Blue Devils seek return to glory Kentucky stands in way of 5th Final Four of '90s

South Regional

March 22, 1998|By Don Markus RTC | Don Markus RTC,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Retro was in yesterday at Tropicana Field, where there was more talk about a similar matchup between Duke and Kentucky from six years ago than about today's NCAA South Regional final between the top-seeded Blue Devils and second-seeded Wildcats.

Like a bad pass, Duke point guard Steve Wojciechowski intercepted a question in mid-flight.

"I don't think that game is relevant to this game at all," said Wojciechowski, "since Christian Laettner and Grant Hill won't play for us and Jamal Mashburn and whoever else won't play for them. It's who plays better and harder today."

In that case, Duke might be in trouble.

Duke (32-3) ended the regular season as the nation's top-ranked team, but the Blue Devils have not been dominant since the NCAA tournament began. Conversely, Kentucky (32-4) has won 10 straight games by an average of more than 21 points.

"I think we're playing the hottest team in the country right now," Duke coach Mike Krzyzew- ski said yesterday. "They've had an amazing season, but what they've done lately is kind of phenomenal. They've destroyed people."

The latest victim was sixth-seeded UCLA, which lost to the Wildcats, 94-68, in their semifinal Friday night and came within a couple of late baskets of its worst NCAA tournament loss in school history. The Bruins might have been worn down by the end, but they were overwhelmed at the beginning.

The Blue Devils had their moments in an 80-67 victory over fifth-seeded Syracuse. Most, though, were provided by three freshmen. Elton Brand, Shane Battier and William Avery led Duke on a 19-3 run as the Devils broke away from a 49-49 tie. That trio scored the first 11 points in the run. Meanwhile, Duke's upperclassmen struggled.

"I think the fact that the freshmen played so well is a positive," said junior guard Trajan Langdon, whose postseason shooting slump continued with a 2-for-12 performance. "We know that the upperclassmen can play a lot better."

But what happens if Duke and Kentucky play as they have in the first three games of the NCAA tournament?

"Then Kentucky wins," Langdon said.

Wojciechowski said: "We know we haven't played as well as we were earlier in the season. Hopefully we're due for a really good game."

Though both teams rely on their depth and defense to wear down the opposition, Kentucky might have the advantage in both areas. The Wildcats are much more experienced, this being the third straight regional final for many in Tubby Smith's rotation. The Blue Devils made some mistakes against Syracuse's pressure defense that allowed the Orangemen to get back into the game.

Kentucky's depth is Duke's biggest concern.

"Certainly we've played against some deep teams in the ACC, like Clemson and Maryland, but I'm not sure if any team is as deep as Kentucky," Wojciechowski said. "It's going to be a challenge for our bench to try and step up. It will come down to big plays and which team has players stepping up to a higher level."

Whether the Wildcats can go any higher than they've been lately is questionable.

"We're playing as well defensively as we have all season," said Smith, in his first year replacing Rick Pitino as coach.

Kentucky will be trying to get to its third consecutive Final Four, while Duke is playing in its first regional final since 1994. If anything, the only experience edge the Blue Devils have is with Krzyzewski, coaching in his eighth regional final, over Smith, who's in his first.

"These guys have carried me all year," Smith said, jokingly. "So I hope they can carry me one more time."

Krzyzewski was asked about going to the Final Four for the first time in four seasons and what would be the fifth time in the '90s.

"These kids, for whatever reason, feel a need for us to get back there," he said. "I tell them, we don't need to get there to be back. We are back."

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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