Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Twin Cities, are fraternal burgs whose very nickname implies replication. The last time an NCAA champion repeated, the game was played in the Metrodome, where this week Michigan State will try to match the 1992 victory that gave Duke a second straight crown. Whether the Spartans do so—or whether one of the others in the Final Four, the Blue Devils, Arizona or Maryland, claims this season's prize—in all likelihood will depend on four difference-makers, players on whom each team's fate rests or, in one case, wobbles.
When Duke became the only school to repeat in the last 28 years, it did so by relying on Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner, its core from the previous season. The Spartans are trying to win a second in a row after losing their core of Mateen Cleaves, A.J. Granger and Morris Peterson. Much of Michigan State's season, therefore, has been spent indoctrinating freshmen Zach Randolph and Marcus Taylor into the ways of a championship program. It's a task that coach Tom Izzo delegated to 6'8" senior forward Andre Hutson. "Look," Izzo told Hutson earlier this season, "I don't want to be the bad cop all the time."
Enter Hutson and his distant-thunder bass voice. After the Spartans lost at Indiana on Jan. 7, Izzo moved both freshmen into the starting lineup to add more scoring punch. Unfortunately, each saw the promotion as a license to freelance, especially Taylor, a guard who grew up just a few miles from the Michigan State campus and who heard daily whispers from friends that caused his head to swell. Late in the Spartans' 64-55 loss at Ohio State on Jan. 27, Hutson pulled Randolph and Taylor aside to plead with them to sacrifice themselves over the final five minutes. "I thought they didn't do it, and I sort of went off on them after the game," says Hutson, who's from the Columbus area and had counted on a victory on his last pass through his hometown. "I think that's when the freshmen really started to understand what we were all about."
Following Michigan State's loss at Illinois several weeks later, Izzo returned both to the bench—but that humbling broke them down, and now they've been built back up. "Andre really challenged Zach [after the Ohio State loss]," says Izzo. "I talked to Zach the next day to be sure he was O.K. Andre took him from a guy who was just playing on a team to a guy who was part of a program."
Hutson has been the Spartans' link to the warrior spirit that Cleaves embodied a year ago. "Dre doesn't get vocal much," says senior swingman David Thomas, "but when he does, you know he means business." On the eve of Sunday's South Regional final, after the coaches had left a tape session, Hutson challenged each teammate. The next day, in Michigan State's 69-62 defeat of Temple, he filled Cleaves's other role, that of the Spartans' ball distributor. When not grabbing one of his 10 rebounds or scoring some of his 11 points—Hutson is shooting 73.3% through four tournament games—he flashed into the middle of the Owls' notoriously unyielding matchup zone, called for the ball and then kicked it out to the wings or sent it down to the blocks ably enough to lead the Spartans in assists with four. "We threw him in the middle of their 2-1-2 and said, 'O.K., be a point guard,' " Izzo said.
In Minneapolis, against Arizona's man-to-man, the muscular Hutson will return to his usual position, and it's not, as the Wildcats' 7'1" Loren Woods will discover, point guard. Woods is by turns a star and star-crossed. This season alone he has been suspended by the NCAA for accepting illegal benefits and by coach Lute Olson for insubordination in practice. He got tossed by a ref in a game at Cal after drawing two technicals and disappeared for long stretches of games over the final weeks of the season. After going 0 for 4 against Oregon State on March 1, he said he regretted not having left for the NBA following last season, and he insisted that his best days in an Arizona uniform were over. Before the Wildcats' tournament opener against Eastern Illinois, he pronounced himself "a nervous wreck."
After Arizona beat Mississippi 66-56 in last Friday's Midwest Regional semifinal, Woods was asked the usual softball question about which team he'd prefer to play next, Illinois or Kansas. "Tell you the truth, I'd rather not play either of them," he said. "Can't we just skip the next round and go directly to the Final Four?"
Those don't sound like the words of a warrior. "He's more of a burden than an asset," one NBA scout said of Woods two weeks ago. "And he's the weakest guy in the country. His wingspan is useless if you take the ball up in his face and shoot it through his nose, because he can't back you out."
Even as Woods gets roasted in the press and by scouts and opposing fans, like those of Illinois, who chanted "C-B-A!" at him during the Wildcats' 87-81 victory in the regional final on Sunday, his harshest critic is often himself. Against the Illini he drifted through the first half like a ghost. He didn't take a shot from the floor, didn't get a rebound and—as a reminder that Arizona knows enough not to run its offense through him—failed to contribute an assist. "Come on, Loren, we need you," his teammates chorused at halftime. Woods took more than 10 minutes of the second half to respond to their plea, but it was worth the wait. Over the final quarter of the game he swatted away three shots (giving him seven in the game), grabbed five critical rebounds (every one in the final 3� minutes) and scored 13 of his 18 points (including 7 of 7 free throws).
Against Ole Miss, Woods was the Wildcats' holler guy during a cold stretch, bucking up his teammates with assurances that their shots would drop if only they showed patience—"leading like a fifth-year senior should," in the words of sophomore guard Gilbert Arenas. The way he closed out the Big Ten co-champions on Sunday, Woods proved that he can switch from burden to asset in a trice. In the spotlight of the Final Four, which will he be?