- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2001

MINNEAPOLIS College basketball coaches use one word when they want to cut through the overanalysis of big games:

Talent.

It all comes back to talent, coaches say, rejecting theories about team chemistry, offensive schemes, trick defenses, pressure, adversity, history and destiny.

Tonight, in the national title game at the Metrodome, with Arizona (28-7) facing Duke (34-4) in a meeting of the nation's preseason Nos. 1 and 2 teams, one would be well-served to trot out the old "talent" mantra and look at two players.

Duke forward Shane Battier, national player of the year.

Duke point guard Jason Williams, national player of the year if not for Battier.

"You like your odds going in with those two guys," Blue Devils sophomore Mike Dunleavy said yesterday at the Metrodome.

Indeed, it's difficult to attribute much significance to any of the popular story lines with the nation's two best players wearing Duke blue. Maryland learned Saturday that even a blistering start and a 22-point lead can fade into a loss when countered by the leadership, scoring and pressure playmaking of Battier and Williams.

In Battier, the Blue Devils have a 6-foot-8 senior of high intelligence, varied skills and relentless effort, one who, as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said, "throws himself completely into it, gives a consistently high level of performance and makes people around him do the same."

In Saturday's 95-84 semifinal win over Maryland, Battier scored a game-high 25 points, marking the seventh straight time he has put up at least 20 in the NCAA tournament. Battier shoots 42.3 percent from 3-point range, hits 80.5 percent free throws, grabs 7.2 rebounds, leads Duke with 86 blocks and 82 steals and scores an even 20 points a game.

"I remember when I saw him in high school, there was no comparison between him and anyone else you wanted to mention that year," Arizona coach Lute Olson said. "And the great thing with Shane is that he's gotten better every year… . It's a case where he has really worked hard to continue to be the best player.

"He creates so many problems. He shoots the 3, he sets great screens for his teammates, he gets to the boards, he blocks shots. There really isn't anything he doesn't do… . I really don't know who could create more problems for you than he creates."

Maybe Williams?

The 6-2 sophomore is clearly NBA-bound and NBA-ready able to beat any college defender off the dribble and nail 3-pointers (43.6 percent) from well beyond the pro arc. Williams leads the Blue Devils in scoring (21.7 points) and is their top one-on-one option when the set offense breaks down.

Olson calls Duke's 3-point shooting 38.6 percent on an astonishing 1,030 attempts his biggest fear tonight, and the coach places Williams clearly at the front of that attack.

"The biggest thing is you have to defend them well beyond the 3-point line," Olson said. "It's like, 'He's not going to shoot it from there.' Yes, he will shoot it from there. What is Jason Williams' range? I don't know. Across halfcourt and inbounds is what Mike tells him."

Countering Duke's bare-knuckled one-two punch is the underrated defense of Arizona, which has won 20 of its past 22 games and decimated Michigan State 80-61 in Saturday's semifinal. Thanks to a midseason defensive renaissance, the Wildcats have held 14 of their past 22 opponents below 40 percent shooting. On Saturday, Arizona's 12 steals and switching of zone and man-to-man defenses undid the defending national champions.

Both teams are keeping matchups quiet. It's expected that Wildcats forward Richard Jefferson, the athletic stopper, will guard either Williams or Battier, but it is unclear who will spot the other critical position. It appears unlikely Arizona will experiment much with zone defense, considering Duke's ability to reverse the ball and hit jump shots.

"We haven't played that much zone since the Tipoff Classic against North Carolina in December 1996," Wildcats assistant Jim Rosborough said. "Since then we've used it off and on, but never like [Saturday]. We'll give it a look early [against Duke] and see. But Duke spreads you out and can shoot."

The Wildcats appear to have advantages with 7-foot-1 center Loren Woods blocking shots and all five starters averaging double-figure scoring. And the team certainly bears a unique sense of destiny with its season dedicated to Bobbi Olson, Lute's late wife who died of ovarian cancer Jan. 1.

But Duke, at day's end, has two virtually unstoppable players in Battier and Williams. About the only person who believes that the pair won't be a key tonight is Battier himself, who points to his other trip to the title game, a loss to Connecticut in 1999.

"I beg to differ," Battier said. "I think it comes down to someone else stepping up. If you look at two years ago, everyone was worried about [UConn guards] Khalid El-Amin and Richard Hamilton. The one who hurt us was Ricky Moore. I think often when you get to this game, the ones who are expected to do the most often aren't the difference-makers."

Maybe. More likely it'll all come back to talent.

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