THE highest people in higher education, the nation's college presidents, have acted in the last few years as if they have just discovered intercollegiate athletics, and they are at work on a cure.
There is much to cure, but the presidents might find much to admire when Duke and Indiana meet in the spotlighted game of college basketball's "Final Four" weekend. The field in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's 54th men's tournament is down to four. On Saturday, semifinal games at Minneapolis will match Cincinnati against Michigan, and Duke against Indiana. The winners will meet Monday night for the championship that Duke won a year ago.
Nineteen years have passed since a team won even two times in a row (the 1973 championship was the seventh straight for the University of California at Los Angles and coach John Wooden). That's a virtually unassailable record, but Duke has achieved one of its own by reaching the "Final Four" the last five years. In that span, no other school has been there more than twice.
This year, the Blue Devils have won 32 games and lost just two, while working under the pressure of being ranked No. 1 in the land all season. Indiana has been less successful, though not bad: 26 victories and six defeats.
Of more interest to presidents is the fact that although the academic reforms they approved have not had time to produce results, Duke and Indiana have met and exceeded the new standards for years - and won games.
Each is a long-time basketball power that has reached new heights under its present coach: Mike Krzyzewski (pronounced "shuh-SHEF-ski") of Duke and Bob Knight of Indiana. The coaches are the game's subplot: Krzyzewski played for Knight at the United States Military Academy, coached under Knight for a year at Indiana, and long ago grew out from under Knight's shadow.
That wasn't true the only other time the coaches met: in the 1987 tournament, when Knight and Indiana won, 88-81, as the third step of six required for that Hoosier team to become Knight's third national champion. Krzyzewski had taken his 1986 Duke team to the championship game, losing there to Louisville. But in that 1987 meeting there was a clear public perception that the edge in experience and coaching savvy belonged to Knight.
Since that loss to Indiana, Krzyzewski has taken Duke to the top. Last year, he had his own coaching graduation day, defeating a University of Nevada at Las Vegas team that was unbeaten and was considered unbeatable in the semifinal round. Duke went on to win its - and Krzyzewski's - first championship.
This time, it is Krzyzewski's Duke program that is the national model: so successful, so consistent, so smart. Krzyzewski has, if not the college game's best player, its preeminent rescuer. The Duke team two years ago reached the Final Four only because sophomore Christian Laettner beat the buzzer with a shot that defeated Connecticut, 79-78. Last Saturday, senior Laettner sank a game-winning shot against Kentucky as time expired. Laettner did not miss a shot: 10-for-10 on field goals, 10-for-10 on free throws.
Indiana is a team used to being the target, after 21 years of being at or near the top of the Big Ten under the demanding Knight. These Hoosiers were up there again, seemingly headed for their 11th league championship under Knight when the target got hit, and hit again, and finally felled. A bitter last-day 61-59 loss at rival Purdue delivered an outright championship to a very good Ohio State team that had lost both of its games against Indiana.
Knight canceled the team awards banquet, an affair of 41 years' history that once had drawn as many as 2,000 townspeople. When the move infuriated some people as unfair punishment of his players, Knight responded that if the intent were punishment, he would have made the players go to two banquets.
Knight picked up on the punishment theme by turning his tournament press conferences into a long-running spoof. He talked of "cerebral reversal," a means of cooling athletes hyperexcited about the tournament - all fictional and comically inventive. His players picked up on the idea by presenting him with a bullwhip, which backfired when an Albuquerque newspaper photograph showed Knight playfully whacking Calbert Cheaney, Knight's best player, who is black. The local NAACP chapter saw no humor and threate ned to picket the tournament.
The Indiana team became as good as it had been bad down the Big Ten stretch. It easily beat a UCLA team that had won a season-opening game over Indiana, 87-72, and gone on to win the Pacific-10 Conference championship. UCLA's coach, Jim Harrick, also saw Duke close up: in a 75-65 Duke victory over UCLA March 1. He said "Duke is beatable. And Indiana is the kind of team that could beat them."
Cincinnati (29-4) has not played in the "Final Four" since being cut down by Loyola-Chicago in a bid for a third straight championship in 1963. Michigan (24-8), meanwhile, has defied all basketball tradition this year by starting five freshmen, and the young Wolverines justified coach Steve Fisher's faith by knocking Big Ten champion Ohio State out of the tournament, 75-71, to win their spot in Minneapolis.
The last 10 tournaments have produced 10 different champions. Cincinnati is the only team in this year's field that could extend that streak. Duke won in 1991, Michigan in 1989, and Indiana in 1987 (as well as in 1981, 1976, 1953, and 1940). It's the only school to win championships in four different decades.