Carolina favored, Duke underdog in the semifinals Pressure on UNLV to stay unbeaten, repeat as champ

March 30, 1991|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Correspondent

INDIANAPOLIS -- This is how much of a chance Duke has been given against Nevada-Las Vegas tonight at the Hoosier Dome in the semifinals of the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament. Nobody is mentioning Mike

Krzyzewski's 0-for-the Final Four.

This is how seriously the Blue Devils are being taken as a threat to end the Runnin' Rebels' run on a second straight national championship, the first team in 18 years to do so. Even Indiana's Bob Knight -- Krzyzewski's former coach at Army and still one of his closest friends -- is picking UNLV.

It doesn't surprise Krzyzewski that most are going with UNLV (34-0) over Duke (30-7), considering the Runnin' Rebels' 45-game winning streak, their perfect season and, most significantly, their 30-point blowout of the Blue Devils in last year's championship game at McNichols Arena in Denver.

"You would be crazy not to," said Krzyzewski, who's making his fifth Final Four appearance in the past six years and fourth straight, the first by a coach since UCLA's John Wooden did it in 1973. "They're one of the greatest teams ever to play college basketball."

Some believe Duke is crazy to get on the same court with UNLV, but there is another school of thought that suggests the Blue Devils, after last year, have nothing to lose. Even UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian has gone as far to say that Duke might have the edge psychologically considering what happened last year.

"That was an unusual game," said Tarkanian. "If we played them again the next day, it would have been a closer game. Duke's a better team than they were last year."

Or as All-American forward Larry Johnson said yesterday, "We played a near-perfect game that night. We haven't played that well since."

For their part, the Duke players are approaching this year's game differently. Some are trying to use last year as motivation; some are merely trying to erase the memories from their minds.

"It will be an edge only if we let it be," said Duke center Christian Laettner. "But Vegas can use it to their advantage because they know they killed us the last time we played."

"If you talk about revenge being the motive, you'll get killed again," said junior forward Brian Davis. "But we're not going out there saying, 'We're glad to be there.' We have confidence in ourselves."

Krzyzewski has tried to take the pressure off his players this week, kidding that "we hope we can get it within 20." Certainly the Blue Devils have had more time to prepare, but Krzyzewski found that might be a drawback, too.

"The good news is that we've had more time to prepare than we did last year," said Krzyzewski, whose team beat Arkansas in last year's semifinals. "The bad news is that the more tape we watch of them, the more scared we can become."

This all might be a ploy, of course, a set-up. In Pontiac, Mich., last week, after dismantling St. John's by 17 points in the NCAA Midwest Regional final, the Duke players talked about how this year's game against UNLV was going to be different.

Said senior forward Greg Koubek, "I don't think many people are giving us a chance. The main thing for us is to play smart. We didn't do that last year."

For a team going back to its fourth straight Final Four -- a mark surpassed by only UCLA and Cincinnati -- few are giving the Blue Devils a chance. They might have depth. They might play great defense. But who's going to guard Larry Johnson?

Who's going to stop this reign?

"Whoever does it is going to need some help from Vegas," said Krzyzewski.

UNLV, looking to become the first unbeaten champion in 15 years, is certainly not going to begrudge Duke a small favor like a national championship. The Blue Devils have never won before, in eight trips to the Final Four.

"Coach has told us to expect Duke to come out fired up because of what happened last year," said Johnson, who is expected to give the Blue Devils some severe matchup problems today. "But we're not going to lay down."

But the pressure is clearly on the Runnin' Rebels this year. The expectations have built through another controversial season at UNLV, with more allegations by the NCAA and rumors rampant that Tarkanian will retire after the tournament.

"We didn't talk about it all year, but the last couple of weeks it was tough to ignore," said Tarkanian. "I haven't felt the pressure until recently. Every time you turn on the TV, people are talking about us winning the national championship."

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