ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — Shortly after Duke's 68-62 semifinal win over Michigan State here in the NCAA Final Four basketball championship late Saturday, a reporter asked Duke's Trajan Langdon whether the Spartans had been the kind of "bump in the road" that seldom- challenged Blue Devils had been expecting all year.
Not, however, to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, to whom the question was not directed. He interrupted, jumping in with anger flashing in his eyes. "They are not a bump in the road," he fumed. "They are a great basketball team." He said the query was "disrespectful" to both teams.
He also was dead wrong. A bump in the road, as anyone who has driven over one knows, definitely can slow you down. It invariably jostles you. It gets your attention. But it doesn't do any lasting damage. It simply serves as a reminder that you can be slowed by something you don't anticipate and there may be more bumps ahead.
All of which is exactly what the Michigan State Road Bumps, known to their friends as the Spartans, did to the high-powered and inordinately gifted Blue Devils. The truth that no MSU fan wants to hear is that the Road Bumps never were truly, honestly, really on the verge of winning. To their enormous credit, however, they were always on the verge of keeping it close, even real close.
And, at the end, they did, thanks mainly to shaky free-throw shooting by Duke. The Blue Devils managed to hit only six of 12 attempts during a 4:20 span; all year, they have been hitting better than 70 percent.
Clearly, Coach K is a trifle on edge, feeling the pressure of being on the precipice not only of winning the title tonight, if it disposes of the University of Connecticut (which beat Ohio State Saturday, 64-58), but preparing for a coronation as one of the greatest teams ever.
Fabulous Duke (37-1) has heretofore encountered only one serious bump in the road to St. Pete all year, a loss in November to Cincinnati, or two, if you count an overtime win over St. John's. So if there is a single concern about Duke as it struts into tonight's final, it's whether it has been tested enough to prepare it for potential adversity.
Until Krzyzewski opened his mouth unbidden, it seemed his Blue Devils, led by Player of the Year Elton Brand and a wondrously talented supporting cast, evidenced no chinks in the armor.
Now, there is one: nerves.
If normally controlled Coach K is wound this tightly over something like road bumps, then UConn, which essentially has only marginal hope if you go by overall skill, suddenly has been given a window of opportunity. If the Huskies come in and play a relaxed game of their lives and the Blue Devils are still smarting over road bumps and perhaps other similar unimportant issues that have their stomachs knotted, UConn could end up being the grateful beneficiary.
UConn arrives at the title game largely because of the suffocating defense that guard Ricky Moore slapped on Ohio State's main man, Scoonie Penn. Penn managed just three hoops on 13 tries and a paltry four assists. Conceded Penn afterward, "He just didn't let me breathe the whole time."
What the Huskies must do is similarly contain Brand, a spectacularly gifted athlete. In the first half, Brand hit four of six field goal attempts and ripped down 13 rebounds. In the first half. He ended the game with 18 points and 15 rebounds. "I had a lot of confidence coming into this game," Brand said later. He should. Because of Brand, Duke almost buried Michigan State in double-digit oblivion before the game could properly develop.
Yet, with Brand in foul trouble, State fought back with as much want-to as can be imagined. With 8:33 left, MSU had the deficit down to three points. But just four seconds later, Duke's Langdon drilled a 21-foot jumper, and the Road Bumps could never recover.
Tonight, fans will be treated to a first-rate battle between two of the finest guards in the land, Duke's William Avery and UConn's Khalid El-Amin. They also will witness perhaps the two best players in the college game, Brand and the Huskies' silky smooth Richard Hamilton.
Don't bring this up to Coach K, but any one of them is capable of being a serious bump in the road.