CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There are a few similarities between Duke and Florida going into tonight's second NCAA semifinal game here at the Charlotte Coliseum, but the biggest is that neither team was supposed to get this far.
There also are some contrasts, but the most significant is that the Blue Devils have been nearly annual visitors to the Final Four and two-time national champions during the past decade; the Gators have never been to college basketball's showcase event.
Duke (27-5) might not be the best team left in this year's tournament -- Arkansas is -- but it is certainly the marquee attraction. This marks the seventh appearance in nine years, and the Blue Devils have advanced to the final five times. Florida (29-7) is not even the best Southeastern Conference team here -- the Razorbacks are that too -- but the Gators have gained increasing respect. Yet their Final Four experience, none to be exact, could weigh heavily in the outcome.
"It's a big advantage [to Duke]," said Florida forward Brian Thompson, a 6-foot-6 sophomore who'll have the job of guarding All-American Grant Hill. "You've got to give them credit. But we've got to come out and show them that they can't just step all over us."
Said Florida coach Lon Kruger, "They have played in a lot of big games."
There's also another built-in advantage for the Blue Devils, one that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has tried to downplay all week. Every time someone mentions a home-court advantage for Duke, Krzyzewski points out his team's lack of success at the Coliseum in recent Atlantic Coast Conference tournaments.
But it was clear from the reception his team received at yesterday's public practice that the Blue Devils are the crowd favorite. While the other teams were greeted politely, Duke got a long standing ovation that grew louder during a pre-game dunking drill.
"It's exciting and we enjoy it," said Hill, one of three Duke players who were on the 1991 and 1992 championship teams. "We'll have fun with it, but once the game starts, the players really forget about the crowd. You forget about the hoopla. As for this being a home court, if it is, we haven't done well with it."
Said junior center Cherokee Parks, "Charlotte hasn't been too kind for us."
But the Blue Devils have turned disappointment in the ACC tournament into a catalyst for their national championship run. In 1991, they lost by 22 to North Carolina in the finals before stringing together six straight NCAA tournament wins, including a semifinal upset of Nevada-Las Vegas and a final victory over Kansas.
In 1992, Duke won the ACC tournament and wound up beating Michigan for the title. This year, the Blue Devils lost to Virginia in the conference semifinals and looked tired, a team ready to make another early departure after last year's second-round loss to California.
"We take things in stride," said Parks, who has played a big role in Duke's survival and success in the tournament. "Coach does a good job of helping us keep things in perspective. We take one thing at a time and don't take the past for granted. That's the only way to keep the success going."
Not that Duke can merely show up and expect to advance into Monday's championship game against the winner of today's first semifinal between Arkansas and Arizona. In fact, what scares Krzyzewski is what often worries coaches whose teams are about to play Duke.
"There is not one thing you can do to defend Florida," said Krzyzewski. "It's a different mind set that we have to have. They are more balanced than most of the teams we've played."
Tonight's game should come down to two factors: how the Gators handle their Final Four jitters, both before the game and in the opening 10 minutes, as well as how they handle Hill.
While the Florida players discount the crowd -- "We've played before hostile fans before, especially at Arkansas and Kentucky," said senior guard Craig Brown -- and are confident they can handle the pressure, Hill is a different story.
Unlike Connecticut's Donyell Marshall, who didn't want the ball down the stretch and wound up missing a pair of free throws to send the second-round game into over time, Hill will be the focal point from start to finish.
And unlike any team the Gators have played, the Blue Devils have even more in their favor. The crowd. The past. The aura. Don't overlook Hill's desire to become the first Duke player to win three national titles.
"They set the standard," said Florida's rotund center, 6-7, 286-pound center Dametri Hill. "When you talk about college basketball, Duke is a team you talk about a lot. We've got our work cut out for us."
Spoken like a true Final Four first-timer.
DUKE (27-5) vs. FLORIDA (29-7)
Site: Charlotte (N.C.) Coliseum
Time: Approximately 8:30 p.m.
Coaches: Mike Krzyzewski of Duke (348-123 in 14 years), Lon Kruger of Florida (75-50 in four years).
AOutlook: The Blue Devils have a lot of experience in NCAA finals, but most of it belongs to senior Grant Hill. The Gators will try to force Hill to shoot jumpers from 10 feet and out, rather than let him drive or pass. Hill's defensive assignment was unclear, but look for the 6-foot-8 All-America to guard whoever has the hot hand for Florida coming out. Junior C Cherokee Parks played well in a reserve role two years ago in the Final Four -- especially in the championship against Michigan -- and could give Florida's Dametri Hill, a 6-7, 286-pound sophomore, some problems because of his three-inch height advantage. Where the Gators have the advantage is in the backcourt, where Craig Brown and Dan Cross are more experienced and quicker than Jeff Capel and Chris Collins. How the Blue Devils defend Florida's three-point shooting -- Cross and Brown ranked first and sixth. respectively, in the Southeastern Conference in scoring -- could be the difference between a rout and a close game, which the Gators have won a number of in the tournament. Florida is deeper than Duke, and Blue Devils' reserve Marty Clark is coming off a poor showing in Knoxville, Tenn., last week. Ultimately, Duke's experience and fan support should put the Blue Devils into the championship for the third time in the past four years.