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 would fall.
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.
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 basket—and often pick up charging calls in doing so—Miller 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.
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 Arizona—a team known for its scoring spurts—put 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."