The NCAA shouldn't sell a program in Indianapolis this weekend. Vendors outside the RCA Dome should hawk a self-help manual instead, something called The Road to the Final Four Less Traveled or some such. There would be no better way to address all the psychological traumas, physical hurts, emergency meetings, remedial workouts and disrespectful newspaper clippings that have beset Arizona, Kentucky, Minnesota and North Carolina this season. None of the Final Four is a surprise exactly, but all have had years marked by slights, blights or both. Quick, someone: Is four too few for an encounter session?
Maybe a team has to hit some kind of bottom before it can really begin climbing toward the top. And perhaps that's why the lone No. 1 seed unable to reach the Final Four was Kansas, taken out by fourth-seeded Arizona 85-82 in a semi of the Southeast Regional in Birmingham. The Jayhawks weathered their adversity easily, scarcely bothered by injuries that struck guard Jacque Vaughn and forward Scot Pollard during the season. Contrast the Jayhawks with, say, North Carolina, which lost its first three ACC games and stood 3-5 in the conference at the end of January. "It made us mentally mature," junior guard Shammond Williams said after the Tar Heels defeated Louisville 97-74 in the East Regional final in Syracuse, N.Y. "It taught us that we had to do all the little things to be good."
No team is better at working through its issues than the one based in the rehab capital of the U.S., Minneapolis. When two cabin-fevered Minnesotans hoisted a sign reading HEY CBS, JUST 2 MORE WINS AND WE'RE SLEEPING IN THE LINCOLN BEDROOM in San Antonio's Alamodome on Saturday, their banner addressed the network that failed to feature Minnesota, now 31-3, on any of its regular-season telecasts. And before the Golden Gophers beat UCLA 80-72 in the Midwest Regional final, a comment made to the Los Angeles Times by Bruins forward Charles O'Bannon and faxed to Minnesota trainer Roger Schipper by a fan, helped goose the Gophs. "He talked about us like we were a no-name team," said Bobby Jackson, the most prominent of the Minnesota names that in all fairness could not be characterized as household, after knocking off UCLA. "We just wanted to show him what a no-name team looked like."
If the Gophers aren't a collection of individuals, it's by coach Clem Haskins's design. Winner of eight games by five points or less during the regular season, Minnesota came from six points behind in the first overtime in the Midwest semifinal to defeat Clemson 90-84 in double OT and from 10 points behind in the second half to beat the Bruins. Humorist Garrison Keillor, a Minnesota alumnus, calls the Gophers "the right team for a state of Germans and Scandinavians who believe in hard work, perseverance and don't think you're somebody special, because you're not."
Jackson may not think he's somebody special, but he is. His two overtime jumpers put away the Tigers, and for much of the game against UCLA he filled in at point guard for Eric Harris, who was suffering from a shoulder bruise. But what makes the Gophers this season's most surprising team is that they have eight other players who, like all the children inhabiting Keillor's Lake Wobegone, are above average. Haskins uses each of them to particularly good effect against teams like the Bruins, who play a core of six. "I'm tired," confessed UCLA forward J.R. Henderson to Minnesota forward Courtney James during the second half of last Saturday's game. The Bruins' three-point shooting—they were 3 for 16 for the day—suggested that Henderson's teammates were gassed too.
Under Haskins's direction the Gophers' team meetings aren't exactly group-therapy sessions. In San Antonio, Haskins warned his players to stay away from women and carousing, and he found new reason to light into freshman guard Russ Archambault. Haskins famously forbids tattoos on his players, but for cultural reasons he faced something of a dilemma with Archambault, whose father is a full-blooded Lakota Sioux and whose epidermis is essentially a fresco. "He told me since I already had 'em, he can't take 'em off," Archambault says. But when the Gophers gathered after their game against Clemson, he made the mistake of wearing a baseball cap, touching off a 10-minute philippic from Haskins about another pet peeve. By never letting anyone think he's somebody special, Haskins has ensured that his Gophers get their due, collectively.
Kentucky has been routinely accorded respect, sometimes respect laced with fear, ever since coach Rick Pitino came to Lexington eight years ago, but this season even the Wildcats have had a rough go of it. The NBA plucked four players from last season's national champions. And when guard Derek Anderson, then the front-runner for the SEC Player of the Year award, went down with a torn right anterior cruciate ligament in January and guard Allen Edwards joined him on the sidelines with a stress fracture in his right ankle, diagnosed after the second round of this NCAA tournament, the Wildcats lost more points than the Dow after an Alan Greenspan utterance. Yet as 34-4 Kentucky returns to the Final Four with only eight scholarship players and a questionable Edwards, Pitino has lived in his favorite catchphrase from a year ago, "the precious present," by not once complaining about the Cats' circumstances. "He thrives on adversity," says forward Scott Padgett. "He thrives on a challenge. A lot of people thought, He's won one, he'll relax a little. But he's driven even more to get a second one because people think it's impossible."
Pitino actually called a staff meeting for 7 a.m. last April 2, just seven hours after Kentucky beat Syracuse for the title. Mindful of his experience as a greenhorn coach at Boston University, when the Terriers followed 17-9 and 21-9 seasons with a 13-14 stinker, he exhorted his assistants to work harder, particularly at recruiting. Nothing changed once the season began; after freshman center Jamaal Magloire casually allowed an Iowa player to hoist a three-pointer in the second round of the NCAAs, Pitino convened a special "practice" for his derelict big man, devoted entirely to conditioning.
The most striking thing about last season's Wildcats was the sheer numbers Pitino had at his disposal. "The horn would go off, and they'd send in a new fleet of players," said Utah guard Ben Caton after losing to Kentucky in the NCAA tournament for the second straight season, 72-59 in the West Regional final in San Jose last Saturday. "This year they didn't do that as much, but they're still high-quality players. I'd hate to see them at full strength."
Swingman Ron Mercer represents the highest of that high quality. There's no more majestic sight in the college game today than that of Mercer cornering around a screen and rising like a hood ornament for a jump shot. He went on two scoring binges in the West final, one in the first half (eight points in less than three minutes) and another in the second (six in four minutes), to repulse two Utah challenges. "Last year's team didn't have Ron Mercer, like we do," says Padgett. "As a freshman, Ron let the game come to him. Now Ron takes over a game."