Stakes rise in Arizona-Kansas rematch

Top 2 seeds meet in final

Wildcats won by 17 in Jan.

West Regional

Ncaa Tournament

March 29, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ANAHEIM, Calif. - The famous Santa Ana winds blew in here late Thursday night with their typical ferocity. While they won't affect today's NCAA West Regional final at the Arrowhead Pond, they could be construed as an omen for today's game between top-seeded Arizona and second-seeded Kansas.

Question: Will they be a sign of another blowout win for the Wildcats, or just simply winds of change for the Jayhawks?

It was a little more than two months ago that then-top-ranked Arizona visited storied Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan., for one of the regular season's showcase games. After falling behind by as many as 20 points in the first half, the Wildcats stormed back to beat Kansas by 17.

"We played probably our best half of the year when we played Arizona earlier at our place, and we played our worst half of the year," Kansas coach Roy Williams said yesterday. "It seems all along that they have more opportunities to withstand problems because of the depth they have and the experience they have.

"But it is a one-game series. We know that we have to play our best game of the year. You can't play great basketball for 20 minutes. If you play great basketball for 20 minutes and sorry basketball for 20 minutes, you lose by 17 or whatever that was. We're happy to have the opportunity, but we know how difficult it's going to be."

Kansas (28-7) gave itself a chance for redemption against Arizona (28-3) by beating third-seeded Duke, 69-65, in Thursday's second semifinal game. The Jayhawks needed a career-best performance by senior forward Nick Collison, who scored 33 points and snatched 19 rebounds against the Blue Devils.

The Wildcats advanced earlier with an easy 88-71 victory over fifth-seeded Notre Dame. Unlike its team's 17-point win over the Jayhawks on Jan. 25, Arizona pounded any fight out of the Irish early by hitting 12 straight shots and building an 18-point lead in the first half.

Arizona coach Lute Olson doesn't believe the outcome of the game in Lawrence will have a great impact over what happens today, but each team might have a greater understanding how to play the other based on what they saw before.

"It helps both Kansas and ourselves that we've played before," Olson said yesterday. "It's not like you're thinking about something you've seen on tape. We've seen them play. We know how good they are."

Olson also knows how good the Wildcats have played in the tournament, even in their 96-95 double-overtime victory over Gonzaga last week in Salt Lake City.

"We're in the best condition we've been in since the start of the season," Olson said. `There's no question we feel good about ourselves right now."

Given his background as an assistant to the legendary Dean Smith at North Carolina, Williams might be prone to using the first meeting against the Wildcats as a motivating factor. Smith was always big on trying to figure out which team had the psychological advantage.

Williams recalled yesterday how in 1981, the Tar Heels lost both regular-season games to Virginia after leading in each game by 20 points. The two teams met in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament and, behind a 39-point performance by Al Wood, the Tar Heels won easily.

Conversely, the Jayhawks lost to Missouri in this year's Big 12 tournament semifinals after beating the Tigers in both regular-season games.

"There's no question psychological advantage is extremely important," Williams said. "If I could figure and determine what made 18- and 19- and 20-year-olds think and play their best, I would never lose; that's how important I think psychological advantage is. Me, personally, I think it's going to be a huge factor because they beat our tails and I'm going to be fired up. But luckily for Kansas, I don't play."

Said sophomore guard Keith Langford: "I don't think any team needs any extra motivation. I think everybody is going to play hard at this stage of the season. In the back of our minds, we realize what happened and we're confident that we can play well against them. But we saw what happened when we don't attack."

For their part, the Wildcats don't put much stock in whatever theories are being espoused about psychological advantage.

"Both teams know that you have to play well to win," Olson said.

Said senior guard Jason Gardner: "I think both teams kind of played half games. I think both teams know they can't play half games."

If anything, there is less pressure on the Jayhawks than on Arizona, now the tournament's favorite given Kentucky's less-certain status because of a badly sprained ankle to Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Keith Bogans.

There is certainly less pressure on Kansas than there was a year ago in the Elite Eight matchup with Oregon. Then, Williams and his players were constantly reminded of how the Jayhawks hadn't been to a Final Four since 1993. Kansas advanced and lost to Maryland in the national semifinals.

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