Final Four a four-ply incantation for R-E-S-P-E-C-T NCAA TOURNAMENT


Introducing your Final Four:

The Arizona (Everyone Called Us Chokers) Wildcats.

The Arkansas (We're Never on Television and Charles Barkley Said We Were Poop) Razorbacks.

The Florida (No One Thought We Could Get Here) Gators.

The Duke (We're Not That Good) Blue Devils.

It's not the Final Four, it's the Whine-al Four.

Four teams inspired mostly by the fact that Dick Vitale, Billy Packer or perhaps some obscure, deadline-hassled sportswriter somewhere has said something somewhat less than 100 percent adoring about them sometime in the last four months.

Almost makes you long for the Tark and his chewed-up towel and NCAA sanctions and "With our players we oughta win" gall.

Someone needs to explain to these teams that these are the '90s and no one gets the respect they think they deserve. Cal Ripken hears boos. So does the President of the United States when he shows up to watch a game. Dean Smith is talk-show meat back home. Frank Sinatra gets the hook at the Grammys.

If Jimmy Johnson couldn't get the respect after winning two straight Super Bowls -- your boss thinking Barry Switzer can replace you is hardly respect -- who in the world is going to get it?

Not Lute Olson, that's for sure.

Of course, Olson, Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson and Florida coach Lon Kruger secretly are happy that their players experienced disdain during the year. There isn't a better, cheaper or easier motivating tool than someone telling you, "You know what? You stink."

Duke's Mike Krzyzewski was different in that he couldn't utilize genuine disdain, not after making each of the last 26 Final Fours, or whatever his record is. So, Coach K just went out and trumped up some disdain, wondering aloud again and again whether his team loaded with high school All-Americans had enough talent to make a March run.

Oh, well. As Tonya Harding's lawyers said: Whatever works, right?

The good news is that, come late Monday night, the sporting world will have one fewer coach complaining about a lack of respect. (The only thing more stomach-turning than an indignant college basketball coach is a crying politician.)

Of course, when practice starts up next November he can always go back to complaining, pointing out that no one expects his team to win back-to-back titles. But let's worry about that next year. The fact is that someone is going to win a national championship Monday night and will have no choice but to stop complaining for at least a little while.

Nolan Richardson, come on down!

While it's true that the college game has become a crapshoot with its dependence on three-point shooting, Arkansas stands out among the finalists as the most balanced, most talented and deepest. Such advantages don't always translate into victory, but look for it this time.

The Hogs play Arizona in tomorrow's first semifinal, a game that should send viewers straight to the medicine cabinet for the seasick pills. These teams combined to attempt 54 three-pointers in their regional finals. Their idea of a slowdown is three passes before the shot.

If Wildcats guards Khalid Reeves and Damon Stoudamire shot threes as well as they did against Missouri in the regional finals (11 of 15), Arizona can pull an upset. But it's asking too much for them to shoot that well again, and besides, the Hogs are the Wildcats' equal as three-point shooters. They're also more balanced, with an inside game featuring Corliss Williamson to go with their jump shooters. Let's call it the Hogs by eight.

The other semifinal will seem like it's played in slow-motion after that first one. Duke is more balanced than guard-oriented Florida, but the Blue Devils should win on pedigree alone; Florida is a couple of notches below the other finalists. Still, something tells me the chemistry-rich Gators are going to make it a close game, maybe even a buzzer-beater. Duke by three.

That puts Arkansas and Duke in the final: an interesting matchup, but don't be surprised if it's a blowout. Stopping a one-man team such as Purdue was a perfect task for Duke, but stopping an eight-man team such as Arkansas is another matter, particularly when Arkansas is quicker and shoots better.

Duke does have that pedigree, which could make a difference if Arkansas shoots poorly, gets rag-taggy and finds itself in a close game with the smartest team in the country. That's Duke's chance. But let's call it the Hogs by seven.

The Razorbacks were upset when Charles Barkley said they were an undeserving No. 1 in December -- as if anyone should pay any attention to what Charles says about anything -- and, as is the case with any team not in the Big East, ACC or Big Ten, they walk around with a chip on their shoulder.

But they're the best team in the country this year and they're about to prove it, which should earn them the respect they seek, which, in the end, might make the players happier than anything they accomplish. After all, how can the mere winning of a national title compare with the joy of proving Dick Vitale wrong?

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