Let's Get Physical
Kentucky, North Carolina, Stanford and Utah muscled their way
into what promises to be a rugged Final Four
by Alexander Wolff
Posted: Wed March 25, 1998
To the Pollyannas who like to say that there is no I in team,
cynics have a rejoinder: There is an m and an e. Now the cynics
owe us one. In San Antonio this week there will only be
assemblages of ballplayers who embody togetherness, who divided
With the exception of North Carolina's Antawn Jamison, every
first-team All-America has been sent home from this NCAA
tournament, left to risk insanity from watching Isuzu Amigo
commercials. Three of the Final Four have shed the ballast of a
player of the year candidate from a year ago. Who needs a Keith
Van Horn, a Ron Mercer, a Brevin Knight to get to the Final
Four? Not superbly balanced Utah, Kentucky or Stanford.
In getting this far, all four teams have demonstrated calm in
the face of defensive pressure. All have shown the patience and
cohesion to pick apart zones. All rebound by committee, outdoing
their opponents by at least seven a game under the glass. (The
Utes and the Wildcats ranked first and second in the nation,
respectively, in rebounding margin during the regular season.)
And with all coached by Final Four first-timers (North
Carolina's Bill Guthridge, Utah's Rick Majerus, Stanford's Mike
Montgomery and Kentucky's Tubby Smith), the circumstances are
set for the most feel-good finals in years.
With 11 rebounds, the dogged Doleac was one big reason that Utah
(John W. McDonough)
The Cardinal will try to gang up on the Wildcats in one
semifinal. Stanford plays 10 guys at least 12 minutes per game,
suits up seven who stand 6'7" or taller and has five who shoot
40% or better from beyond the three-point stripe. Kentucky isn't
easy to gang up on, however. The Wildcats, who are so democratic
that they rotate roommates on road trips, play eight guys at
least 13 minutes and have six players who average between 8.9
and 13.3 points. Eight Kentucky players have been the Wildcats'
high scorer at least once this season. In the other bracket the
Tar Heels, with their top six taking turns in the starting five,
will hook up with the Utes, whose coach incessantly reminds each
player of his role and has the Utes break every huddle with a
cry of "Team!"
"We play it, we yell it, we believe in the concept," Majerus
said last Saturday, after Utah's 76-51 defeat of defending
champion Arizona in the West Regional final. "The best part is
that we did this together as a team. We couldn't have done it
any other way."
Not even William Ginsburg gets all over the press the way the
Utes do. Since the tournament began, San Francisco, Arkansas,
West Virginia and Arizona have all tried to pressure Utah, and
each wound up regretting it. In 6'11" Michael Doleac, 6'7" Alex
Jensen, 6'9 Britton Johnsen and 6'10" Hanno Mottola, the Utes
have players with the size and agility to come back to the ball
when their guards are being hassled and advance it by passing
over the press. Each knows enough to get the ball into the hands
of point guard Andre Miller at the first opportunity.
Miller, a sociology major from Compton, Calif., couldn't have
chosen a better field of study to understand the distances he
has traveled from L.A.'s mean streets to Salt Lake City; from
Prop 48 freshman to being on track to graduate in four years. He
confesses that back home his friends got on him for "going to
Mormonville," as he puts it, because they thought he was headed
to a place "where everybody rides bikes and dresses in black
suits and acts like Jehovah's Witnesses and stuff."
In an era when point guards all seem to act on some imperative
to bull their way to the basketand often pick up charging
calls in doing soMiller is a slalom artist with the ball. He
has a knack for either pulling up for the short jump shot or
insinuating his way cleanly to the hole. And there's a reason
that Utes fans sent up a cheer as soon as Miller got the ball
against Arizona's press.
Besides burying treys, Stanford's Arthur Lee dished to Tim Young
(above, 55) and made the steal that set up Mark Madsen's game-turning dunk (below).
(Both photos by David E. Klutho)
Yet credit for Utah's win over the Wildcats is due not as much
to the Utes' offense as to their defense. After Arizona beat
Utah 69-61 early last season, Majerus blamed himself for failing
to prepare his team properly. He told his players as much before
Saturday's game. "Now," he added, "you're prepared for
everything they're going to throw at you."
The same couldn't be said for coach Lute Olson and the Wildcats
when Majerus's team sprung its 66 defense, a triangle-and-two
that sent fresh man-to-man defenders at Arizona guards Mike
Bibby and Miles Simon and dared the Wildcats' top scorer,
Michael Dickerson, to make the most of his opportunities.
Dickerson didn't. He bricked his first three shots and then
launched two air balls. Over the course of the afternoon
Arizonaa team known for its scoring spurtsput together
back-to-back baskets only three times. On occasion the Wildcats
could even be seen bickering among themselves. Not once did
Bibby, Dickerson or Simon sink a three-pointer, and some 13
minutes still remained when Bibby employed that
every-last-second-is-precious gambit of letting an inbounds pass
roll upcourt. "As soon as they started measuring their shots,"
said Majerus, "it was, Game over."
Utah's next opponent, North Carolina, is the one team that will
ride a studhorse into San Antone. Jamison is the consensus
player of the year, but as good as he is, he's not a
ball-hogging superstar who eclipses his teammates. He's simply
the best in a group of Tar Heels who are all at the top of their
games. Or so say those who have had the misfortune of being in
North Carolina's quadrant of the bracket. "I think they can win
it all," said Michigan State guard Mateen Cleaves after the
Spartans' 73-58 loss to the Tar Heels in the East Regional
semifinals. "You need a point guard, and they have that [in Ed
Cota]. You need a two guard, and they have that [in Shammond
Williams]. You need an athletic three man. That's Vince Carter."
Only then did Cleaves get around to mentioning Jamison.
The common refrain from North Carolina's opponents all through
the tournament has been that the Tar Heels don't keep your
offense from functioning; their genius is in whom they permit to
take shots, and from where. Both Michigan State and Connecticut,
Carolina's 75-64 victim last Saturday, fell for the fool's-gold
three that often came from a step or two behind the arc. After
watching his team go 6 for 25 from three-point range, Spartans
assistant Tom Crean said, "They want you to take a shot that
would be better if you stepped in [closer]." For its part UConn,
which normally squeezes off 16 threes a game, launched 24 and
made only eightbarely enough to make the shot worthwhile.
Issue date: March 30, 1998