CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The frames of reference for NCAA tournament championship games usually are taken from recent finals. Because Duke has played in so many in the past decade -- tonight's matchup against Arkansas will be its fifth in nine years, and fourth in the past five -- it's easy to look back for comparisons.
Forget the back-to-back national championships the Blue Devils won in 1991 and 1992. Forget the semifinal upset of Nevada-Las Vegas that first year. Many here believe the most striking similarity, in terms of circumstances and matchups, is to 1990. The Blue Devils are hoping that's not the case, and for very good reason.
That's the year Duke, coming off a draining semifinal victory against the Razorbacks, ran into a UNLV team with size, talent, depth and a rather distinct chip on its shoulder. It was the year the Blue Devils, with a freshman point guard named Bobby Hurley, lost by an NCAA championship game-record 30 points to the Runnin' Rebels.
Fast-forward ahead to this evening here at the Charlotte Coliseum, the first non-dome to hold a Final Four since McNichols Arena did it -- when else? -- four years ago. Fast-forward ahead to Duke (28-5), with a freshman point guard named Jeff Capel, playing Arkansas (30-3), a team with size, talent, depth and a cause.
"I have a lot of respect for Duke," Arkansas sophomore Scotty Thurman said yesterday, "but I feel this is our time."
Thurman isn't alone in that feeling. Not only do Razorbacks coach Nolan Richardson and his players seem to have that confidence, not only does the betting line reflect that belief, not only are the team's lunatic fans -- including President Clinton, who'll be in attendance again tonight -- of that mind-set, but the Blue Devils don't exactly seem to be bubbling over with confidence.
That confidence was shaken further at breakfast yesterday morning when they learned that starting center Cherokee Parks may have suffered a slight cartilage tear in his left knee in Saturday night's 70-65 semifinal victory over Florida. While the 6-foot-11, 250-pound junior was walking around after the game, the knee was swollen a few hours later. Coach Mike Krzyzewski listed Parks as "probable," but already has started to make contingency plans.
"Hopefully we can keep it close and have an opportunity to win at the end," said Duke All-American Grant Hill, who after scoring 25 points in the semifinals, obviously will need another big game for that to happen. "Just our tournament experience in close games will kind of take over. If not, it could get ugly."
A victory, no matter what the margin, also could give Arkansas the respect Richardson feels has eluded him throughout his coaching career and his team throughout this season. Richardson was incensed yesterday when he heard someone comment on ESPN's "Sports Reporters" show that the "more intelligent team" would win. He believes that it was a veiled racial slap at the Razorbacks.
It was the kind of suggestion made in 1990, when the theme was good (Duke) vs. evil (UNLV). But Krzyzewski tried to defuse that controversy, saying of the Razorbacks "they come at you with 40 minutes of intelligent basketball." Arkansas power forward Corliss Williamson put it bluntly: "If you're in a fight and you have a big, strong dumb guy against a little smart guy, the dumb guy is usually going to win."
Following another similar scenario to the 1990 blowout defeat, Duke is coming off a difficult game against the Gators, a game that the Blue Devils trailed by 13 points with 18 minutes remaining, went ahead for good with less than three minutes left and didn't secure until the final seconds.
And one more parallel: in Arkansas, Duke is playing a team that has many ways to score. In fact, the 91-82 semifinal victory for the Razorbacks over Arizona represented the most points scored in a Final Four game since UNLV's 103-73 demolition of the Blue Devils.
"I think Arkansas is better than we are, they're deeper," said Krzyzewski. "They can attack you more than we can. But it's not that we can't win."
While even Duke assistant Mike Brey raised comparisons with the 1990 championship game Saturday night -- "It's scary," Brey said -- Krzyzewski says there is one significant difference: That Duke team won despite some major personality conflicts, as well as the fact that Hurley wasn't nearly as confident as Capel, who hit a big three-pointer against Florida after an otherwise shaky game.
"When we played Vegas in 1990, I thought we were at the end of our cycle," said Krzyzewski, cringing at the memory. "We just couldn't fight back -- and we didn't. We could have done that against Florida, but we came back. It's not in our fiber this year to give up."
Said Richardson: "That Vegas team was older, more mature than we were. That was boys among men. We're not boys among men."
But slowing down Duke's best and only proven big man hurts because of Arkansas' strength and mobility up front.
Not only does Williamson, the SEC Player of the Year, create matchup problems for either Hill or Antonio Lang, but Darnell Robinson and Dwight Stewart do the same for Parks' backups, junior Erik Meek and freshman Greg Newton.
And Duke's troubles matching up extend into the backcourt as well. And the bench. Or, as Hill said, "They keep throwing players at you. It seems like even the cheerleaders, the band and the fans get to play some."
And, added Lang, "We can't run with Arkansas. We realize that. I don't think anybody in the country can run with Arkansas. But we have to do what works for us."
Which is get on the court for the championship game.
The last two times Duke has gotten this far, the Blue Devils have won. But the memories, and similarities, to 1990 just won't go away.
ARKANSAS (30-3) vs. DUKE (28-5)
Site: Charlotte (N.C.) Coliseum
Time: 9:22 tonight
TV/Radio: Channels 11, 9/WBAL (1090 AM)
FINAL FOUR REGULARS
Duke lost four of its first six Final Four games under coach Mike Krzyzewski, but has gone 5-0 since. The breakdown:
Year .. .. .. .. .. ..Opponent .. .. .. ..Result
1986 .. .. .. .. .. ...Kansas .. .. .. ..W 71-67
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Louisville .. .. .L 72-69
1988 .. .. .. .. .. ...Kansas .. .. .. ..L 66-59
1989 .. .. .. .. .. ...Seton Hall .. .. .L 95-78
1990 .. .. .. .. .. ...Arkansas .. .. ...W 97-83
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..UNLV .. .. .. ...L 103-73
1991 .. .. .. .. .. ...UNLV .. .. .. .. .W 79-77
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Kansas .. .. .. ..W 72-65
1992 .. .. .. .. .. ...Indiana .. .. .. .W 81-78
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Michigan .. .. ...W 71-51
1994 .. .. .. .. .. ...Florida .. .. .. .W 70-65
Coaches with the most victories in the NCAA tournament:
Wins .. ..Coach, Team
56 .. .. .Dean Smith, North Carolina
47 .. .. .John Wooden, UCLA
40 .. .. .Bob Knight, Indiana
39 .. .. .Mike Krzyzewski, Duke
37 .. .. .Denny Crum, Louisville
31 .. .. .Jerry Tarkanian, L. Beach St., UNLV
30 .. .. .Adolph Rupp, Kentucky
29 .. .. .John Thompson, Georgetown
26 .. .. .Guy Lewis, Houston
21 .. .. .Eddie Sutton, Creighton, Ark., Kentucky, Oklahoma State
20 .. .. .Steve Fisher, Michigan
20 .. .. .Joe B. Hall, Kentucky
20 .. .. .Rollie Massimino, Villanova
20 .. .. .Al McGuire, Marquette
16 .. .. .Nolan Richardson, Ark., Tulsa