Final Four should be Hog heaven


DALLAS -- Give them the trophy. Tell their fans to head straight for Fayetteville and start the celebration. And make out those Rose Garden invitations, because Bill Clinton's beloved Hogs are coming to Washington.

If this weekend's victories in the NCAA Midwest Regional at Reunion Arena weren't enough to convince the skeptics, consider what Nolan Richardson said about his Arkansas Razorbacks yesterday.

"I don't know if we're the most talented team in the country," Richardson said after his top-seeded Razorbacks beat third-seeded Michigan, 76-68, to advance to this week's Final Four in Charlotte, N.C. "But if we play up to the very best of our potential, we'll win the national championship."

Richardson has never been afraid to put that kind of pressure on his teams, but it's not like he's the only one saying it. The No. 1 team in the country for more than two months this season, and the only top seed left in an eclectic field that includes Arizona, Duke and Florida, the Razorbacks are clearly the team to beat.

Arkansas has too much size, power, depth, outside shooting and stamina for anybody outside of Chapel Hill, N.C. Since the Tar Heels of North Carolina disappeared after the second round, the Razorbacks appear to be without a true challenger.

Certainly overwhelming Final Four favorites have lost before. Wasn't it Duke that beat Nevada-Las Vegas in the 1991 semifinals at the Hoosier Dome before going on to win the first of two straight titles? But this Arkansas team reminds many of the 1990 Runnin' Rebels -- only bigger and with even more offensive weapons.

That was the year UNLV embarrassed the Blue Devils in the final, 103-73. That year the Razorbacks were in Denver -- they lost to Duke in the semis -- and Richardson remembers UNLV's victory well.

"Everyone said they wouldn't lose," Richardson recalled yesterday. "And they didn't."

Not that the Razorbacks haven't had their clinkers, when their no-conscience jump shooters were off or their big men got into foul trouble. They have been beaten three times this season, by Mississippi State and twice by Kentucky, most recently in the Southeastern Conference tournament.

But the kind of team that has beaten Arkansas this season -- a team that is capable of shooting threes and has good size up front -- won't be in Charlotte. Here's a look at the matchups you'll see in Saturday's semifinals, and the one you'll probably see in Monday's final.

Arkansas vs. Arizona

The Razorbacks have the speed in the backcourt to contend with Wildcats guards Khalid Reeves and Damon Stoudamire, but with the exception of Joseph Blair, Arizona doesn't have enough big bodies to put on the appropriately nicknamed Hogs: power forward Corliss Williamson, center Darnell Robinson and small-but-large forward Dwight Stewart.

The way Arkansas has been shooting the ball, especially BTC three-point specialist Clint McDaniel off the bench, puts a lot of pressure on the opposition to score.

One thing in Arizona's favor is the pressure of expectations. While the Razorbacks were the No. 1 team longer than anybody this season, and remain the only top seed left in the tournament, the Wildcats can go out there with nothing to lose. They are going in with the same mind-set Nebraska had going into the Orange Bowl against Florida State, so this might wind up a lot closer than people figure. But the edge still goes to Arkansas, maybe by a lot if either Stoudamire or Reeves is stopped.

Duke vs. Florida

The Blue Devils are back after a year's absence, marking their seventh trip to the Final Four in the past nine years. Even Mike Krzyzewski is a little shocked -- OK maybe a lot shocked -- that his team will be going to Charlotte.

It is a tribute to college basketball's best all-around player, Grant

Hill, that Duke still has a chance to win its third title in the past four years.

This could be 1991 all over again, when the Blue Devils were blown out by North Carolina in the ACC tournament and came back to shock highly favored UNLV before beating Kansas for the title.

But this team is no lock for the championship game, because the no-name Gators look like a team of destiny themselves. Duke will have a couple of advantages as the crowd favorite and the only team with Final Four experience in the bunch.

Arkansas vs. Duke

This championship game will not be unlike the Duke-UNLV matchup at the Hoosier Dome in 1991, in that everyone will be picking the Hogs.

While the Blue Devils proved in a one-game situation that they can stop a potent scorer, as they did in Saturday's Southeast Regional final by holding Purdue's Glenn Robinson to a season-low 13 points, they don't have enough defensive stoppers to contend with Williamson inside, Scotty Thurman outside and everyone else Richardson throws in there.

Although Krzyzewski is considered the master of a one-game turnaround situation -- he's 7-0 in regional finals -- Richardson was named the Naismith Coach of the Year yesterday.

Duke has beaten a team with Arkansas' size, depth and versatility in North Carolina, but there's a reason why the Razorbacks are still alive and the Tar Heels are home. Arkansas is the best team in the country. And, as Richardson says, if the Razorbacks play up to their abilities, there'll be a ceremony in the Rose Garden next month with a certain Arkansas fan.


Odds on winning the NCAA men's basketball championship:

School .. .. .. Odds

Arkansas ... .. 8-5

Duke . .. .. .. 2-1

Arizona . .. .. 5-2

Florida . .. .. 8-1

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