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Heavyweights Still Standing at the Finish

March 26, 2001|CHRIS DUFRESNE

The high in Minneapolis on Sunday was 23 degrees, with a wind-chill factor of minus-6.

Snow is expected Wednesday.

Onward to the Final Freeze!

It seems like an ice age ago since Winthrop was knocked out of this NCAA tournament, but it really has been less than three weeks since the field of 65 was pared to 64, then 32, then 16 and now four.

Michigan State held off Temple on Sunday to win the South Regional title, while Arizona outlasted the University of Illinois at Glasgow (Robert Archibald) to win the Midwest.

And so next Saturday's Final Four field is set. Arizona plays Michigan State in one national semifinal--a matchup that should be a carbon copy of Sunday's Arizona-Illinois fist fight.

Michigan State hasn't reached Duke-like status yet, but the Spartans are making their third consecutive Final Four appearance and seek to become the first team since Duke in 1992 to defend a national title.

The other semifinal pits Duke and Maryland, a game that is a carbon copy.

The schools already have met three times this year, Duke winning two of the three but hardly in a position to brag about it.

A quick Sunday recap:

The only thing missing in Arizona's 87-81 victory was a cut-man. Six Illinois players fouled out in a game that proved the Pacific 10 Conference can take a punch.

In fact, Arizona forward Michael Wright may look in the mirror this morning and see Arturo Gatti.

Despite regional final losses by Stanford and USC, the Pac-10 enters the Final Four with a conference-best 12-4 tournament record.

You can't help but get swept up a bit with Arizona, the preseason No. 1, which weathered a turbulent season in which Coach Lute Olson lost his wife, Bobbi, to ovarian cancer.

Those weren't all tears of joy Olson was fighting back after Sunday's victory.

CBS analyst Bill Walton, in the awkward position of having to call a game in which his son was a participant--"Terrible pass by Walton!"--recounted some of Arizona's travails this season, including the one-game suspension of forward Richard Jefferson.

Walton did not mention Jefferson was suspended in the wake of taking free plane fare and NBA tickets from Luke Walton's father.

Illinois did its best to derail the Lute-Olson-deserves-this moment, getting an unexpected performance from Archibald, an import from Scotland, who pulled the wool over Arizona's eyes for 25 points.

Arizona can expect more of the same from Michigan State next weekend. The Spartans are the top rebounding team in the country and hail from the same rugby-scrum Big Ten Conference.

The sad residual of Michigan State's victory is that it came at Temple's expense.

"If we weren't playing them, I'd be rooting for them to get to a national championship," Spartan Coach Tom Izzo told CBS after the game.

John Chaney's Owls, the 11th-seeded team in the South, made a miraculous run to the regional final. But how come the buck always has to stop here?

The 69-year-old Chaney has yet to push through to a Final Four, having been bounced from a regional final for the fifth time. Four of those losses came against top-seeded teams.

Few expected this Chaney squad to make it this far.

If not for a last-second victory over George Washington in the second round of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament, Temple would not have made the field of 65.

As the hour-glass runs out on Chaney's career, we think of the near misses. In 1988, Chaney's Owls were top seeded in the East until losing to Duke. Mark Macon, Temple's star guard, made only six of 29 shots.

We think back to last year, Chaney's best Final Four shot since '88.

But in a second-round game against Seton Hall, star guard Pepe Sanchez fouled out and Ty Shine, a Seton Hall reserve, scored 26 points to lead his team to an overtime victory.

"I feel high because these kids got me here," Chaney said after Sunday's loss. "I feel low because I couldn't carry them any further."

Duke making the Final Four is not a news bulletin.

This is the school's 13th appearance and the ninth for Coach Mike Krzyzewski.

It's an incredible feat in the post John Wooden era, but Duke needs to hang another banner soon or risk wearing the Atlanta Braves tag--tremendous decade, but how come so few rings?

Duke has not won a national title since 1992.

Krzyzewski has lost four times in the title game, most recently to Connecticut in 1999. That Duke team was one of the more talented in college basketball history, but couldn't close the deal.

This year's team isn't as good.

"I don't consider us a great basketball team," Krzyzewski says.

What the Blue Devils have are the nation's two best players in senior forward Shane Battier and sophomore guard Jason Williams, who averaged 28 points in four games and has been, by far, the most dominating player in this tournament.

What to make of Duke-Maryland IV?

Unlike Wisconsin vs. Michigan State, which met for a fourth time in a national semifinal last season, the Duke-Maryland rematch has some appeal.

Duke won two of the three previous games, but Maryland easily could have swept the series.

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