Duke and Kansas were expected to be the lounge acts at the Final Four. Instead, they're headlining tonight's big show.
The Blue Devils shocked top-ranked UNLV 79-77 and Kansas upset North Carolina 79-73 on Saturday to reach the NCAA championship game. Just how big a surprise was that? Well, two days ago you could have gotten better odds on Jerry Tarkanian growing hair than a Duke-Kansas final.Two people not stunned by the semifinal results were Duke guard Bobby Hurley and Kansas coach Roy Williams.
"It's not any miracle that we're here," Williams said Sunday. "The reason we're in the Final Four is because we're a good team."
Hurley, who played a nearly flawless floor game against UNLV, doesn't think the Blue Devils will suffer a letdown after stopping the Rebels' 45-game winning streak and avenging a humiliating 30-point loss in last year's championship game.
"Our goal all season has been to win the national championship, not just get to the final," Hurley said. "Winning last night was probably the most satisfying game I have ever played in. But we won't be satisfied with just last night."
Although Duke (31-7) will be playing in its fifth title game, the Blue Devils are still seeking their first championship - a record for Final Four futility. However, the current players claim the failures of the past won't haunt them tonight.
"What happened the last three years will not have any affect at all," said senior Greg Koubek, the only person to play in four Final Fours. "This is my last opportunity to win it, and I'm going to be focused and ready."
At a group news conference, Duke's five starters were asked if they would consider the season a failure if they lost to Kansas.
"No," said sophomore Thomas Hill. "Our team has accomplished a lot. It's good just getting to the Final Four."
Freshman Grant Hill disagreed.
"It's been our goal all season to win the national championship. Anything else would not be satisfying to me," he said.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has guided the Blue Devils to four consecutive Final Fours and five in the last six years. But he still is dogged by questions about his failure to win the big one.
"I don't look at anything we have done in the past as a failure. I look at it as great experiences," Krzyzewski said. "I think you learn from victory and defeat. I think I've been a better coach this year than I've been in the past."
Unlike Duke, Kansas hasn't been burdened by great expectations this season. In fact, it has taken consecutive victories over mega-powers Indiana, Arkansas and North Carolina to convince people that the Jayhawks (27-7) are for real.
"This team has been on a roller coaster all season," said Williams, recalling that the Jayhawks lost their first two Big Eight games to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State before rebounding to capture a share of the league title.
"We've been ugly at times, but I've never been around a team as competitive as this one."
Williams came to Kansas in 1988, three months after the Jayhawks won the national championship under Larry Brown. He's the fourth coach to lead Kansas to an NCAA title game, joining Brown, Phog Allen (1940, 1952 and 1953) and Dick Harp (1957). Only Brown's 1988 squad and Allen's 1952 team, which included reserve guard Dean Smith, won the championship.
If this year's team is going to win the title, it will have to play much better than the last Kansas squad to face Duke. Williams still has vivid memories of the Blue Devils' 102-77 rout in Durham on Feb. 18, 1989.
"It was during an ice storm," he said. "Most people couldn't get to the game. I wished I could have skipped it, too."
Danny Ferry was the leader of that Duke team. Now the main man is junior center Christian Laettner, who scored 28 points against UNLV, including the winning free throws with 12.7 seconds remaining. Laettner leads Duke in scoring, rebounding and steals, and is tied for second in assists with Grant Hill.