PHILADELPHIA -- Luther Wright, the 7-foot-2 Seton Hal center, stood at the foul line with his back to the basket. This was yesterday afternoon at The Spectrum, about 32 hours before the Pirates would face all-world Duke in an East Regional semifinal, but Wright was reflecting a notable lack of concern, instead bouncing a ball between his legs, turning and trying to reclaim it for a thunderous dunk.
Three consecutive times he failed, the restless Philly fans at this open session booing on each occasion. But then he succeeded, and the place exploded. Wright, his face bursting into a smile, threw his arms up in the eternal pose of the champion.
"Another one of our tightly structured practices," cracked Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo.
"Yeah, we're relaxed, and I honestly feel we can win," said forward Gordon Winchester. Then he thought back a year to when the Hall lost to all-world Nevada-Las Vegas in the West Regional final. "Before the UNLV game, I was going around saying we could win. But, honestly, I was just hoping we could win.
"We were a very young team last year, and although we'd had success, playing UNLV was a mental thing for us. We were saying we could win because you don't want to sell yourself short, but we never got over that mental thing. But now we've been through that UNLV game, and we remember that. We were very timid through those 40 minutes with them. This year, we won't be. This year, we believe we can beat anyone."
Duke, of course, is hardly just anyone, but the Hall does loom as the most threatening obstacle between the Blue Devils and their fifth consecutive Final Four appearance. Kentucky and Massachusetts, who meet here in tonight's opener, are nice teams with higher seeds, yet neither is as equipped as the Pirates.
Kentucky has only one special talent, forward Jamal Mashburn, and a competent point guard in Sean Woods. The Wildcats win by running and pressing and shooting threes, by employing a system that might unnerve lesser opponents -- but not Duke.
Massachusetts is a pack of hungry pit bulls that has all its starters averaging in double figures, rebounds (especially offensively) with relentless ferocity and yearns for that ephemeral thing called respect. The Minutemen are 30-4, seeded third and ranked No. 17, yet coach John Calipari says:
"Absolutely, we still feel we don't get any respect. Teams see us, it's hard for them to get up for UMass. It's just UMass. We're not a big-name school. Do we still think of that? Yeah. It's there. So this game is something that's important for the program, for the university."
"I think that's old hat," counters Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, a UMass grad. "UMass is no longer in that ballgame. It just beat the Big East [tourney] champion [Syracuse, in the second round]. So they can't claim to be David anymore. They may not be Goliath, but they're not David anymore."
Goliath is Duke's role, a role it stars in as it seeks its second straight national title. But the Blue Devils encounter a Seton Hall team equipped with more than just a slingshot. They encounter a team blessed with many attributes a champion must possess.
The Pirates go nine deep, and here is what comes off their bench: Forward John Leahy, a bomber who has hit his last seven three-point attempts and 18 of his last 26. The ponderous Wright (290 pounds at least), a freshman who has been inconsistent. Danny Hurley, another freshman, whose older brother is Bobby of Duke. And 6-8, 270-pound Darrell Mims, a junior forward who provides another wide body.
The starters include a dangerous scorer in guard Terry Dehere (19.3 average) and a blossoming point guard in sophomore Bryan Caver. The 6-8 Arturas Karnishovas, a native of Lithuania, is a quiet performer who contributes on many fronts, and the 6-7 Winchester is one of those anchors who relishes the dirty work.
Jerry Walker, the fifth starter, is the most ardent worker and relentless defender on a team that held 11 opponents below 40 percent shooting, that yielded only 50 percent shooting or better to three foes. He is listed at 6-7 but is closer to 6-5, so it is unlikely he will be matched against Duke's 6-11 Christian Laettner.
But Winchester, Karnishovas, Wright and Mims each probably will take a turn on Laettner, and that gives the Pirates 20 fouls to waste trying to control the Blue Devils' star. That is a luxury few Duke opponents possess, and the Hall has the resolve and steeliness teams develop trying to survive in the Big East.
That league was down this year, yet almost all its games resembled the clangorous clash tonight's surely will be. And the Hall arrives with 14 victories in its last 17 games and a 23-8 mark.