MINNEAPOLIS -- As the bus carrying the Duke basketball team backed out of the Metrodome parking lot late Saturday night, one had to wonder whether it was going to stall or rev its engines and sail through the gates.
The bus, with the nameplate "Success Express" attached to the front window, seemed to have as much juice as the Blue Devils coming off a debilitating, three-point victory over Indiana in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament.
Which is to say very little.
"They wore us out," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said a few minutes before, as he walked with his players toward the parking lot.
So the question going into tonight's championship game against Michigan is this: Will the Blue Devils, who are looking to become the first repeat winners since UCLA in 1972-73, have anything left after seeing two players go down, and one go out, in their 81-78 victory over the Hoosiers?
Duke's resolve, which has been pushed to the limit several times throughout a 33-2 season, might receive its toughest test against a young and extremely talented pack of Wolverines, who are looking to avenge an overtime loss to the Blue Devils earlier this season.
"The expression you saw last night was more from the physical and emotional involvement of playing a team the caliber of Indiana," said Krzyzewski, whose Blue Devils nearly lost all of their13-point lead in the second half after trailing by 12 in the first half. "It really takes a lot out of you, especially after not playing well in the first half. We'll be fine by tomorrow night. We're accustomed to getting everybody's best shot."
Considering Duke's physical state, it had better be at full strength mentally. Senior forward Brian Davis, who missed one game in four years with an injury, might not play at all tonight because of a severely sprained left ankle. Sophomore forward Grant Hill will start in place of Davis, but could be limited by a bruised right knee.
But just as Duke -- the No. 1 team in the country all season -- is accustomed to being a target, so are the Blue Devils used to regrouping after injuries. They did after Bobby Hurley broke his foot against North Carolina in early February. They did it after Hill suffered an ankle injury similar to Davis' later that month.
"I think we're very resilient," said Hurley, who is coming off a game in which he tied his career high of 26 points, tied a school record with six three-pointers and carried Duke back from a 12-point deficit in the first half. "When something like this happens, we pull together. We feel everyone has to do more."
Said senior center Christian Laettner: "The ultimate feeling is to go out on a winning note, as a national champion again. As for Brian, I'm sure he's depressed, but we realize this is a team sport. I am a little disappointed for him, but I'll be more disappointed if we don't win the game."
If the Blue Devils are using Davis' injury as their rallying point and another national championship as a source of inspiration, the Wolverines also have some special motivation. All season long, Michigan (25-8) has redeemed itself for earlier losses by beating those teams later on.
It has happened several times, most recently against Ohio State in the final of the Southeast Regional last week in Lexington, Ky. If their overtime win over the Buckeyes showed that the Wolverines' "Fab Five" all-freshman lineup officially had arrived, then their overtime loss to the Blue Devils proved something else.
"It showed me how good we could be," said Wolverines coach Steve Fisher, who is looking to win his second national title in four years. "But, at the time, we thought we were a little better than we actually were."
In that game, Dec. 14 in Ann Arbor, Michigan fell behind by 17 in the first half, took a five-point lead in the second half, but lost in overtime after Hurley made some big shots and Michigan center Chris Webber fouled out.
The Wolverines have carried the memory of that loss with them through the regular season and the first five games of the NCAA tournament. Before they played Cincinnati in Saturday's semifinal, someone wrote on the locker-room chalkboard, "Pay back Duke, but beat Cincinnati first."
Now that Michigan disposed of the Bearcats, 76-72, is it payback time?
"I call it payback," said point guard Jalen Rose, who had 18 points and six assists in the 88-85 loss to the Blue Devils. "Duke is the defending champion. It's the final. If you can't get motivated playing for a national championship, there's something wrong with you."
Said Webber, who had 27 points and 12 rebounds in the game: "I don't care if Duke won the first time. I don't care if we were playing University of Detroit Mercy, I just want to win."
Will precociousness win out over precision? Will Duke start what many believe will be college basketball's first dynasty since UCLA? Or will freshman-dominated Michigan take its own place in college basketball lore?
First things first.
After beating Kentucky with a last-second shot by Laettner last week in Philadelphia, after missing 12 of 34 second-half free throws and holding off Indiana's barrage of four three-pointers in the closing minute, after losing Davis and nearly losing Grant Hill, does Duke have anything left for Michigan?
"I think so," said Krzyzewski. "I hope so."
Rev those engines on the "Success Express."
Just be careful not to stall, or else the Wolverines just might run away with the championship.
NCAA final: Duke vs. Michigan
Site: The Metrodome, Minneapolis, 9 p.m.
TV: Channels 11, 9
Records: Duke 33-2, Michigan 25-8
Outlook: An interesting matchup of youth vs. experience, of college basketball's most dominant team over the past seven years against the team of the future. Duke's position as defending champions, as well as its experience of playing in the Final Four, should give the Blue Devils an edge. But this Michigan team keeps surprising everybody and might have one more in store.
Frontcourt: The key matchup is Duke's Christian Laettner, who is coming off a season-low eight point game against Indiana, and Michigan's Chris Webber, who had 27 points and 12 rebounds against the Blue Devils in December. With the return of Grant Hill to the starting lineup in place of an injured Brian Davis, Duke should be a little more explosive if Hill's banged-up knee isn't bothering him. Ray Jackson had a terrible game against Cincinnati and could be exploited by the Blue Devils. Juwan Howard is not at full strength for the Wolverines, which could give the advantage to Duke if Hill and Antonio Lang play well.
Backcourt: Duke's Bobby Hurley is coming off a 26-point performance against the Hoosiers, but will have a tougher time getting off his shots against either 6-8 Jalen Rose or 6-5 Jimmy King. Rose can be tough to defend, so Hurley will share those duties with Thomas Hill. Hurley will have to force Rose into turnovers, and Duke must stop King from driving or pulling up for the three-point shot. If Hill can have a big game, which he didn't against the Wolverines in December, he might be the difference.
Bench: An already-thin Duke bench got a little thinner with the injury to Davis and the reinsertion of Grant Hill in the starting lineup. But freshman center Cherokee Parks has played well in the past few games, and Marty Clark hit some big free throws against Indiana. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski indicated that he also might use reserve guard Kenny Blakeney, who played a bit when Hurley and, later, Hill were injured earlier in the season. Michigan's bench is composed largely of former starters. Three of them -- senior center Eric Riley, junior forward James Voskuil and junior guard Michael Talley -- played a large part in the team's past two victories.
Coaching: Krzyzewski and Michigan's Steve Fisher each have won a national championship. Krzyzewski has led Duke to the Final Four six times in seven years and to the championship game three straight seasons, and is widely considered the best coach in the business. Since winning the 1989 title in an interim role, Fisher has had his share of ups and down, not to mention critics. But as the Wolverines continue to win, those skeptics have been silenced.
What Duke needs to do to win: Stay out of foul trouble, get the ball inside to Laettner and stay with the taller Wolverines on the boards. If they do that, Hurley will take care of the rest.
What Michigan needs to do to win: Try to wear down Hurley physically and mentally. Don't get frustrated if Duke turns up the defense intensity. Keep playing with the arrogance and fun that has carried it this far.