NCAA tourney teams arrive in Minneapolis

By Eddie Pells Associated Press Published:

MINNEAPOLIS _ A warning to anyone who cried when Jim Valvano won, cheered when Villanova stunned Georgetown or felt warm and fuzzy when Danny Manning led Kansas to its improbable title: This is not your Final Four.

Those who embrace lovable underdogs have no team to call their own in Minneapolis this week.

This year's gathering is for Duke, Maryland, Michigan State and Arizona _ four big-name teams from big-name conferences with low seeds and star players. All four spent good portions of the season at or near the top of the polls.

"Not only do we have four really good teams, but we have four teams who are playing their best basketball right now," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "That doesn't usually happen at the Final Four."

The Duke-Maryland semifinal Saturday is the fourth meeting between Atlantic Coast Conference rivals who have already played two of the most entertaining games of the season. The Arizona-Michigan State meeting is a pick 'em contest between the defending national champion and the preseason No. 1.

Sure, all these teams have been through tough times, too.

But it hardly comes as a shock to see any of them here. Just ask Illinois coach Bill Self, whose team played all four.

"Three of the four teams may have the best offensive firepower in the tournament," said Self, speaking of Arizona, Duke and Maryland. "Then you have a team that labors sometimes to score points, but is probably the best defensively, and the best rebounding team."

That would be defending champion Michigan State (28-4), which made it despite the loss of Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and A.J. Granger from last year's championship team. There were plenty of people, including Spartans coach Tom Izzo, who thought a return to the Final Four was a stretch.

But Izzo still has a wealth of talent in Charlie Bell, Jason Richardson and Zach Randolph. And these are the defending champions, who won the Big Ten for the fourth straight time and never fell out of the Top 5.

"We've got a different team in a lot of ways and we kind of took things a day at a time and let them just happen," Izzo said. "Then, we started reassessing our goals at the end of the year, and now we're playing for it."

Arizona (27-7) also went through tough times, slipping to 8-5 in January and stumbling from suspensions and the death of coach Lute Olson's wife.

More recently, the Wildcats have looked like the team picked as the preseason No. 1. Since Olson returned from a two-week absence, the Wildcats have gone 17-2.

"They were placed under a lot of adversity this year, and it was not a case of my losing confidence in them," Olson said. "Sometimes they may have thought that, but it's like I tell them, the day I'm not on them is the day they should start worrying about things."

Duke, of course, is Duke _ a program deep in talent and tradition that has been here nine times since 1986.

Its worst moments this year came when Carlos Boozer missed the ACC tournament and the first two rounds of the NCAAs with a broken foot. The Blue Devils (33-4) substituted Casey Sanders and went 5-0. Late in the season, senior guard Nate James struggled, and Krzyzewski replaced him in the starting lineup with freshman Chris Duhon. Duke is 8-0 since that change.

If there's any semblance of an underdog here, it's Maryland (25-10), a 97-year-old program making its first Final Four appearance. The Terrapins lost five of six in midseason after blowing a 10-point lead in the final 54 seconds against Duke and seemed in jeopardy of missing the tournament.

But it would be wrong to call them a complete surprise. They were a Top-5 team to start the season. A month after their collapse, they beat Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, then nearly beat the Blue Devils again in the ACC semifinals, losing 84-82 on a last-second tip-in.

"It's just a one-game deal," Maryland coach Gary Williams said, trying to grasp the elusive underdog's role, "not a best-out-of-seven."

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