To check the state of the art called college basketball, two teams -- Indiana and North Carolina -- are "must" viewing. You won't find a pair of better drilled and coached units anywhere, not this year at least.
They proved as much Saturday, when they powered past highly regarded opponents to reach tonight's national championship game in the Spectrum (8:15 p.m. Eastern standard time).
With an awesome second half, Indiana nailed down a 67-49 victory over Louisiana State, the winningest member of the Final Four, while North Carolina wore down Virginia 78-65 in the other semifinal.
The resulting match-up is, without abusing the word, a "classic." Head to head go two hoop-happy states, two strong conferences (the Big Ten and Atlantic Coast), two poised and red-hot teams, and the two geniuses of the coaching profession, Indiana's Bobby Knight and North Carolina's Dean Smith.
For Knight, this weekend marks a return to the scene of his greatest previous coaching triumph in 1976, when Indiana capped a perfect season right here by winning the NCAA title. Smith, ironically, despite his great overall success through the years, was 0-5 in Final Four play before Saturday, when his Tar Heels were faced with a very tall order.
Smith, oddly, was 0-5 in Final Four play before Saturday, when his Tar heels were faced with a very tall order.
How to stop 7ft. 4 in. Ralph Sampson, the College Player of the Year, was the biggest problem. "Defensively," Smith said, "He limits you to one shot and you don't get any inside shots."
Equating the dilemma to a golf game in which an opponent gets two putts to your one, Smith asked, "Guess who's going to win?"
The answer, logically, was Virginia, which had already beaten Carolina in two regular-season games.
The discouraging thing was that the Tar Heels had squandered big leads on both occasions, the second time on their home court. "It took us a while to get over that loss," said All-America forward Al Wood, who scored 33 points in defeat that night and was Carolina's big hero with 39 in Saturday's triumph.
Some people tried to tell Smith the two losses would work in North Carolina's favor during a third meeting. Unconvinced, he replied, "If anything, I think it works against us. We beat North Carolina state twice during the season and then when we met them a third time, we blew them out."
If there were any edges to be found, they may have been of the historical variety.
Since the NCAA went to a four-regional format 30 years ago, the West champion (thanks largely to UCLA) has reached the title game 16 times. North Carolina, as this year's odd seeding arrangement had it, came out of the West.
For those who believe history repeats itself, there were other good vibes. In a confrontation with another giant in the 1957 tournament, North Carolina had toppled Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas to win the NCAA crown in triple overtime.
Beating Virginia is never just a matter of beating Sampson, not when guys like Jeff Lamp and Lee Raker can fill up the basket. But basically, North Carolina concentrated on keeping the Cavaliers' megacenter from getting the ball near the basket, which it did with an airtight inside defense.
Center Sam Perkins, who plays taller than 6-9 and cooler than any freshman is supposed to, deserves much of the credit for limiting Sampson to 11 points. Only once, with less than a minute to play, did Virginia's fluid pivot man get a point-blank shot, a backboard swayin', gusto dunk that only served to vent his pent-up frustrations.
At the opposite end, Carolina's Wood was having a field day, as his point total, a record for an NCAA semifinal game, indicates.
At the intermission the game was tied 27-all, and it might have remained nip and tuck if the slick senior hadn't gone on a tear, hitting 9 of 10 shots during a glittering 25-point explosion.
Virginia had tried to stop him with quick, shorter defenders, and the strategy backfired. Yet even when he met up with Sampson inside, Al once slipped in a tremendous driving layup that brought down the house.
Now UNC meets Indiana, which has matured greatly as the season progressed.
Early on the Hoosiers took their lumps --so many in fact that they could become the first national champion with nine losses (they're now 25-9). One of those losses was inflicted by North Carolina, 65-56, in Chapel Hill back in December.
For the past month or so, Indiana has looked well nigh invincible, particularly in the tournament, where it had shot a blazing 61 percent entering Saturday's game.
The statistic didn't faze LSU, which fashioned itself the Rocky Balboa of the Final Four despite its 31-3 record.
"My biggest concerns?" said center Greg Cook, repeating the question while clutching a box of chocolate chip cookies. "I know they're a good team. But to tell you the truth, I don't have any concerns."
By halftime, if anybody presumably was concerned it was Indiana. The Hoosiers trailed 30-27, the team was shooting a miserable 36 percent, and All-America floor leader Isiah Thomas had three fouls.
"We played like we would get one point for hitting the backboard," said coach Knight, who felt confident the ball would start dropping. Center Ray Tolbert made sure of that with a slam dunk delivered at the speed of light to open the second-half scoring. That seemed to set the tone for an intimidating run that saw Indiana outscore LSU 30-9 during the next 17 minutes.
What may have really unhinged the Tigers was the play of 6 ft. 3 in. Jim Thomas, who came in for Isiah (no relation) when the nifty point guard picked up a quick fourth foul in the second half. Though Thomas only scored two points, the spring-loaded guard blocked two shots, directed the offense, and would up with a team-high nine rebounds.
Asked if he could have imagined the second-half blitz his team produced, Knight said, "I didn't expect it, expect it, but in my wildest imagination, I thought it was possible. I have a wild imagination."