ARIZONA AND MARYLAND TO TANGO FOR TITLE?

March 27, 2001 6:30 AM
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Get your money ready! It’s time to evaluate the NCAA tournament Final Four semifinals this Saturday.

In the first game of the semifinals in Minneapolis, Arizona (No. 2 Midwest Region) will play Michigan State (No. 1 South) at 2:42 p.m. PST. The second game pits Maryland (No. 2 West) against Duke (No. 1 East) at 5:12 p.m.

Maryland (25-10) vs. Duke (33-4): This is the fourth time this season these Atlantic Coast Conference rivals will meet. Duke won the ACC regular season going 13-3 and 3-0 in the league tournament. Maryland went 10-6 in the conference’s regular season.

Previous meetings: Last year, Wisconsin and Michigan State met for the fourth time in the Final Four semifinals in Indianapolis. What happened in the three previous meetings that season?

Well, as one Las Vegas sports book gambler put it: "Michigan State beat them easily three times before, so why should it be any different this time?"

He was right. Michigan State won and covered seven points.

What happened in the previous three Duke-Maryland meetings this year? All were close. Duke won that crazy first meeting Jan. 27 at Maryland, 98-96 (OT). It covered as a 2½-point underdog. Maryland won the second meeting, 91-80, at Duke on Feb. 27, spoiling Duke’s senior night. The third meeting was another epic, with Duke winning in the ACC semifinals in Atlanta, 84-82, on a Nate James tip-in in the final seconds. Maryland covered the last two games.

This time, it should be another close game or with Maryland winning on the court. Maryland outscored Duke 269-262 in the three meetings. All 125 minutes were not garbage time.

This upcoming game’s in a dome, but both teams are used to that background, playing that ACC semifinal at the Georgia Dome. The three previous games would have gone over the now posted 160. This game should go over, as well. Don’t forget: Duke lost to Stanford 84-83 on Dec. 21, while Maryland topped Stanford in the Elite Eight, 87-73.

MATCHUPS: The best match-up is at point guard between Maryland’s Steve Blake and Duke’s Jason Williams, who makes the Blue Devils tick.

Blake held Williams to 36 percent shooting (19-of-52) from the field, and 5-of-16 from 3-point land in those games. This was the main reason Maryland was competitive. At center, Maryland’s Lonny Baxter should match up well with Duke’s Carlos Boozer. Both are 6-feet-8. For the tournament, Baxter averages 17.8 points a game. Boozer, coming off an injury, averages 3 points and 10 rebounds.

Coaching should be evenly matched. It’s Maryland coach Gary Williams’ first Final Four appearance, so this is not just another Final Four for him. He should prepare extremely hard for this. He has already matched Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski in those match-ups this year.

As for the bench, both match up evenly.

INTANGIBLES AND TRENDS: This could be a magical year for the Terrapins. In the first round, they defeated George Mason, a school about 20 miles south in Fairfax, Va. Then Maryland defeated Georgia State, guided by former Terp coach Lefty Driesell, who resigned from that job in 1986. In the third round, the Terps knocked off Georgetown, a neighboring school in the D.C. area. After beating Stanford, they look for revenge against Duke, which knocked them out of the ACC tournament March 10.

If you were a Maryland fan, you probably couldn’t write a better script.

Maryland seems to understand what the tournament is about. It survived a major scare against George Mason. It demolished Stanford, perhaps one of the best teams in the country, in the West Region final last Saturday, 87-73.

With the program finally making a Final Four appearance, the pressure should be off the Terps.

It seems similar to Connecticut’s 1999 championship run as the Huskies played better in the Final Four after finally reaching that step.

Meanwhile, Duke hasn’t had tournament pressure yet this year. The Blue Devils didn’t cover against second-round opponent Missouri (a 94-81 victory), albeit a 19-point spread. They barely covered at 12½ against UCLA (76-73) or pushed at certain books. They didn’t cover at 14 against USC (79-69). The public and oddsmakers are thinking too highly of Duke.

