MINNEAPOLIS -- What an unbelievable final game, baby! There were 65 teams invited to the Big Dance by Mike Tranghese and his tournament selection committee. Now 63 have put the uniforms and basketballs away for the season as two are left standing.
|Gilbert Arenas and the Wildcats have experienced an emotional journey to the championship game.|
What a dynamite duo, as the championship game features two hot teams battling for the gold trophy. Duke vs. Arizona features two of the elite programs in America. Two coaches nominated for the Basketball Hall of Fame match sideline moves. Coach K vs. Lute Olson in a matchup of the two men with the most NCAA Tournament wins among active coaches.
Think about the success they have had in tournament play. Krzyzewski is in his ninth Final Four in 16 years. Olson has his fifth different Final Four club (one came while at Iowa). They have already combined to cut down the nets three times.
Olson's Wildcats celebrated the championship in 1997 by beating three No. 1 seeds (Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas). To win it all this time around, Arizona would have to do the same thing. The 'Cats have already taken down Michigan State and Illinois as No. 1 seeds. Can the they pull off the trifecta?
Arizona is certainly the emotional pick. There are buttons, signs and billboards all around that say, "FOUR BOBBI" -- in honor of Olson's late wife of 47 years. They were high school sweethearts and the Olsons were married here in Minnesota. It has been a year filled with pain and hurt and his players have dedicated themselves to winning for their mom away from home.
Can the Wildcats make that dream come true after struggling early?
Then there is Duke. The Blue Devils won it all in 1992 right here in Minneapolis. Duke has followed an identical path this year, going through Greensboro and Philadelphia en route to the Final Four. Will there be a repeat performance in 2001?
Coach K also saw his '92 squad beat three teams from the same conference in the Big Dance -- Iowa, Indiana and Michigan. This year, the Blue Devils must beat a third team from the Pac-10 (Arizona) -- after already dispatching UCLA and USC -- to win the title.
The ACC hasn't won a national championship since 1993, when North Carolina cut down the nets against the Fab Five and Michigan down in New Orleans.
Looking at Monday night's final, let's start by looking at point-guard play. Jason Williams is the No. 1 point guard in America, and he will need to have his A-game big-time. Williams will be tested by Jason Gardner, a solid defender who also has superb quickness offensively plus the ability to shoot the trifecta.
If you don't believe in Gardner, give Michigan State coach Tom Izzo a call. The Arizona guard showed his explosiveness and the ability to hit threes in the semifinal. Gardner orchestrated and controlled tempo while scoring 21 big points in the knockout of the Spartans.
Duke needs to try to contain the balanced attack of the Wildcats. All five starters scored in double figures against Michigan State. Richard Jefferson has been doing it all on both ends of the court. He's become a supreme defensive stopper, and there will probably be moments where he gets the assignment against Shane Battier. Jefferson can rotate and check many people; he could also help with perimeter defense.
|Player of the Year Shane Battier will need his complete game when Duke takes on the Wildcats.|
Inside, the size of Arizona could be a factor. Loren Woods can provide matchup problems, so Carlos Boozer, a key vs. Maryland, must come up big again. Boozer was brilliant in scoring 19 points off the bench against the Terps. He neutralized Lonny Baxter, who was one of my PTPers entering the Final Four.
Arizona is holding teams under 40-percent shooting so far in the tournament and has to find a way to limit Duke's perimeter game. The lethal 3-point shooting of the Blue Devils has come in the clutch. Duke was out of sync early against Maryland, falling behind by 22 points. The perimeter game contributed to the comeback.
Character and heart are important factors for Duke. Most teams down 39-17 would have packed it in and folded up the tent. Instead, the Blue Devils never quit, fighting back and proving they could score the biggest comeback in Final Four history. That reflects the makeup of Duke's Coach K. The team responded, playing the game in segments as they narrowed the gap.
Jason Williams and Battier -- the most impressive 1-2 punch I have witnessed in the past decade -- simply made big play after big play. Battier hit one 3-pointer from downtown St. Paul, baby! This dynamic duo is scoring 58 percent of Duke's points in the NCAA Tournament.
Now we have the championship tilt. Can Arizona contain the 3-point shooting of Duke? Will the Blue Devils stop the size inside of Woods, Jefferson and Michael Wright? Then there is the perimeter play of Gardner and Gilbert Arenas; the latter can be one of the most explosive guards in America.
Hey, I just ran to my magazine and saw that my preseason picks were Duke No. 1 and Arizona No. 2. That was back in September, baby!
Monday night we will see who walks out with the gold trophy. My feeling is, somehow, some way, Battier and Williams will get the job done. I am sticking with my pick of the Blue Devils repeating the 1992 magic!