Four months later, Connecticut still looks like the team to beat

Now that there are four, Huskies face challenge

Four months later, UConn still looks like team to beat


March 29, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

When the 2003-04 college basketball season began four months ago, there were a handful of teams that many thought had the potential to win a national championship. One of them, Connecticut, seemed to be the clear favorite.

Now, with four teams left, not much has changed.

Based on their performance in this year's NCAA tournament, particularly in a dominating 87-71 victory over Alabama in the Phoenix Regional final, the Huskies still appear to be the team to beat when the Final Four commences in San Antonio on Saturday.

Now, Connecticut (31-6) will have something to overcome that it hasn't faced in its first four tournament games: a legitimate challenger.

The Huskies will meet Duke (31-5) in a rematch of the 1999 championship game -- won by Connecticut in a huge upset -- in one semifinal, with Oklahoma State (31-3) playing Georgia Tech (27-9) in the other semifinal at the Alamodome.

The championship game will be played a week from tonight.

"We sent a message that we are a force to be reckoned with," junior center Emeka Okafor said after the Huskies ran away from the Crimson Tide in the first half, leading by 24 points at halftime. "We are going to be hard to beat."

Connecticut will be virtually unstoppable if Ben Gordon, who scored 36 points against Alabama on 11-of-19 shooting, and Rashad Anderson, who had a career-high 28 and made six of nine three-point attempts, shoot the way they did Saturday.

The Huskies will be hard to score on if Okafor, who has been playing the tournament with a stress fracture in his back, can remain a defensive force and set the tone against Duke as he did against Alabama.

Coach Jim Calhoun could win his second national championship in six years if Taliek Brown, the team's senior point guard, plays like Khalid El-Amin (or Ricky Moore) did against the Blue Devils in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1999.

"I think we always believed that we were capable of being the team you saw out there today, but when you get a look at it, it's amazing," Brown said after the Alabama game. "If we play like we did today, we have a real good chance of cutting down the nets in San Antonio."

But the Huskies are not as big a favorite as, say, the Blue Devils were in 1999.

In senior point guard Chris Duhon, Duke has the only player left in the tournament with Final Four experience and a championship ring. Duhon, who moved into the starting lineup late in the 2000-01 season after an injury to Carlos Boozer, needs his bruised ribs to continue healing for Duke to have a chance.

The Blue Devils will also have to hope J.J. Redick (four of 14) shoots more consistently right from the start. Though he had a huge three toward the end of yesterday's 66-63 win over seventh-seeded Xavier in the Atlanta Regional final, Redick has still yet to emerge from his late-season shooting slump.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is by far the most accomplished coach at the Final Four, with three national championships and 10 Final Fours since 1986. But this is still a young team (with two sophomores and a freshman in the starting lineup) and one that looked beatable against the Musketeers.

Unless regional MVP Luol Deng and Sheldon Williams neutralize Okafor and Duhon can shut down Gordon, UConn's biggest obstacle is probably not going to be the Blue Devils.

It's going to be Oklahoma State.

The Cowboys might not have the Final Four legacy of Duke, at least in the modern era, but the Big 12's best team has the athleticism of guard Tony Allen and forward Joey Graham to play with Georgia Tech, and the toughness to play with the Huskies.

Though Oklahoma State came close to being knocked out by Saint Joseph's -- surviving, 64-62, in the East Rutherford Regional when Jameer Nelson's foul-line jumper grazed off the front rim -- the Cowboys should be able to handle the Yellow Jackets, unless Jarrett Jack carries them as he did in yesterday's 79-71 overtime win against Kansas.

Oklahoma State also has coach Eddie Sutton, 68, making his third Final Four appearance. It has point guard John Lucas, who overcame a horrendous first half against the Hawks to virtually take over the game in the final minutes.

The Atlantic Coast Conference was clearly college basketball's best league this season, and having two teams in the Final Four certainly is a significant accomplishment. But the Big 12 nearly had two, and the Atlantic 10 came close as well.

Now these teams are playing for themselves, and the matchup problems presented by the Huskies for Duke and by the Cowboys for Georgia Tech -- particularly if B.J. Elder's sprained ankle doesn't heal sufficiently --might be too much to overcome.

The Yellow Jackets showed they can win without Elder during the St. Louis Regional by beating upstart Nevada after their leading scorer went down and then coming back to beat Kansas in front of a pro-Jayhawks crowd. Will Bynum came up big for Georgia Tech yesterday, and Lucas can be a defensive liability.

But it shouldn't matter in San Antonio, where the Huskies are clearly the favorite, as they were when the season started.

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