SUMMARY: This should be a close game, again. Duke only shoots about 68 percent from the free-throw line. If the game is around the number late, Maryland might find a way to cover. The game should be decided in the final minute, with either team leading, so grab points. It should go over the total 160, if that’s the over-under play, but not a strong one. Play Maryland +5 and over 160.

Arizona (27-7) vs. Michigan State (28-4): Arizona (15-3 Pac 10) was second in its the conference to champion Stanford (16-2). Michigan State finished co-champs with Illinois in the Big 10, both going 13-3 in conference play.

PREVIOUS MEETINGS: These teams didn’t meet this season, but did play last season when Arizona defeated MSU 79-68 in Tucson, Ariz. In that game, Michigan State did not have senior guard Mateen Cleaves, out with a stress fracture in his foot, but the Spartans did go on to win the national title with Cleaves in the backcourt.

Michigan State sports the best rebounding edge average per game this season at +15.3 going into the South Region final. They out-rebounded Arizona in that game, only 33-30.

TRENDS AND INTANGIBLES: Arizona’s tournament road was tougher. That should prepare the Wildcats better. Not looking at the first round, Michigan State defeated, in the South Region, No. 9 Fresno State, No. 12 Gonzaga, and No. 11 Temple. All good teams, but none were top-notch. In the South, Arizona beat No. 9 NC Charlotte, No. 3 Mississippi, and No. 1 Illinois. Arizona’s wins were more impressive.

In regular season, Arizona played in a tougher Pac-10, compared to the Big 10. The Pac 10 is 12-4 in the tourney. The Big 10 is 9-5, with three teams eliminated in the first round. At the end of regular season. Arizona won at Stanford. Michigan State lost to Penn State in the Big 10 tournament quarterfinals. Arizona is 19-2 in its last 21.

The biggest intangible is the death of Arizona coach Lute Olson’s wife, Bobbi. She died of cancer in the middle of the season. Wildcat players seem to want wins more than opponents because of this inspiration. This has brought them and Olson together. Everyone’s back from suspensions and injuries. Olson missed a number of games early on because of his wife’s illness, but not having your head coach at the game is a big factor.

MSU is 16-2 the last three years, but Arizona is 19-6 in the tourney since 1993.

MATCHUPS: With those rebounding numbers, Michigan State will be nullified by Arizona and its 7-foot-1 center, Loren Woods. Michigan State center Aloysius Anagonye is only 6-8. Woods has blossomed in the tournament, where he’s averaging 15.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.3 blocks.

At point guard, Arizona’s Jason Gardner and Michigan State’s Charlie Bell is a wash. Gardner did some big shots down the stretch against Illinois Sunday, so he’s clutch. Arizona shooting guard Gilbert Arenas carried the Wildcats for a stretch Sunday. He goes against David Thomas, scoreless against Gonzaga for 18 minutes. Also for Arizona, Arenas and Jefferson have unusually long arms, helping on defense. Arizona has five starters who average double digits.

Michigan State’s 3-point shooting in the tournament is 25 percent (15-for-60). Arizona plays good perimeter defense, holding opponents to 37.5 percent in the tournament. Michigan State is 34.3 percent in that category

As for the bench, Arizona has four contributing players. Michigan State can play six, but only two produce quality numbers.

Coaching is even. Olsen and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo have both won national championships. Olsen may be focused here because of his wife’s death, spending more time preparing.

SUMMARY: This won’t be a blowout. Look for Arizona to win by four to 10 points. Sure, Michigan State can win, but the Spartans aren’t at last year’s national championship level. The match-ups slightly favor Arizona, but the intangibles go overwhelmingly to the Wildcats. Look for the game to go under. Both teams play good defense. The statistics say perimeter shooting will be tough for both. This is the first game of the day, so players may be a little nervous early. The game is in a dome, but both teams played in one during the regional finals. Play Arizona at pick and under 144.