YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

High Drama

College basketball: Two top-level programs will be playing for more than just a title.


MINNEAPOLIS — We don't pretend to know how this will turn out, but trust us on this: no matter the outcome, in the end, tears will flow against a backdrop of lilting violins.

Arizona vs. Duke for tonight's national championship at the Metrodome is more than a pairing of the nation's top two teams.

This marks the fourth time the preseason No. 1 and No. 2 in the Associated Press poll have met for the championship, most recently in 1999 when Duke played Connecticut.

This proves writers aren't as dumb as they look and that the best teams usually come out on top.

Yet, there is more in the subtext than one star-studded team meeting another and how much zone defense Arizona might play.

Rarely has the quality of the matchup been equal to the compelling story lines.

Tonight's game represents a season-ending crescendo for two top-shelf programs.

It is about posterity, legacy, loyalty and sorrow.

If Arizona prevails, camera lenses will lock on Coach Lute Olson's eyes.

Television loves to tap a soppy angle when it's there to be milked, but you can't fake this.

No need here to massage a script in which a team wins a national title three months after the head coach's wife of 47 years dies of ovarian cancer.

You don't have to manipulate the reality that Arizona was adrift while its coach grieved, that it was 8-5 at one point, that its starting center was a head case, or that this cast of gifted superstars since has rallied and recovered to reach the title game by defeating five tournament opponents by an average of 18.2 points.

"We really do come in here as boys and leave as men," Arizona forward Richard Jefferson said Sunday.

Jefferson knows. He is the X-factor tonight, a player who came to Arizona with an offensive reputation but will leave as its defensive stopper, a role he grudgingly accepted.

"It's funny," Jefferson said. "I get yelled at more about my defense than before I was the so-called defensive stopper."

During the season, Jefferson drew Stanford All-American Casey Jacobsen.

"By far the hardest," Jefferson said. "He shoots so deep and never ever stops moving."

In the Midwest Regional final against Illinois, Jefferson held Big Ten player of the year Frank Williams to nine points on three-for-15 shooting.

In Saturday's national semifinal, Jefferson locked up on Michigan State's Jason Richardson and Richardson made two of 11 shots and finished with six points.

The question tonight: Does the 6-foot-6 Jefferson guard All-American forward Shane Battier or All-American point guard Jason Williams?

Jefferson is smaller than the 6-8 Battier but taller than the 6-2 Williams.

Jefferson said Sunday he didn't know yet which Duke player he would defend, but he will take the usual approach.

Jefferson uses visualization to prepare for his opponents.

"I kind of play out the whole game in my head before I hit the floor," Jefferson said. "I envision every play they run, I picture in my head the screens."

But nothing will be tougher for Jefferson than being asked to speak at the funeral of Bobbi Olson, Lute's wife, who died of cancer Jan. 1.

"Everything now seems easy compared to that," Jefferson said. "Playing in this national championship game, it has a special meaning but it doesn't have the same importance as speaking at Mrs. Olson's funeral. When the family came up to me and asked me to represent the team and speak, that was the greatest responsibility I've ever had in my life."

Duke's motivation is less personal and more about posterity.

The Blue Devils, for better or worse, have become America's program, the bastion of basketball.

"Duke might be the most hated team in the country," Jefferson said, "just because they're so good."

This is Duke's ninth Final Four appearance under Coach Mike Krzyzewski, but you can't help but detect a sense of urgency.

Krzyzewski hasn't won a title since 1992 and is 2-4 in national championship games.

Another title-game defeat diminishes the legacy, doesn't it?

It's safe to say teams get up to play Duke.

"We get people's best shots," Krzyzewski said. "Sometimes it becomes more than just a game. It becomes a benchmark."

Duke's 1999 team was considered one of the greatest assembled, but fell short against Connecticut in the title game.

Three impact players from that team--Elton Brand, William Avery and Corey Maggette--left early for the NBA, and there were predictions that vaunted Duke might go into remission.

One player made sure it didn't happen: Shane Battier.

By sheer force of his play and will, Battier has bridged the gap between Duke generations.

He has been a model player and person, an athletic and academic All-American.

"I know he's not perfect," Arizona's Jefferson joked. "Whether he doesn't put the toilet seat down, I know he does something wrong."

True enough. Battier admitted he was a nit-picker and doesn't like it much when roommate Mike Dunleavy leaves dirty cereal bowls in the sink.

That dark-side defect aside, Battier will be missed.

Los Angeles Times Articles