To put things bluntly—the way a Gothamite would—this week's Final Four in East Rutherford, N.J., will have the character of the place that's hosting it. College basketball's showcase event is returning to the New York area for the first time in 46 years, so brace yourselves. There'll be obstinance (Refuse to lose!). There'll be a seize-the-day attitude (Learn from the past, but don't live in it!). There'll be hedonism (Let's just have fun!) and braggadocio ('Cuse is in the house, oh my god, oh my god!). As they say round New York way, You gotta problem with that?
The aforementioned team slogans belong to, respectively, Massachusetts, the school that once brought you Julius (the Doctor) Erving and now features Marcus Camby, M.D.; Kentucky, whose home-state travel agents have been selling package tours to the Meadowlands since last summer; and Mississippi State and Syracuse, geographical and cultural opposites that have turned the disrespect of others from a curse into a cudgel. After losing to the Orangemen 60-57 in the West Regional final on Sunday, Kansas knows all too well the truth emblazoned on those T-shirts for sale in Times Square—NEW YORK: IT AIN'T KANSAS.
It ain't Connecticut, Georgetown or Cincinnati, either. But here's what the Romp in the Swamp off Exit 16W of the New Jersey Turnpike will be:
•The official eclipse of a question that burned during most of the season—"Can anyone beat Kentucky?" No one will be asking that this week. Both UMass and Mississippi State have already beaten the Wildcats, and each did so by double digits.
•A convergence of two almost perfectly matched pairs of coaches. In one semifinal Rick Pitino of Kentucky faces his paisano and protégé, UMass's John Calipari, who like his patron is a precocious, hyperkinetic, well-coiffed, Armani-wrapped clipboard jockey with roots at Howie Garfinkel's Five-Star basketball camp. The other semifinal matches two guys who aren't exactly disciples of Norman Vincent Peale: Richard Williams, Mississippi State's sarcastic, unappreciated and charm-free coach, and Jim Boeheim, Syracuse's sarcastic, unappreciated and charm-free coach.
More than that, though, this year's finals should be rude, brusque and remorselessly in-your-face. That's the Big Apple at its wormiest, and that's also the hallmark of good defense, the phase of the game that, more than any other, has brought each of these teams to the Final Four. Nine of the 12 losers in last week's regionals shot less than 37% from the field, and elite teams don't do that without some prodding from their opponents.
No defense is more withering than Kentucky's. The Wildcats bring to the Final Four college basketball's most frightening weapon, a press that forced 22 turnovers a game this season and propelled Kentucky through its first four NCAA tournament victories by an average of 28.3 points. "Sometimes we get tired," says Wildcats swingman Derek Anderson of playing such relentless D. "But so does the other team. Seeing them give in is like watching a boxer take a dive."
Pitino led Providence to the 1987 Final Four with similar defensive pressure, a scheme he called the Mother-in-Law for its "constant pressure and harassment." But those Friars were a band of etiolated gym rats who got the job done with conditioning, pluck and little else. These Cats are fit and fiery, too, but now Pitino has talented athletes down the length of his bench. "I've never been pressed as hard in a game as I am in practice," says Kentucky point guard Anthony Epps.
The Wildcats actually deploy two basic pressure defenses, the "black" and the "white." With their 80-inch-plus wingspans, forwards Walter McCarty and Antoine Walker are the keys to the white press, which the Cats use after scoring inside. One or the other yells, jumps and waves his arms at the baseline as his man tries to inbound the ball. Should the inbounder successfully find a target, the unfortunate recipient will instantly have the spidery appendages of, say, guard Tony Delk to contend with, along with those of McCarty or Walker, who will bound over to form a double team. If the opposition does advance the ball into the forecourt, no matter. "It might take them seven or eight seconds to get through the press," says Kentucky guard Jeff Sheppard. "But then it takes them four or five seconds to get into their offense. Then they have barely 20 seconds to run a play."
The Cats hop into their black press after they've buried a three-pointer and find themselves farther from the baseline, or when they've already been burned by full-court baseball passes. Then, instead of pressuring the inbounder, they try to prevent the ball from reaching the hands of the opposing guards. And lest the black and white make the Cats too predictable, Pitino may call an audible if there's a delay in inbounding. "I've been here three years, and I still don't completely understand our press," says Sheppard. "It's always changing."