Force is with Ariz., Duke

Some degree of karma evident for both teams as they meet for title

April 02, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS - Arizona and Duke started the college basketball season as the two best teams in the country, and they will end up that way tonight when the Wildcats meet the Blue Devils in the NCAA tournament championship game at the Metrodome.

But the burning questions surrounding these two blue-chip teams have to do with forces beyond their control. Will divine intervention take over for Arizona, or will some other type of intervention take over for Duke? There was a sense of both happening in Saturday's semifinals.

The Wildcats (28-7), on a mission to win a championship for coach Lute Olson since the death of his wife on New Year's Day, played with as much purpose as has been seen at a Final Four in dismantling defending national champion Michigan State in the first game, 80-61.

The Blue Devils (34-4), down by 22 points to Maryland after only 11 minutes and by 11 at halftime, made one of the top comebacks in Final Four history behind the play of All-Americans Shane Battier and Jason Williams along with the perceived help from the referees in a 95-84 victory.

"I think in any sport there's a tendency at times to blame something that shouldn't be blamed," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said at yesterday's news conference. "If we lose, we look at ourselves first and see what decisions we should have made differently. ... If we play the game and win, they can blame whoever they want."

Asked about the karma the Wildcats seem to have going into tonight's game, Krzyzewski joked: "I'm not a karma guy. I'm a Polish guy. Ask Shane, he's knows all about karma."

Battier, as thoughtful a college athlete as one can find these days, acknowledged that the forces, as well as the fans, could be pulling for the Wildcats. He is well aware of their emotional struggle to keep their season together after Bobbi Olson died from ovarian cancer and her husband left the team briefly to mourn.

"There is nothing we can do to re-create the passion that the Wildcats seem to have," said Battier, whose 25 points were instrumental in sending Maryland home from its first men's Final Four in school history. "What we can do is create our own energy and run our own race. No question it's going to be an emotional game for both sides."

For Battier, it is a chance to finish what has been the most successful career of any player in Atlantic Coast Conference history. He also has the opportunity to tie former Kentucky guard Wayne Turner for the most victories (131) by any player in NCAA history.

It is also an opportunity to make up for what happened two years ago against Connecticut, when the highly favored Blue Devils were upset in St. Petersburg, Fla. Though it didn't play in his decision to complete his eligibility, it has served to motivate Battier.

"It's such a different situation [from 1999]," Battier said about tonight's game. "Looking back at '99, people were talking about us being one of the best college teams of all time. The pressure on us at game time was unbelievable. But Arizona is a great team, the most talented team from top to bottom in the country."

The Wildcats began a season that fifth-year senior Eugene Edgerson compared to being played out in an amusement park - "It's like being at Six Flags," he said before the semifinals - with center Loren Woods sitting out six regular-season games after being suspended by the NCAA.

It continued with shorter suspensions to Richard Jefferson and Edgerson, and resulted in Arizona's losing at Purdue and at home to Mississippi State. But the most tumultuous period came when Olson's wife of 47 years lost a two-year battle with cancer.

"It's always in the back of our minds," said junior forward Michael Wright. "We always know that something is missing. You feel like she's our guardian angel. She got us here. It's hard to explain."

This city and the arena in which the game will be played each has a special meaning to the coaches. It is where Lute Olson met and married his late wife. The Metrodome is where the Blue Devils won their second straight championship for Krzyzewski in 1992.

External forces aside, it should be a terrific matchup of two of the country's elite programs and most respected coaches.

It will be another opportunity for Arizona to show it belongs on the same level as Duke, as the Wildcats did in beating Kentucky four years ago in Indianapolis. It is also a chance for the Wildcats to show why some believed they were the best team in the country to start the season.

Duke's goal is simple. The Blue Devils can demonstrate why they have been college basketball's signature program for the past 15 years. A victory will allow Krzyzewski to join former mentor Bob Knight as the only coaches aside from legends John Wooden (10 national titles) and Adolph Rupp (four) to win three championships.

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