CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Reggie Geary is the least-known member of the three-guard set that got Arizona to the Final Four, but the loquacious sophomore is the one who crystallized the issue as the Wildcats prepared for their NCAA semifinal against Arkansas.
"Who can shut down the other team's threat is the key factor," Geary said. "The thing is, we only have two. They [Arkansas] have about 10."
When they meet at the Charlotte Coliseum tonight, the top two in Arizona's corner will be Khalid Reeves, a second-team All-American, and junior point guard Damon Stoudamire, who averaged 29.3 and 18.5 points, respectively, during the Wildcats' blitz of the West Regional.
Arkansas, the Midwest Regional champion and the only No. 1 seed here, counters with its own second-team All-American, sophomore forward Corliss Williamson. If the Wildcats focus their defensive strategy on the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, another SEC all-star, Scotty Thurman, will take the resultant space and three-point them into elimination.
Say Arizona finds a way to stop Williamson or Thurman. Even without guard Roger Crawford, the injured teammate to whom the Razorbacks have dedicated the tournament, the Arkansas arsenal still might be too stocked. The Wildcats are left to ponder point guard Corey Beck, or freshman center Darnell Robinson, or mad bomber Al Dillard, or beefy forward Dwight Stewart, or three or four others who helped Arkansas land the best winning percentage in the nation, a No. 1 ranking for nine weeks and the favorite's role for the Final Four.
Arizona has only one substitute who has averaged as many as 10 minutes in the tournament. The third man off the Arkansas bench plays that much. Nolan Richardson and Lute Olson, the coaches who agree that defensive execution will determine who faces the Duke-Florida winner in Monday's NCAA title game, also understand that the Razorbacks have greater depth and versatility.
"If Arkansas plays to its ability," Olson said, "we absolutely have to play our best game of the year to win."
Kentucky's zone stopped Arkansas in the SEC title game -- the Razorbacks' only loss in their past 18 games -- but Arizona's Olson is committed to man-to-man defense and an up-tempo pace. "Forty Minutes of Hell" is Richardson's credo, but the Razorbacks can win at less than a breakneck pace, and they can press, trap or put up a mean collapsing zone.
Arkansas ran past North Carolina A&T; and Tulsa in the first and third rounds of the NCAA tournament, but in the second and fourth, the Razorbacks beat Georgetown and Michigan at a slower pace.
Richardson said the Razorbacks' depth would keep him up last night, deciding on a lineup. Williamson, Thurman and Beck have started all 32 games. In three of the four NCAA tournament games, Robinson, 6-foot-11, and Stewart, 6-9, 260 pounds, started, but against smaller, quicker Arizona, Richardson's opening mix probably will include either Clint McDaniel, 6-4, or Davor Rimac, 6-7.
"I'm unsure of how we'll play, but it should be an up-tempo game," Richardson said.
Geary figures to follow Thurman, and sophomore center Joseph Blair or junior forward Ray Owes will be assigned to Williamson. At the other end, the backcourt tandem of Reeves and Stoudamire will be shadowed by Beck and, most likely, McDaniel.
"They [Arizona] feel they have the best backcourt in the country," said Thurman, a 6-6 swingman. "We feel we have the best defensive backcourt in the country."
Both teams are young -- Reeves is the only senior starter -- but most of the participants in tonight's first semifinal remember each other from last year, when Arkansas beat Arizona for the second time in as many seasons.
Arkansas overachieved its way into the 1993 Sweet 16, where it was eliminated by eventual champion North Carolina. This time, it got Williamson for a full year -- the Razorbacks' win in Tucson in December 1992 was one of the 13 games he missed as a freshman with a foot injury -- and added Robinson and junior-college transfer Dillard.
It's a package that might be too big for Arizona.
ARKANSAS (29-3) vs. ARIZONA (29-5)
Site: Charlotte (N.C.) Coliseum
Time: 5:42 p.m.
Coaches: Lute Olson of Arizona (266-86 in 11 years), Nolan Richardson of Arkansas (218-75 in nine years)
Outlook: Both teams are known for their offensive power, but something good has to happen at the defensive end for their vaunted transition games to start. Arizona has limited its four NCAA tournament foes to .329 field-goal shooting average, while Arkansas' opponents have mustered only .375. For the season, Arkansas opponents are at 40.1 percent and Arizona's at 40.8. Both teams are buoyed by two offensive stars, and the Razorbacks' superior depth is supposed to give them the edge. Arizona senior G Khalid Reeves (24.4 ppg) and Arkansas sophomore F Corliss Williamson (20.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg), the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, are second-team All-Americans. Their best-known teammates are Wildcats junior G Damon Stoudamire (18.3 ppg), a one-man press-buster, and Razorbacks sophomore F Scotty Thurman (15.9 ppg), who between them have made 173 three-pointers. They have two common opponents. Both lost to Kentucky, Arizona in the Maui Classic and Arkansas in the SEC tournament. Both beat Michigan, the Wildcats by 24 in December and the Razorbacks by two in last week's Midwest Region championship. Arizona and Arkansas met each of the past two seasons, but Wildcat coach Lute Olson opted not to continue the series this season after getting swept by the Razorbacks. The victorious coach will reach the championship game for the first time. Olson got this far with the Wildcats in 1988 and with Iowa in 1980. Nolan Richardson lost to Duke in the 1990 semifinals.