BOSTON — Now that Duke is the men's college basketball champ for this year, there's no choice but to stand slack-jawed in awe.
Indeed, look in the rear-view mirror at the landscape of hoops in the '90s and you see a lot of Duke. After all, this year is the fifth Final Four appearance for the Blue Devils in this decade, and includes three championships - 1991, 1992, and 1999. And squint against the sun out the windshield, and you see Duke on the horizon. After all, it's a young team on the rise. Seven of its top eight players are underclassmen.
No wonder Duke's Chris Carrawell, says, "This team has everything you could possibly want."
In St. Petersburg, Fla., for this year's championships, Duke is absolutely, positively, and totally the best in the land, by light-years. Huh? you ask. You say the tournament doesn't even start until Saturday, when Ohio State plays Connecticut, followed by Duke against Michigan State. Then the two winners play Monday night for the title. You say you can't have a winner until the games have been played, and somebody wins? Phooey.
Duke has mailed in the win, and the other three teams have read and acquiesced. All that remains is to fill in the score.
OK, OK, so they do still have to play. Take a worst-case scenario: All five Duke starters miss their plane and can't play. So the next five do. There would be only a slight drop-off in talent and certainly no change in result.
The Blue Devils (36-1) don't just beat their opponents, they throttle them, by an average of about 30 points a game. They out rebound opponents by a stunning 10 per game; they're the first team to go 16-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference; they have a school record 31-game winning streak; they have the game's best active coach, Mike Krzyzewski, who has guided them to the Final Four eight times.
And the players are so good they make observers weep in appreciation. Trajon Langdon, a senior guard, averages more than 17 points per game and hits better than 84 percent of his free throws. In Duke's crushing win over Temple last weekend in the quarterfinals, Langdon shot six of seven from the field, including making 11 straight points that certified his team's superiority.
Temple coach John Chaney says Langdon "is as pure a shooter as I've seen in college basketball."
Langdon's crafty running mate in the backcourt is William Avery, a sophomore who averages 15 points per game. Inside is blazingly brilliant Elton Brand, a 6-ft., 8-in. sophomore, who was a unanimous all-American this year.
Duke plays with intensity and with brains, a killing combination. To point to a weakness is to make one up. All the other three teams, a.k.a. the Final Four Fodder, can hope for is that they play their best, and Duke plays its worst. Should that happen, Duke might only win by 10.
The Blue Devils' only loss this season was Nov. 28 to Cincinnati, on a fluke dunk with one second remaining, 77-75, in a meaningless game in Alaska. It was simply one of those early-season things that happened in a strange land. If the two played 10 more times this season, Duke would win all 10.
In truth, for a team to beat Duke will take a spectacular effort. The Final Four Fodder can look to Shakespeare for inspiration:
Oft expectation fails, and most oft there
Where most it promises....
Remember, too, that Villanova, with no chance, did win the title in 1985 over far- superior Georgetown. Stuff can happen.
Not this year. A scouting report of the Final Four Fodder competing for second place follows.
Michigan State: The Spartans last were in the Final Four two decades ago when they won with Magic Johnson. Coach Tom Izzo has done a masterly job, including scheming the defeat of defending national champ Kentucky Sunday to earn the trip to St. Pete.
All Spartan hopes, as they throw themselves in front of the Duke road- grader, rest with Mateen Cleaves. He's a poor shooter but an extraordinary point guard and leader.
Izzo has told Cleaves, "You're like the Pied Piper. You better not walk off a bridge because there will be 12 guys right behind you."
Also key is premier outside shooter Morris Peterson, who oddly doesn't start but who was named all-conference, and shooting guard Jason Kline. MSU is not flashy. It rebounds well offensively, not so well defensively, and is vulnerable to inside pressure.
Connecticut: The Huskies probably are the second-best team in the nation, and they are not without weapons. One is consistent All-American Richard Hamilton, averaging 21.3 points per game. He likely will be around that number in St. Pete.
So most pressure will be on sophomore point guard Khalid El-Amin, who does it all. Unfortunately, all includes sometimes forgetting how to shoot (he was 0-for-12 in the quarterfinal win over Gonzaga), nevermind that he averages 13.7 points a game. It also sometimes includes poor decisions, some of which nearly cost UConn its first trip ever to the Final Four.
Afterward, El-Amin inexplicably explained, "I wasn't paying that much attention to detail." The game is all about details.
The Huskies are a run-run team, good at the transition game shifting between offense and defense, and they force turnovers.
Rebounding is a strength when they're in the mood. In fact, UConn is vulnerable because it sometimes seems to lose interest in the entire game. Last month, for example, in a home contest against Syracuse, Connecticut got nailed 59-42 when it played as if it wished it wasn't playing.
Ohio State: This is a wonderful story that gives hope to all. Last year, the woeful Buckeyes were 1-15 in the Big Ten with their fifth straight losing season. This year, they were 12-4 in the conference, and they're into the Final Four for the first time in 31 years.
"The people," says Coach Jim O'Brien, for 11 years head coach at Boston College, "who do not experience the lows have a tendency to not totally appreciate the highs."
The keys are two. First is O'Brien, who arrived in Columbus prior to the 1997-98 season and promptly kicked three players off the team, including two starters. Three additional players soon were gone. Attitude improved dramatically.
Second, O'Brien was accompanied from BC by 5 ft. 10 in. guard Scoonie Penn. He's solid all around, with ability to slash and score (17.1 points per game). So much defensive attention must be given to Penn that it allows Michael Redd single coverage. That's why Redd averages almost 20 points a game.
Both Penn and Redd also are enthusiastic defensive players. Alas, the Buckeyes are not great rebounders nor do they shoot free throws well.
Late in the season, they lost two of three conference games. However, they have played well in the tournament, skipping past the fact they were seeded fourth in the weakest of the four brackets, the South.
Marveled O'Brien after the win over St. John's that got OSU to St. Pete, "It s hard to imagine that we have put ourselves in this position."
UConn likely will stifle OSU's dreams, then the Huskies will play Duke Monday and give an all-out effort to prove they are a worthy No. 2.