Monday, March 25, 2002

Final Four coach will finally grab brass ring

By Mike Lopresti
Gannett News Service

Maryland's Gary Williams left Ohio State to rebuild the program at his alma mater. Sound familiar?
(AP photo)
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        They are all so close now. Somewhere out there is a national championship, waiting for four coaches who know the demands of a long road.

        Oklahoma's Kelvin Sampson? Anyone who used to coach Montana Tech must see the Final Four as the Emerald City.

        Indiana's Mike Davis? If he wasn't freed from the weekly, daily, hourly shadow of Bob Knight before — and he wasn't — he should be now.

        Kansas' Roy Williams? All those excruciating losses, all those months of March.

        Maryland's Gary Williams? After 479 career wins, consider what No. 481 would mean, if it comes next Monday night with his alma mater.

        Atlanta has been good before to a coach. The last time the Final Four shined its light on Georgia — the only other time, in fact — a retiring Al McGuire was fighting tears on the sideline as Marquette beat North Carolina for the national championship.

        So this weekend is blessed deliverance. For somebody.

        The four survivors were produced by a regional weekend of remarkable numbers. Indiana's 15-for- 19 shooting in 3-pointers against Kent State. Kansas' 63-34 rebounding blowout of Oregon. The 45 ties and lead changes between Maryland and Connecticut.

        The winning scores in the regional championships were 104, 90, 81 and 81. So it should be lively in the Georgia Dome.

        The first game Saturday will be a tribute to progress. Davis vs. Sampson. Or more to the point, an African-American coach vs. a coach of Native American descent. The Final Four has never seen such a thing.

        It is a stirring sight, in direct contrast to Arkansas' divorce with Nolan Richardson, a racially-tinged mess which grows nastier by the day.

        Both men understand the opportunity presented in a Final Four, since they overcame so much to get there.

        “I've learned,” Sampson said last week, “not to take anything for granted.”

        “I think he's obviously proven to most people that he can flat-out coach,” Indiana guard Dane Fife said of Davis.

        Oklahoma plays basketball in the raw, with relentless defense. “Winning ugly,” Sampson said, “is beautiful to us.”

        The Sooners must be respected for their victims' list this season. Kansas, Maryland, Connecticut. The Sooners are 9-1 against teams who made the Sweet 16.

        And yet Indiana, a No.5 seed, is a curious mixture of aristocracy and underdog. Barely 18 months after the earthquake of Knight's firing, who would have expected the Hoosiers in a Final Four?

        They have come this far to find their fate possibly resting on one injured ankle. If point guard Tom Coverdale can't play Saturday, it is hard to imagine Indiana handling Oklahoma's fierce defensive pressure.

        And history has no comfort, either. No fifth seed has ever won the championship.

        Neither has Roy Williams at Kansas, for whom there are ample reminders from various outlets each spring.

        Williams has tried to shrug at the burden. His No.1 life goal, he mentioned the other day, is to coach his grandchildren in Little League one day. But the national title could be No.2.

        Now he looks squarely at his best chance in years, with a big and freewheeling team that plays basketball as if it is double parked.

        But then there is Maryland in the way, the Terrapins back again from last year, an expectation Gary Williams must have felt all season. Only Duke could stop them in 2001, and you might have noticed Duke is gone.

        Williams has coached 24 years. No one works that long in this game without stacking up critics. But what can be questioned if he wins next week?

        What can be questioned of any of them — four men each with his own trial behind him, and Atlanta in front of him?


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