Final 4 survival of early favorites

Many preseason picks hit mark

here's taking Spartans over Terps

Analysis

NCAA Tournament

March 26, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The college basketball season played out over four months and nearly 10,000 games. Now, the teams that many picked to be among the top five or six in the country before the season even began are left to finish it at the Final Four, starting Saturday in Minneapolis.

It was not an easy road to the Metrodome for any of them.

Arizona, the No. 1 team in the preseason, had an emotional December, losing coach Lute Olson's wife to cancer and watching two of its stars, Loren Woods and Richard Jefferson, serve NCAA suspensions, and team captain Eugene Edgerson get suspended briefly for not following team rules.

Maryland, a popular choice to go farther than it had ever been before, seemed lost after blowing a game in late January to Duke and bottoming out with a home defeat to Florida State, bringing coach Gary Williams under fire in College Park.

Duke, which many considered to be too thin on the bench, appeared in imminent danger of collapse when center Carlos Boozer sustained a broken foot in a home loss to Maryland in late February, only to change its style and become a more dangerous team even before Boozer returned last week.

Michigan State, the defending national champions, came into this year's NCAA tournament in a slump, having lost to Penn State in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament, and wasn't even considered the best team in its conference.

Somehow, they all survived.

"It could be one of the strongest Final Fours ever," Duke All-American Shane Battier said Saturday night in Philadelphia after the Blue Devils advanced with a 79-69 victory over Southern California in the NCAA East Regional.

Here is a breakdown of the teams and who might have the edge to win it all:

Coaching experience

From a coaching standpoint, Gary Williams is the only novice in this setting. His counterpart in Saturday's semifinal game, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, has been to eight Final Fours and won twice, going back-to-back in Indianapolis and Minneapolis in 1991 and 1992.

Olson has been this far four times - once at Purdue and three times at Arizona - and won once, in 1997. Michigan State's Tom Izzo has built the quietest dynasty in college basketball. This will mark the third straight trip to the Final Four for the Spartans.

Edge: Duke

Playing experience

Though they didn't play as prominent a role two years ago, when Michigan State lost to Duke in the semifinals, seniors Charlie Bell and Andre Hutson know what it takes to win a championship. So does Arizona's Edgerson, who was a member of Arizona's championship team in 1997. Battier has bad memories of Duke's loss to Connecticut two years ago, as does Nate James.

Edge: Michigan State

Talent

Based strictly on NBA potential, Saturday's semifinal between Arizona and Michigan State will have a lot more top draft picks than Duke and Maryland. All five starters for the Wildcats were among the initial John Wooden Award candidates, and Spartans freshman Zach Randolph and sophomore Jason Richardson have the most upside.

Based on what they have done this season, Battier and sophomore point guard Jason Williams will likely share a few player of the year awards, having carried the Blue Devils on their backs all year. Lonny Baxter's stock went up a zero or two with his performance for Maryland against Stanford, and Juan Dixon has been right there with Battier and Williams in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season.

Edge: Arizona

Depth

If they play as they did in Anaheim, the Terrapins have a chance because they go deeper than Duke and are just as deep as either Arizona or Michigan State. If the Final Four is called tight, it could help Maryland's cause. But the tight hand-checking rules that were supposed to be enforced this season haven't been called with much regularity since the conference season began.

The Spartans proved themselves even deeper than previously believed in yesterday's 69-62 win over Temple in the South Regional final, with lightly regarded senior Dave Thomas coming up with a career game. Boozer's injury gave Krzyzewski the opportunity to use Casey Sanders and Reggie Love, and James has played well off the bench.

Edge: Maryland

Playing style

The Spartans have the best half-court offense, with the Terrapins running second if they play as they did against Stanford. That kind of attack has usually worked well down the stretch, and Duke's high-flying, three-point shooting, turnover-making performances of late might not bode well for the Metrodome - especially against a team familiar with how to play against it.

The Wildcats are capable of operating at different speeds, but their ability to blow big leads (like another team we know) might hurt them if they get sloppy, as they did yesterday in their down-to-the-wire win over top-seeded Illinois in the Midwest Regional final in San Antonio. If guards Jason Gardner and Gilbert Arenas play under control, Arizona has a chance to give Olson a second title.

Edge: Michigan State

Point guards

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