Blake was a key figure in each of those three engagements. As Jason Williams approaches Battier's high screens, either to pull up for a three or to find his opening to the basket, Blake has a knack for hedging out, using his long arms and active hands to break Williams's rhythm. In Duke-Maryland I, Williams committed 10 turnovers, and only after Blake had fouled out did he go on the eight-points-in-13-seconds binge that helped send the game into overtime. " Blake has defended me as tough as anyone I've faced all year," says Williams, who became friends with Blake over the summer when the two were roommates in Brazil on that under-20 team, "We've already played three wars with Maryland. This is going to be World War IV."
For the other national semifinal to be anything more than a skirmish, Woods will have to join the Spartans' Hutson, Randolph and Aloysius Anagonye in battle, and do so for more than ten minutes. "You're asking if Arizona can stay with Michigan State on the boards?" Illinois center Marcus Griffin said on Sunday. "The answer is a flat no. It will not happen."
As we contemplate a Final Four in which three of the participants have won NCAA championships in the past nine years, it's worth noting a pattern: The basketball gods seem to go down their checklist every other year, granting providential reward to some long-suffering coach. UCLA's Jim Harrick was delivered a title in 1995, as was Arizona's Olson in '97 and Connecticut's Jim Calhoun in '99. Perhaps Temple's John Chaney will win in 2003, and Kansas's Roy Williams in '05, and Purdue's Gene Keady in '07. This year, though, only one coach has a chance to break through.
"There is no fear of Duke here," says Maryland's Mouton. "None." Beat Duke, as they could easily have done three times already this season, and the Terps would have both the bodies and the tempering to take out Michigan State or Arizona and finally force a smile to bespoil Gary Williams's face.
Nonetheless, toughness remains the byword of the NCAAs. It says here that the Blue Devils and the Spartans are the two toughest teams in the Twin Towns. And it says there—in the building in which Duke won its second straight championship nine years ago—that we should cast our lot with the school bidding for its second consecutive title.