The Blue Devils have a secret society's worth of rituals and customs that make toughness a matter of style. There's the Look, as it's known in Durham, that coach Mike Krzyzewski drills into his players—"If we're down, you won't see frustration," says freshman Chris Duhon. "If we're hurt, you won't see pain. You can't read us." There's also the Fist, Krzyzewski's midseason analogy for how five individuals can come together into a powerful force. Soon, Cameronites were honoring Coach K with a raised-fist salute, as if he were a Dookie duce.
Under Sampson, Oklahoma has the second-best road record in the Big 12 since the league's founding five years ago, and it ran the table in this year's conference tournament. How? By going through such drills as Cutthroat, a half-court 3-on-3 exercise in which players can score only by forcing a turnover, taking a charge or grabbing a defensive rebound. Small wonder the Sooners are 3-0 in overtime games this season. Their victim in the Big 12 tourney title game, Texas, does a drill in which a player must score near the basket against both a defender and an assistant coach who is whacking him with a padded paddle.
Neither, however, may be that conference's toughest team. New Mexico coach Fran Fraschilla still marvels at what he saw during a visit to an Iowa State practice. The Cyclones did nothing but rebounding drills for three hours. "Every day he walks into our locker room, Coach [ Larry Eustachy] might as well have the word TOUGH tattooed on his forehead," says Jake Sullivan, a freshman guard who has another word, FEARLESS, tattooed on his arm.
?Become lords of the boards. No team with a negative rebounding margin has won an NCAA title in the post- John Wooden era. That eliminates Arkansas, Georgia Tech, Fresno State, Missouri, Syracuse and Penn State, which loses on the boards by 6.1 per game. The last three NCAA champions lorded it over their opponents on the glass. Kentucky outrebounded rivals by 8.1 in 1997-98, UConn did so by 7.2 a year later, and Michigan State's 11.7 rebounding margin a season ago was the key to its success. This season the Spartans have increased their dominance to +15.3. "I just tell them to hit and go get it," Izzo says. "There's a mentality there like a linebacker's. Go get the ballcarrier, go get the basketball."
What's a more determinative measure of toughness, rebounding margin or road record? That's another way of asking, Who's tougher, Michigan State or Stanford? And that's another way of posing the question that surely has occurred to you by now: Who's going to win it all, the Spartans or the Cardinal?
Our pick is Stanford. It is, after all, the road to the Final Four.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]