Duke's foes standing guard; Sure, favor the Devils, but backcourts give other 3 finalists a shot


For Big Ten teams Ohio State and Michigan State, it's a chance to go back to the future. For Duke, it's equal parts reincarnation and re-coronation. For Connecticut, it's the Final-ly Four.

The semifinals of the NCAA tournament might not have the glamour matchup it would have had had Kentucky made it for a fourth straight year and another rematch with the Blue Devils, but the two games will get straight to the point.

Or is that point guard?

The matchups of point guards are the most intriguing part of what still seems to be an exercise in futility: the notion that any of the teams going to St. Petersburg, Fla., Saturday at Tropicana Field can beat Duke.

You can make a case that either the Buckeyes or Huskies, who'll meet in the first semifinal, have the backcourt to beat Duke, but not the bench. You can make a case that the Spartans, who'll meet the Blue Devils on Saturday, have both.

A look at the two games:

Ohio State (27-8) vs. Connecticut (32-2)

Point guard Scoonie Penn has carried the Buckeyes to their first Final Four appearance in 31 years, and with Michael Redd, a prodigious scorer, gives Ohio State as formidable a two-man scoring threat as any team left.

Connecticut's Khalid El-Amin hasn't been as consistent as Penn, and despite the outcome, was badly outplayed by Gonzaga's Quentin Hall in Saturday's West Regional final. El-Amin is also a bit of a defensive liability.

There's a good chance that defensive stopper Ricky Moore will wind up on Penn, with El-Amin on Brian Brown and All-American Richard Hamilton on Redd. If Moore can shut down Penn, something St. John's freshman Erick Barkley couldn't do in Knoxville, the Huskies should advance.

The matchup of Redd, the Big Ten's freshman of the year last season, and Hamilton, the Big East's two-time reigning Player of the Year, is between two versatile players who can go inside and hit outside. It could be the key matchup of the game.

Neither team has much help off the bench, but the Huskies certainly are deeper with guard Albert Mouring, swingman Rashamel Jones, forward Edmund Saunders and center Souleymane Wane than the Buckeyes are with only George Reese and Boban Savovic.

The coaching matchup in this game also will have an intriguing story line.

Jim O'Brien started his college coaching career as an assistant under Dom Perno at Connecticut, and was 1-18 against Jim Calhoun when he left Boston College for Ohio State before last season.

Calhoun, on the other hand, has exorcised all the demons and silenced the doubters who said that the Huskies were just a star-crossed team that couldn't reach the Final Four.

Now that they have, maybe Calhoun will loosen up a little and so might his team.

Don't discount the hot team theory here. The Buckeyes have looked impressive in their NCAA tournament run, particularly in coming from behind against Auburn and for the first 30 minutes against St. John's.

Prediction: Ohio State is starting to remind folks of the 1997 Arizona team that put together a string of upsets with the backcourt combination of Mike Bibby and Miles Simon. The Wildcats were also fourth seeds in a Final Four with three top seeds.

Duke (36-1) vs. Michigan State (33-4)

Scratch those rematch stories about historic games played between the Blue Devils and Kentucky. But the second semifinal Saturday will be a rematch of one of those made-for-ESPN games this season in something called the Great Eight Classic.

The early December game was won by the Blue Devils, 73-67. As happened yesterday against Kentucky, the Spartans fell behind early -- 13-0 out of the gate and by 17 points later in the first half before mounting a comeback.

The difference in that game was Mateen Cleaves. The Michigan State point guard was in the midst of a slump, and finished 3-for-17 from the field. That slump is ancient history and the Spartans are playing in their first Final Four since 1979.

Cleaves is still a bit of a streaky shooter, but he tends to make big shots when the game is on the line. The same can be said for Duke shooting guard Trajan Langdon, who seems to be recovered from a late-season foot injury.

William Avery is quicker than Cleaves -- of the four, only Penn might be able to hang with Avery in a race -- and his ability to get the Blue Devils into their offense could wear down the Spartans.

Michigan State isn't big inside, but the Spartans are relentless rebounders. They had 23 offensive boards in the first meeting with Duke, partly the result of their poor shooting as well as their own athleticism.

Duke center Elton Brand might be too strong for Andre Hutson, but backup A. J. Granger likes to go away from the basket and that could tire out Brand and his backup, Chris Burgess, who has done a creditable job in the tournament.

Where the Spartans might have their biggest matchup problem is at the forward spot. Chris Carra- well or Shane Battier will combine to slow down reserve Morris Peterson, Michigan State's leading scorer, whose clutch free-throw shooting helped knock out defending champion Kentucky yesterday in the Midwest final.

The coaching matchup of Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo seems on the surface to be one-sided as well, given Krzyzewski's seven Final Fours in nine years starting in 1986. But the Blue Devils haven't been on this kind of stage since 1994.

Prediction: How can you not pick the Blue Devils? They might not be winning by 40 as they were earlier in the tournament, but Temple's John Chaney hinted after yesterday's East Regional final that it might take divine intervention to beat them.

Overview: The pressure is clearly on Duke, which wants to justify all the journalistic bouquets thrown at the Blue Devils over the past month. The pick here is Duke, but the Blue Devils should have at least one tough game, probably in the semis.

Pub Date: 3/22/99

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