Imagine how difficult all this must be for an opponent to grasp. Says Wake Forest coach Dave Odom, a former high school football coach, whose Demon Deacons lost to Kentucky 83-63 in the Midwest Regional final last Saturday, "It's like playing that wishbone team you face only once a year."
Massachusetts, which will play Kentucky in the national semifinals on Saturday, is lucky. UMass will be facing the Wildcats for the second time this season, having beaten them 92-82 on Nov. 28. And in recent weeks the Minutemen have been getting plenty of exposure to pressing defenses. "Arkansas [UMass's third-round foe] pressed the whole game," UMass point guard Edgar Padilla said last Saturday. "Georgetown pressed the whole game. We've been doing press drills in practice for a month and a half now. We know what we have to do."
But the Minutemen have new cause for worry. In defeating Wake Forest, the Cats not only made the afternoon miserable for the Wake guards but also throttled Deacons center Tim Duncan by taking the principles of their press and applying them to their post defense. "You learn a lot from losses," Pitino said afterward, recalling how inadequately Kentucky guarded Massachusetts center Marcus Camby four months ago. "Against UMass our double downs were just that—double downs. They were not traps." Against Wake, by contrast, the Cats pinned Duncan in so completely that the ACC Player of the Year could squeeze off only seven shots. At the Meadowlands, Kentucky will try to slow down Camby and the Minutemen with a defense that presses as effectively on one baseline as the other.
Even more significant, the Wildcats have removed the single greatest obstacle to Pitino's winning his first national title—potential jealousy on a squad loaded with talent. At a team meeting shortly after the loss to UMass, the Cats' most likely malcontent, Walker, stepped forward and said he would be the first to sublimate his ego for the good of the team. Inasmuch as Walker is the chestiest Cat, his teammates took notice, and when he became a model worker in practice and played unselfishly over the following weeks, they fell eagerly in line. "All year everybody said Coach Pitino couldn't keep us all happy," Epps said on Saturday. "We're pretty happy right now."
Equally delirious were the Cats' SEC brethren from Mississippi State, who rely on an old-fashioned half-court man-to-man defense. "Push it, push it!" yelled UConn coach Jim Calhoun as his Huskies, a No. 1 seed, tried to find traction for their 87.6-points-per-game offense in the Southeast Regional semifinals. But Bulldogs guards Marcus Bullard and Darryl Wilson held their UConn counterparts, Ray Allen and Doron Sheffer, to 12-for-39 shooting from the field, and the Huskies shot only 32.4% while going down 60-55. Two days later, in the regional final, Mississippi State held Cincinnati to an even more feckless 33.8% while beating the Bearcats 73-63. "Coach, these teams keep choosing our games to shoot bad," junior forward Dontae' Jones told Williams. "Does anyone see a pattern here?"
Williams is a former junior high school math teacher who once admitted to his players that he "can be a d—- sometimes." Hence their habit of referring to him as "Moby." And thar he blew after being handed a Final Four cap following Sunday's victory. "Some of us have gotten the opinion that I'm irritable," said Williams. "Here's why. This cap says MISSISSIPPI on the back. Not MISSISSIPPI STATE. MISSISSIPPI."
After the Bulldogs lost four of five during a mid-January cold snap, Williams jawboned Jones, a high school dropout with limited experience in organized ball, to accept a more structured role. But Jones still embarks on delightful flights of spontaneity. After one dunk against Cincinnati on Sunday he froze, mimelike, savoring the moment with his own interpretation of Man Leaning into Wind with Umbrella. "He's certifiable," says teammate Whit Hughes. "He'll be drafted high in the first round. Into an insane asylum."
Mississippi State could avail itself of Jones's services only after he picked up a year's worth of credits—36 in all—in summer school. Syracuse, too, nearly had to make do this season without its star. Forward John Wallace put in for last June's NBA draft, then withdrew his name with two days to spare. Without him the Orangemen would be enjoying mud season upstate this weekend. In the West Regional semifinal against Georgia last Friday night, Wallace's looping inbounds pass found Jason Cipolla for a jumper that forced overtime. In the ensuing huddle Wallace alluded to Syracuse's elimination in OT from three of the last four NCAAs, telling his teammates, "We haven't done anything yet." Then, minutes later, his lunging 20-footer with 2.8 seconds remaining beat the Dawgs 83-81.
In Sunday's final Wallace's long arms at one wing of the Orangemen's 2-3 zone helped harry Kansas into 4-for-25 three-point shooting. Syracuse is one of those rare teams still willing to stick with a zone in the age of the trey. Knowing how intense tournament pressure can be, Boeheim dared the Jayhawks to shoot three-pointers. "I don't care how good a shooter you are, when you get to a regional final and you miss one, you start thinking about it," Boeheim said. "None of them were making anything, and none of them wanted to shoot."
This is so sound and sympathetic a Syracuse team—why, it actually shoots free throws better than the national average—that when Wallace missed the team flight on the eve of the tournament, claiming his alarm didn't go off, you actually believed him, even though he wears the same uniform number as former Orangeman Derrick Coleman.