SEATTLE -- Forget North Carolina's superb starting five, which has taken Dean Smith to his 10th Final Four.
In this Final Four matchup, the most talked-about team is the officiating crew.
The defending champion Razorbacks and the Tar Heels, who eliminated Arkansas en route to the 1993 title, will meet in the second semifinal at the Kingdome tonight, and there has been no lack of words about the officiating, since both used strong defensive work to get through the regional finals.
Call it loose, Richardson says.
Call it the way the rule book mandates, Smith says.
"Basketball is a difficult game to officiate," Smith said, "but it still says if I'm shooting or passing and you hit my arm, it's a foul. It's still in the rule book. You still expect it to be called. . . . You don't just say, 'Well, they're supposed to let them play.' If you 'let them play,' you let every team know fouls aren't going to get called.
"I can't believe it should be any different now [than in the regular season]. The NCAA has spent millions of dollars trying to get uniformity throughout the country."
And, now, for the opposing viewpoint.
"It seems the NCAA games are being called closer than the league games," Richardson said. "Sometimes I'm kind of confused, just like some of the players are. I guess it depends on the working crew, whether they're going to let the kids play. There's some I don't think that do."
Arkansas (31-6), the home of "40 Minutes of Hell" and maybe the most rugged team in the country, was shaken at the start of the season by an NCAA crackdown on hand-checking.
Massachusetts shot 50 free throws in a season-opening 24-point win over the Razorbacks. After more than two months of hesitancy, Richardson told his players to ignore the officials and get physical again, and the result has been 14 victories in the Razorbacks' past 15 games.
North Carolina (28-5), which began 16-1, has shot nearly twice as many free throws as the opposition this season, but the Tar Heels aren't exactly one of those "pretty teams" Richardson joked about after the Razorbacks had roughed up Virginia in the Midwest Regional final.
Arkansas limited the Cavaliers to a season-low 39.3 percent shooting, but that paled in comparison to what North Carolina's constant changes did to Kentucky in the Southeast final. The Wildcats were confused and shot 28.0 percent.
For all of the oohs and aahs that accompany a Rasheed Wallace turnaround jumper, a Corliss Williamson post-up move, a Jordan-esque spin to the basket by Jerry Stackhouse or one of Scotty Thurman's rainbow jumpers, this matchup is all about the defenses that will try to deny those weapons.
Arkansas led the Southeastern Conference in three-point shooting and North Carolina did the same in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but that perimeter talent is also pretty good at covering up openings.
The Razorbacks, 11 deep if Richardson desires, press nonstop and in waves. North Carolina, with less manpower, doesn't mind opponents going into the paint, where Wallace has a school-record 89 blocks and Stackhouse 59.
Arkansas will try to wear down North Carolina point guard Jeff McInnis, who limped off at the end of yesterday's practice with a groin pull that hasn't healed.
If he struggles against the Razorbacks' pressure, that will cut down on the opportunities for Wallace, Stackhouse and senior guard Donald Williams, who is lighting it up like he did two years ago, when he was the MVP at the Final Four.
North Carolina can't allow Williamson the carte blanche near the basket he had in last year's Final Four, when he was MVP.
There probably isn't a player in the nation hacked more than Williamson, whose 245 pounds are impossible for most other 20-year-olds to move, and a game called by the book would favor Arkansas there.
"If he got all of his calls," Richardson said, "he'd shoot 50 free throws a game."
For all of the debate over stylistic differences, the similarities between Arkansas and North Carolina go beyond their recent NCAA championships.
Smith marveled over Arkansas' supposedly superior talent, but he's the one with two NBA lottery picks in Stackhouse and Wallace.
Richardson has bemoaned the burden that comes with a title defense when all five starters return, but is there a man in the business who knows more about expectations than Smith?
TITLE GAME DATA
L What: UCLA or Oklahoma State vs. North Carolina or Arkansas.
Where: Kingdome, Seattle.
When: Monday, 8:40 p.m.
TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WBAL (1090 AM)