Quick, will only strong survive? Texas shootout to pit two strength teams vs. two speedy ones

Final Four analysis

Ncaa Tournament

March 23, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

When Arizona won the national championship last year in Indianapolis, college coaches all over the country began reshaping their teams, if not their philosophies, in looking for quickness in the frontcourt as well as the backcourt.

They still might if North Carolina or Kentucky wins this year.

But what happens if it's Utah or Stanford?

There will be more than just a national championship at stake when the Final Four heads to the Alamodome Saturday. There will be more than just a battle between the two winningest programs in college basketball history and two West Coast upstarts.

There will be matchups of speed vs. strength, of finesse vs. forearms.

"Conflicting styles," said Utah coach Rick Majerus.

While the Tar Heels and Wildcats rely on scoring in transition, the Utes and Cardinal are more content to pound the ball inside -- and pound the other team on defense. It is a style that has bothered North Carolina star Antawn Jamison at times during the tournament.

"Antawn has come over to me during games and said they were really muscling him," North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge said last week in Greensboro, N.C., where the Tar Heels advanced with victories over Michigan State and Connecticut in the NCAA East Regional. "All I can tell him is that I hope they start calling it tighter."

That is unlikely to happen, since officials tend to let teams play more physically in the NCAA tournament than during the season. Their shocking 76-51 victory over the defending national champions in the West Regional final has given the Utes a taste of what to expect against the Tar Heels.

"Arizona is the epitome of that [a quick team] and we handled them," Majerus said yesterday by phone from Newport Beach, Calif., still basking in the afterglow of his team's first Final Four trip in 32 years. "I'm not saying we're going to do the same to North Carolina.

"They're a great team. If Dean Smith is No. 1, then Bill Guthridge is 1A. We're going to have to figure out a way to handle their quickness. The whole thing will be the tempo of the game, the foul count and taking care of the ball."

Here's a look at the semifinal matchups:

North Carolina vs. Utah

The Tar Heels wanted another shot at Arizona after losing to the Wildcats in last year's semifinals, so their motivation might not be as strong to beat the Utes. North Carolina has played two physical teams, beating Clemson twice in the ACC and North Carolina-Charlotte in the second round of the tournament. All three games were close, and the Tar Heels were forced to go to overtime against the 49ers.

Jamison could have his hands full at both ends, particularly if he has to guard Utah's Michael Doleac for any significant stretch. Doleac, a 6-foot-11 center who played in the shadow of Keith Van Horn his first three years, can use his size to wear down Jamison. Makhtar Ndiaye is the only real physical player North Carolina has, but his emotions often get the best of him. It will be vital for Ndiaye to stay out of foul trouble against guys like Doleac and 6-10 sophomore Hanno Mattola.

Where North Carolina needs to exploit the Utes is out on the perimeter, particularly with the matchup of Vince Carter and Utah's Brett Hansen at small forward. Utah point guard Andre Miller hung a triple double (18 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists) on Arizona's Mike Bibby, so Ed Cota probably doesn't scare the 6-2 senior. It might be up to Carter and Shammond Williams to carry the Tar Heels.

Another advantage might be in the experience playing in the glare of the Final Four. This is the second straight for North Carolina and though Guthridge is in his first as a head coach, he was by Smith's side during 11 appearances by the Tar Heels. This will mark the first for Utah since losing to Texas-Western in the 1966 semifinal at Cole Field House, the game before Texas-Western's all-black starting team beat Kentucky's all-white lineup in what many have called the most historic final in NCAA history.

Kentucky vs. Stanford

Though these Wildcats have an inside presence in centers Nazr Mohammed and Jamal Magliore, who combined to block 12 of the team's regional-record 14 shots against UCLA, Kentucky is still a running, pressing team. And while Stanford has quality guards in Arthur Lee and Kris Weems, the Cardinal relies more on 7-footer Tim Young and 6-8, 225-pound forward Mark Madsen.

It will up to Lee and Weems, along with small forward Peter Sauer, to handle Kentucky's press. But it still might not matter, because Kentucky guards Wayne Turner and Jeff Sheppard, along with Allen Edwards, might be too quick for the Cardinal guards to handle. If Rhode Island nearly beat Stanford with little depth, what do you think the deepest team in the country is going to do?

Just as in the North Carolina-Utah game, Final Four experience should play a factor. Kentucky is going to its third straight, having won in 1996 and lost to Arizona in the final last year. The last time Stanford went this far was 1942, when the NCAA tournament was secondary to the NIT. For those interested, Stanford beat Dartmouth, which beat Kentucky to get to the final.

Pub Date: 3/23/98

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