came from just in front of Smith, who shouted, "Knock it down!" as Williams went up to shoot. The second was an absolutely cold-blooded, off-the-dribble, top-of-the-key number with a quarter turn—a shot that might have given even the newly permissive Smith conniptions had it not assured a 75-68 victory.
Last week Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson called Smith "the last of the cowboys," perhaps because Smith has rustled up such a herd of fine, complementary players. When Williams has a good stroke going, Montross can work more effectively in the low post, while his frontcourt mates, Brian Reese and George Lynch (page 25), also prosper. Lynch operates vertically with short jumpers and consistent rebounding, and Reese does so horizontally, with swoops and sallies to the goal. Point guard Derrick Phelps brings order to it all. "They have been put together in just the right way," says Wake Forest coach Dave Odom. "I've seen all of Dean Smith's teams, and this may be the best job he has ever done as a coach."
When poet Maya Angelou, a professor at Odom's school, spoke of "A Rock, A River, A Tree" at President Clinton's inauguration in January, she might have taken as inspiration for the rock and the tree 6'7", 235-pound Wake Forest forward Rodney Rogers. But at the South-cast Regional in Charlotte, N.C., the Demon Deacons' boulder-redwood and his mates were swept away 103-69 by a raging river of Wildcats. Kentucky's torrent of pressure defense and three-point shooting then drowned Florida State 106-81. The best way to quantify the Wildcats' erosive power is to mull-this over: Ten minutes into its game with Kentucky, Wake Forest was shooting 86% from the field—and trailed by 22. Why? The Deacons had been able to launch only seven shots. Consider, too, that the Wildcats bottomed out their first eight three-point attempts, with Jamal Mashburn tossing in all five of his. In the two games in Charlotte, nine different Wildcats knocked down at least one three-pointer.
At its best Kentucky doesn't merely play at another level, it plays another game. Conventional coaching strategy is to "work the ball" close to the basket on offense and then "fall back" on defense. The Wildcats' ability to invert that orthodoxy—to score from remote distances and press forward on defense—is virtually unique in the college game. It's as if coach Rick Pitino were some foot-stomping, adolescent pinball wizard who leans over the machine and works all the bumpers with a prodigy's feel. "Coach wants everybody to be a shooter," says 6'9" freshman Jared Prickett, who sprang for 22 points and 11 rebounds against the Seminoles. "If you're open and afraid to take the shot, that's worse than missing the shot."
When an ESPN production crew went to Lexington, Ky., last month to work on a half-hour retrospective about the Wildcats' overtime loss to Duke in last spring's East Regional final, Pitino refused to address the subject, nor would he allow his players to do so. As he explained, cordially, he didn't want to disturb his or his team's focus. Good move: Without exception, the Wildcats attribute their racing out to 14-0, 17-0, 29-9, 27-8 and 34-8 starts in five of their last seven games to an ability to lock in firmly on the task at hand. Kentucky didn't put Florida State away until the 30-minute mark, but that may have been because traffic kept the Wildcats from arriving at the Charlotte Coliseum until a half hour before tip-off.
If Michigan has a chronic weakness, it's a tendency to let its concentration wander. God help the Wolverines if they should fade out early in their game with Kentucky. Has any team spent more time trailing in four games it finally won than Michigan did in winning the West Regional? "We know we haven't played good basketball," said forward Chris Webber after the Wolverines had earned a place in the West final by beating George Washington 72-64. "We didn't look like Michigan; we looked like a bunch of junior high kids."
To shake his Wolverines out of their torpor on the eve of the final against Temple, coach Steve Fisher screened a video of Michigan's last game against the Owls. To see themselves so full of enthusiasm in that game, a first-round victory in last season's NCAA tournament, served as a panacea for whatever mid-life crisis these sophomores were going through. "You don't even need to say anything, Coach," said point guard Jalen Rose, who had been particularly lifeless of late, when the tape finished. "Let's just play."
Rose finally did, scoring 17 points without a turnover. Webber also came alive, especially after being on the receiving end of a halftime philippic from Fisher. As Michigan finally salted away its 77-72 victory, in a game the home folks in Seattle might have mistaken for another case of loggers preying on Owls, one sign augured well for the Wolverines' ability to check the Kentucky perimeter game: Michigan held Temple's superb guards, Rick Brunson, Eddie Jones and Aaron McKie, to 40% shooting. "We've been put on a pedestal so much, analyzed so much, that we're not respected as individuals anymore," said Webber, sounding like someone who has had his fill of being billed as Fab. "When you're looked at as a novelty act or a traveling sideshow, it sort of gets to you. All the basketball gurus say we're the most underachieving basketball team they've ever seen. We'll be underdogs against Kentucky, and I say fine, that's as it should be. Nobody thought we'd get to the championship game last year. So what's new?"
Nothing's new. It's just the same old same old—Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina—and you can make a case for each of them. Before this year, the last time the Wolverines had suffered two one-point regular-season losses to Indiana was in 1989. Fisher coached Michigan to a title that year. Dean the Dude and his Carolina Cowpokes have so much size that Richardson was moved to say, "I've been to four rodeos, three cattle ropings and two calf castrations, and I've never seen anything like it." As for Kansas, the Jayhawks, as we know, spit in the river.
But how can you pick against the river itself? Two weeks ago this fearless forecaster filled out a draw sheet that had North Carolina winning it all, and then watched during the intervening fortnight as every choice save the Tar Heels and the Wildcats flamed out. But we've seen enough of Kentucky over the last four games to realize we should have stuck with SI's preseason pick of the Wildcats. North Carolina, with 1,568 victories, and Kentucky, with 1,560, have been doing a do-si-do at the top of the alltime NCAA victory list over the past few years. On Monday night look for the Wildcats to pick up a game in the standings.
After burying Wake with a barrage of threes, Mashburn showed the Seminoles a different—and more frightening—look
Rose endured a scourging by Temple as Michigan completed a bumpy ride to the Big Easy.
Reese's slash-and-burn moves helped Carolina advance.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
Ostertag, a big man on the blocks, was one of the large obstacles Kansas threw at Indiana.