The Final Four, college basketball's answer to ``Gunfight at the O K Corral,'' features a classic confrontation of the nation's top two teams, Duke and Kansas, in Saturday's NCAA semifinal action at Reunion Arena. The eventual champion could emerge from this contest, but on Easter weekend it would be a mistake to count any chickens (or titles) before they hatch, and the winner of Saturday's ``under card'' between Louisville and Louisiana State will surely have designs on upsetting the pecking order.
For those interested in rankings, Duke is No. 1, Kansas No. 2, Louisville No. 7, and LSU, or LSWho? as some have referred to the school, unranked. The boys from the Bayou, however, know that the form doesn't necessarily hold up in this pressure-packed incubator. This was clearly the case when LSU upset third-ranked Kentucky, which had beaten it three times leading up the the NCAA tourney, to win the Southeast Regional.
Just last year, furthermore, unranked Villanova enjoyed a fairy tale ride to the championship. And two years before that, North Carolina State came from off the Top 20 charts to complete its own Cinderella-like championship season.
The purple-clad LSU Tigers are currently almost as hot on the court as ``The Color Purple'' is at the movies, and actress Whoopi Goldberg meets her match in LSU Coach Dale (Whoopee!) Brown, who deserves an Oscar for his celebratory dashes after several recent victories.
One wonders how long the tight-rope act can continue, though, for a team that was seeded 11th in its 16-team regional and whose center, 6 ft. 7 in. sophomore Ricky Blanton, began the season shifting between guard and forward.
This has not been an especially good year for centers, but on Saturday afternoon LSU confronts one of the nation's better up-and-coming pivotmen in the person of Louisville's 6 ft. 10. in Pervis (Never Nervous) Ellison. The LSU-Louisville game taps off at 3:42 EST, with the Kansas-Duke clash to follow. The championship game will be Monday night at 9 o'clock.
While LSU must be concerned about Ellison, Duke has its own matchup problems against Kansas, which enjoys a height advantage with seven-footer Greg Dreiling at center and 6-11 Danny Manning at forward, although he is versatile enough to play virtually anywhere.
Duke's front line averages only 6-7, but it manages to compensate for a lack of height with an acute awareness of proper positioning and ruggedness.
Still, most teams don't wear an expression of great concern when they play Duke, which is not imposing physically.
``I always hear teams say, `We match up well with Duke,'' says Blue Devils' coach Mike Kryzyzewski, who pronounces his name shuh-shef-ski. ``I've heard that for 38 games. Maybe that's why our team is always ready, because they're always hearing about how people are ready for them.''
This consistent effort has given Duke a 36-2 record and a chance to break one of the oldest records in the book -- 36 victories in a season, set by Kentucky in 1948 and tied this year.
That would be a wonderful legacy for Duke's prized seniors to leave to the program. They have done so much to bring honor to the school that Coach K calls them living championship banners. The graduating seniors are guard Johnny Dawkins, center Jay Bilas, and forwards Mark Alarie and David Henderson. Dawkins is the catalyst, an open-floor artist with a nice shot who won the Naismith Award as one of this season's top college players.
The irony here is that the award is named after Dr. James Naismith, Kansas' first coach and the inventor of basketball. KU's ``Dr. J.'' provides the school with only part of its rich basketball tradition, which has seen other greats such as ``Phog'' Allen and Adolph Rupp coach the Jayhawks and Clyde Lovellette and Wilt Chamberlain play for them. Interestingly, Kansas won its only NCAA championship in 1952 with Lovellette, but lost to North Carolina in the 1957 triple overtime champion-ship game with Wilt in the pivot.
Altogether Kansas, 35-3 this season, has made six trips to the Final Four, but none since 1974. Louisville, currently 30-7, can match that total, having carved out its own tradition of excellence, showcased with a championship in 1980.