Baxter rules, unless Coach K blows whistle

The Final Four

Ncaa Tournament

March 31, 2001|By MIKE PRESTON

MINNEAPOLIS - Maryland's Lonny Baxter has been the NCAA tournament's dominant center the past two weeks, but he'll probably get more than double-teamed tonight when the Terps play Duke in a Final Four game at the Metrodome.

Duke will guard Baxter with a combination of Casey Sanders and Carlos Boozer. If Baxter, who has 69 points in his past three tournament games, continues that level of play, Sanders and Boozer won't be enough. The Blue Devils won't be able to handle Maryland big men Tahj Holden or Chris Wilcox either.

If that happens, look for the Blue Devils to bring out the ultimate weapon, coach Mike Krzyzewski and the officials.

That's Duke's ace card. Breathe on a Dukie. Foul. Get in the same air space with a Dukie. Foul. Blue Devils forward Shane Battier has taken more dives than former Olympian Greg Louganis.

If the referees let Baxter and the Boys play, Maryland has a huge advantage. If Coach K whines enough to get Baxter in foul trouble early or forces the powerful junior to be cautious, the Blue Devils have created the great equalizer.

The advantage then goes to Duke.

"I think we got a great advantage because Lonny Baxter has been playing great," said Terps forward-guard Byron Mouton. "I'm hoping and praying that the officials let the kids play, let everyone have fun. They don't have to let the game get too physical, but let us play. It's do or die."

When asked about Krzyzewski's riding officials, Mouton smiled.

"I don't know; we're going to have to wait and see. It depends on who the officials are," he said.

Mouton then realized he might has said a little too much.

"I don't have nothing more to say about the officials; we'll just have to wait and see," he said, smiling again.

The truth is that Baxter is playing the best basketball of his life. He is pulling down rebounds with authority, backing players in off the low post and beating them off the dribble outside the paint.

Baxter, 6 feet 8 and 250 pounds, scored 26 points against Georgetown in the regional semifinals and 24 two nights later against Stanford in the West Regional championship game. Now he has Sanders, who is three inches taller, but 50 pounds lighter. Or he draws Boozer, who is still out of shape after breaking a bone in his right foot against Maryland on Feb. 27.

Duke is as limited as Boozer's playing time, but they have Coach K and the zebras.

"We're playing one of the best teams in the country, so I have to play my game, play the way I've been playing," Baxter said. "It feels good to play consistently in all three games. I feel as though I have played hard and with intensity."

But will the refs let him be physical against Duke?

"I hope so," Baxter said. "Who knows?"

Chris Wilcox, the Terps' freshman forward-center, said: "The referees will call whatever they see. A lot of times we really don't get the calls, but we've got to play hard. We can't let anything get to us."

The officiating crew won't be announced until near game time. Baxter certainly won't get away with the physical play he exhibited last weekend against Stanford. Several times he caught the ball in the low post, turned and ran over Stanford center Jason Collins or his twin brother, forward Jarron Collins.

They were obvious offensive fouls, but Duke might get those calls.

You see, the Blue Devils are to college basketball what the Yankees are to Major League Baseball, the Cowboys to the NFL and the Celtics to the NBA. They have an aura, a mystique, having played in nine Final Fours, six title games and having won two national championships in 21 seasons under Krzyzewski.

They have earned the right to get some calls, but how many points is enough?

Krzyzewski rides the officials relentlessly. On a bad night, he is worth eight points a game. On a good night in the ACC, Krzyzewski might rack up 12. He has to be Duke's all-time leading scorer.

Of course, Duke fans will say I'm just another whining Terps fan, but I've never been accused of rooting for the home team. Actually, just the opposite. But the double standard in officiating is as obvious as the nose on Krzyzewski's face.

When was the last time you ever heard Duke complain about getting hosed in a game?

You've got to give Krzyzewski credit. He is so subtle about working officials. He always seems to be in control, sitting on the bench with his hand, index finger extended, across his face. He can mutter a few intimidating words that won't be caught on camera.

Or he can drop the big bombs when that's not working.

On the other side is Gary Williams, the Terps' demonstrative coach, who shows up officials more than Krzyzewski. He'll follow an official up and down the sideline or stare at him.

Krzyzewski's way works better. His team shot more foul shots than any other team in the conference this season. Proof of Krzyzewski's ability to work officials came in Game No. 1 against the Terps, one of the worst-officiated games in the conference.

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