Perhaps to keep up with the silver-haired Olson, who always looks as if he stepped out of a tuxedo ad, the Reverend Warren Anderson of the Gideon Missionary Baptist Church in Tucson dressed and spoke in the spirit of the occasion. In a white sport coat and a pink cravat, Anderson closed his invocation at the pretournament luncheon thusly: "And we pray, Lord, that these same four teams will meet again in Kansas City." K.C. hosts the 1988 Final Four.
"This might be a Final Three. I really don't know what we're doing here," said Heathcote, who has gone from coaching Magic Johnson to Legerdemain Papadakos. There certainly weren't many Spartan fans to be found in Arizona; they were all in Pasadena for the Rose Bowl. "I had a hard time convincing my own wife and daughter to come here," said Heathcote. "I'd like to be in a tournament where we have a chance to win at least once."
On opening night, Elliott scored 24 against the Spartans in a 78-58 Arizona victory. During a 15-0 run by the Cats in the second half, a furious Heathcote called timeout, marched onto the court and punched Papadakos in the stomach. Twice. Perhaps once for each basket scored during the game by the 7-foot transfer from Syracuse. Michigan State compounded that rout by losing 83-59 to Florida in the third-place game.
What were the Gators, the Big Apple NIT champs, doing in the consolation game? Trying to atone for an abysmal 93-70 loss to Duke. Blue Devil defenders King and Ferry had bottled up Florida's 7'2" center Dwayne Schintzius and terrific guard Vernon Maxwell well enough to account for some of the stunning margin. But it was the failure of the Gators' monster freshman forward, the 6'8", 240-pound Livingston Chatman, that was so disappointing. Florida's high-low sets depend on crisp entry passes to Chatman, but the frantic Duke defense resembled a football blitz and prevented the Gators from finding the powerful rookie who had wowed New York audiences. Unlearned in moving without the ball, Chatman, who had averaged 18.7 points a game, made only four baskets against the Blue Devils and two against the Spartans. In barely a month Chatman has gone from a look-alike J.R. Reid to an I.M.N. Need.
It didn't help Florida that Schintzius had gained 12 pounds over a three-day Christmas break. "Lots of Gator Go [a diet supplement] and Gator turkey," he said. No wonder Duke cocaptain King summed up the Blue Devils' easy victory this way: "We were hungrier."
Whereas Duke arrived in Tucson on Dec. 28, the day before the tournament began, Sloan checked the Gators into Ventana Canyon on Christmas Day. "They looked hotel-weary," said Krzyzewski. "What's the point in coming out so early? How many cactuses can you look at?"
How many Elliotts did the Blue Devils look at in the championship game? Too many. Duke is a wonderfully balanced, athletic amalgam of fit-in fellows, but the Blue Devils don't have an Elliott, and he was the difference in a raw-nerved, defense-dominated final.
Not that Elliott was a stranger to Duke. He had played with King and Ferry on the U.S. team, coached by Krzyzewski, in the World University Games in Yugoslavia last summer. "I got to know all the Duke guys," Elliott said. "It's kind of like facing our own selves in the mirror. They're so similar to us. Even off-court. You know, they're nice guys."
For years the rap sheet on Arizona has elucidated the obvious: The Wildcats were mostly California kids, which meant they were laid-back, finesse-minded wimp-outs and too darn nice. Even now Elliott is the Cats' lone Arizonan. a local from Cholla High who worked as a cook before he decided to emulate his mother, Odiemae, an Arizona graduate. Until now the Wildcats' gizzards have been nationally suspect. Auburn blasted Arizona out of the NCAA tournament in 1986. Georgetown and Illinois pushed the Cats around unmercifully last season. Even Olson railed at his team's "soft" style.
In the off-season Olson suggested that his players work not only on their bodies but also on their minds—and play practice games without calling fouls. Something must have helped. By the fall, the Arizona frontcourt—skinnies Elliott and Anthony Cook and the lug-legged Tolbert—had toughened up. Against Duke they combined for 17 offensive rebounds, including one humongous—and revelatory—hook jam by Cook over three Dookies. That shot, surmised Elliott, "would automatically rephrase our soft rep."