It's a whole new game for Final Four coaches Hype tests patience, play tests ingenuity

March 28, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

SAN ANTONIO -- Coaches who get their teams to the Final Four suddenly find their tunnel-visioned worlds turned inside out. From the time they help cut down the nets at the regional final until they arrive for their first pre-game practice, they have little time for what they are paid to do.

Coach.

"It's important to have a similar routine -- film sessions, shoot-arounds, practices -- and I think the kids need that," Stanford coach Mike Montgomery said yesterday. "But the demands make it almost impossible to keep things the same. It has been more difficult for the staff to do things like look at tape. The magnitude of this is so much greater than anything you do all year as a coach."

In that regard, none of the four coaches here for today's NCAA tournament semifinals has that big an advantage because none has been in this position before. Though second-semifinal opponents Bill Guthridge of North Carolina and Rick Majerus of Utah have been assistants on Final Four teams, this marks the first time since 1959 that the head coaches are all first-timers.

"I think if anybody has an edge it's Bill Guthridge because he was in the Final Four so many times [10] with Dean Smith," said Majerus, who was an assistant to Al McGuire when Marquette beat the Tar Heels to win the championship in 1977. "But when you come right down to it, the players will have a lot more to do with the outcome than the coaches."

Kentucky coach Tubby Smith admitted last week at the South Regional in St. Petersburg, Fla., that in preparing for Stanford, he would rely as much on the experience of some of his players who had been to the Final Four the past two years as the players would rely on him for his decision-making during today's first semifinal.

But the adjustments Smith made after Duke raced to an 18-point lead in the regional final helped the Wildcats make up the deficit and eventually come back from another 17-point deficit in the final nine minutes to win, 86-84. Smith said yesterday that it is those kind of mid-game adjustments that helps stoke his competitive fires.

"This is what it's all about, competing against the best," said Smith, who went to a smaller, quicker lineup that the Blue Devils had difficulty stopping. "Players want to compete against other players at the highest level and coaches want to coach against the best coaches."

Coaching has been a deciding factor in many Final Fours over the past two decades. Since 1975, when UCLA ended its dynasty of 10 championships in 12 years, the performances of coaches in the Final Four have sometimes overshadowed the players.

Coaches such as McGuire in 1977, North Carolina State's Jim Valvano against Houston in 1983, Villanova's Rollie Massimino against Georgetown in 1985 and Kansas' Larry Brown against Oklahoma in 1988 helped their teams overcome heavy favorites to win.

The decision by Majerus' former boss, McGuire, to go zone against North Carolina's four corners figured decisively in 1977.

"We started out playing zone just on end [line out of bounds] and it worked," Majerus recalled yesterday. "Then he said, 'Let's go zone all the time.' We had no intention of playing zone. And we win the game. But you need a certain amount of good fortune. If I remember correctly, one of the key Carolina players [Walter Davis] had an injury."

It was Majerus' decision to have his Utes, a traditional man-to-man team, play a 3-2 zone against Arizona in the West Regional final that threw the Wildcats into a funk, resulting in a shocking, 76-51 victory. He knows that he probably won't be able to do the same thing against the Tar Heels.

Those who've been in this situation before believe that nothing in their coaching careers prepared them for their first Final Four.

"If I had to say anything to them, I'd tell them: 'Don't be satisfied with just getting to the Final Four,' " said Eddie Sutton, who took Arkansas to the Final Four in 1978 and Oklahoma State in 1995.

"But it's a lot different than it was when I first went," said Sutton. "Back then, it was like the Sweet 16 is now in terms of media coverage and the demands. I think any coach now who takes his team to the Final Four should be told they won the national championship."

Said Louisville's Denny Crum, who took the Cardinals to the Final Four six times, winning twice: "Three of the four teams that go to the Final Four go home disappointed. As a coach, you've got to keep things in perspective so it doesn't affect your players."

Most of the coaches here have tried to take the pressure off their players. Unlike Georgetown's John Thompson, who in 1982 kept his players sequestered in Biloxi, Miss., for a Final Four in New Orleans, the coaches have tried to allow their teams to be part of the festivities. Majerus took his team to a piano bar Thursday night, only to have his players turned away because they were under the legal drinking age.

"I expected there would be more of everything -- more film work, more practices -- but he's kept everything the same," said sophomore forward Alex Jensen.

Majerus will go into tonight's game against the Tar Heels with a game plan that will include as many as five options for guarding against North Carolina's pick-and-roll.

And he might have to go to the 3-2 zone he used against Arizona, perhaps as a last-gasp move. What happens if it works and the Utes go on to win the title?

"I'll probably be asked to write a book about the 3-2 zone," Majerus said, "and coaches everywhere will go out and buy it."

Pub Date: 3/28/98

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