Top-ranked Duke wary of Louisville in NCAA basketball final. Blue Devils seek first title vs. tournament-tough Cardinals

Duke University's top-ranked basketball team has won its last 21 games, set a new national single-season record with 37 victories, and just beaten an excellent Kansas squad rated the second best contingent in the country. In a word, the Blue Devils have done just about everything you could ask of a group of undergraduate athletes. But there's one catch: to be crowned this season's National Collegiate Athletic Association champions they still must beat Louisville in tonight's final (9 p.m. EST).

That would appear to be a very tall order. Louisville, after all, gears itself to peak in the NCAA tournament and has been charging hard down the homestretch ever since the 64-team playoff began March 13.

Don't let the No. 7 ranking fool you. By design, the Cardinals (31-7) play a brutal schedule that allows them to learn and progress week by week.

What makes them inordinatley dangerous is their wealth of Final Four experience (four appearances in the last seven years), their incredible balance, and the general big-game savvy Coach Denny Crum, a former player and assistant coach under UCLA's John Wooden, instills in his players.

The latter was on display in Saturday's opening semifinal game in Reunion Arena, when Louisville trailed Louisiana State 44-36 at halftime. LSU coach Dale Brown warned his Cinderella club not to let the dream end, but it came apart soon thereafter as Louisville's pressing defense destroyed the Tigers' offensive rhythm. And when that happened, the Cardinals moved into the passing lane with a 13-0 spurt and pulled away to an 88-77 victory.

LSU's ``freak defense,'' the special mish-mash strategy aimed at keeping opponents off-balance, ultimately couldn't stop Louisville from displaying its well-rounded athleticism. For the third straight game, all five starters scored in double figures with seniors Billy Thompson and Milt Wagner sharing high man honors with 22 points appiece.

The two players, former high school teammates in Camden, N.J., have helped keep Louisville in basketball's front ranks in the years following the school's lone national championship in 1980.

Duke, which is still seeking its first NCAA title, fell from power for a while after reaching the 1978 final, which it lost, incidentally, to Louisville's bluegrass rival, the University of Kentucky.

When Duke had to find a coaching replacement in 1981, relatively unknown Mike Krzyzewski was the surprise choice. Despite his 1980 record of 9-17 at Army, Krzyzewski came highly recommended by Indiana mentor Bobby Knight, who once coached Mike at West Point.

Under Coach K, Duke went 17-13 in 1981, dipped to 10-17 the next year, and made negligible progress in 1983 when this year's seniors were freshmen. That recruiting class, which has produced four current starters -- Johnny Dawkins, David Henderson, Jay Bilas, and Mark Alarie -- was considered one of the best in the nation, and after a shaky 11-17 campaign came on to fulfill its promise with 24-10 and 23-8 seasons leading up to the current glorious 37-2 mark.

As schools, tonight's finalists present an interesting contrast -- Duke, the Ivy-like academic bastion of the storied Atlantic Coast Conference, and Louisville, largely a commuter college from the young Metro Conference.

On the floor, however, the teams bear some marked similarities. Both rely on superb defensive play and efficient offensive execution. Both play with great poise and intelligence.

The control and consistency Duke has exhibited has led some observers to label the team as joyless and businesslike. The description bothers Krzyzewski, who says, ``Fun is winning games,'' and adds, ``We don't get too emotional because it takes away from the thinking process.''

On Saturday, the Blue Devils had to call on all their physical and mental reserves to edge a talented and hard-nosed Kansas team, which wore red jerseys like the school's 1952 national champions rather than the traditional blue.

The Duke strategy was to offset Kansas' height advantage by getting the Jayhawks' 6 ft. 11 in. Danny Manning and 7-1 Greg Dreiling in foul trouble. Manning, in fact, was drawn into two quick fouls and spent most of the first half on the bench. But Duke still couldn't shake Kansas and led only 36-33 at the half. Amazingly, the Jayhawks forced the game to a dramatic finish, even with Manning and Dreiling muzzled offensively (Manning scored just four points and Dreiling six before both fouled out late in the seeaw battle between the Nos. 1 and 2 teams).

In an unexpected twist, Duke's man of the hour turned out to be precocious freshman sub Danny Ferry, a strapping 6-10 forward whose father, Bob, was an All-American center at St. Louis University, played 10 years in the NBA, and is the current general manager of the Washington Bullets. In the last minute of play, young Ferry came in and grabbed two crucial rebounds, putting one back in for a 69-67 lead, and drawing a charging foul on Ron Kellogg as Kansas made a bid to tie the game. Then with one second left, Tommy Amaker iced the 71-67 victory with a pair of free throws. 30--{et

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