Coach K brought Duke to Minneapolis looking for his third ring. Arizona and Lute Olson were here after an emotional season. Michigan State was on the trail for a repeat title and Maryland was on a breakthrough season that set the stage for even bigger things to come. Here’s a look back on the paths the Blue Devils, Wildcats, Spartans and Terps all took to get to the 2001 Final Four…
Their great run of 1986-94 had produced seven Final Four trips and two NCAA titles. The Blue Devils had made it back here in 1999, but lost an epic championship game fight to UConn. The quest to get Mike Krzyzewski Title # was led by some big names.
Shane Battier averaged 20 points/7 rebounds and won National Player of the Year honors. Jay Williams, the current ESPN analyst, was good for 22 point and 6 assists. The supporting cast was led by Carlos Boozer, a future NBA mainstay, who averaged 13/7. Mike Dunleavy and Nate James were each double-digit scorers.
Duke was ranked in the top three all season long. They shared the ACC regular season title with North Carolina and when the Blue Devils captured the conference tournament it sealed the #1 seed in the East.
The NCAA journey began near home in Greensboro and it began predictably—Duke blitzed 16-seed Monmouth en route to a 62-29 halftime lead and won 95-52. The Round of 32 brought Missouri. The Tigers were coached by Quin Snyder, a Blue Devil alum and current coach of the NBA’s Utah Jazz. The game was close for a half, but Duke shot 54 percent from the floor. Williams poured in 31, while Battier added 27 in the 94-81 win.
Philadelphia was the venue for the East Regionals, just as it had been during the championship run of 1992. With Kentucky also here as the 2-seed, it had basketball fans anticipating a rematch of the thrilling regional final the two schools played in ‘92.
Duke upheld their end of the bargain by taking care of 4-seed UCLA. The game was sloppy both ways, with a combined forty turnovers. Williams committed eight, but made up for it with 34 points, while Battier went for 24 points/11 rebounds. The final was 76-63.
But Kentucky didn’t hold up their end up the bargain. 6-seed USC followed up an earlier victory over #3 Boston College by knocking off the Wildcats and setting up a second Pac-10 opponent for Duke. The Blue Devils-Trojans final was competitive, but not dramatic. Williams scored 28 points. Battier’s line was 20/10 and Duke won 76-63. Williams got Most Outstanding Player, the strength of his total scoring overshadowing Battier’s more complete performance.
Lute Olson had brought Arizona to the Final Four in 1988 and 1994 and lost in the semifinals. He came back in 1997 and finished the job with a national championship. 2001 was a year of great expectations. A loaded team was ranked #1 in the country to start the season.
Gilbert Arenas, with a long NBA future ahead of him, averaged 16 ppg in the backcourt. Jason Gardner was an able point guard who also scored in double figures. Michael Wright and Richard Jefferson at the forward spots were good for a combined 27/13 per game. Loren Woods, the 7’1” center anchored the middle with 14/6 a night and Luke Walton came off the bench.
But it would be a trying year for the coach. Lute’s wife, Bobbi Olson, passed away and the impact of her loss was felt by a team she was close to. Her husband missed five games. Arizona still had a good year, going 23-7, but finished a game back of Stanford in the Pac-10 race and was a 2-seed in the Midwest.
The storyline of the ‘Cats playing for Bobbi was a big one in this NCAA Tournament and the ‘Cats talent was ready to come to the forefront. They shot 59 percent in a blowout win of Eastern Illinois, getting past a first round that had been challenging for Lute in the past (1992-93 most notably).
A Round of 32 game with Butler was close for a half, but Arizona’s ultimate 38-15 edge in rebounding wasn’t going to be overcome. They pulled away, 73-52, and advanced to San Antonio for the regionals. After a sluggish first half had them trailing 3-seed Ole Miss 24-23, the Wildcats again used rebounding strength to take control. The final board advantage was 41-30, with eleven each from Woods and Jefferson and Arizona won 66-56 in spite of failing to hit a shot behind the arc all night.
Illinois was coached by Bill Self and the #1 seed. The regional final battle was played at a sizzling pace and that was fine with Arizona. Arenas scored 21 points , while Gardner and Woods knocked down 18 each. The Wildcats won it 87-81 and were headed back to the Final Four. Arenas got Most Outstanding Player, Woods was the more effective player in both games.
Tom Izzo was bringing the Spartans here for the third straight time. 1999 was the breakthrough year, the first Final Four for Michigan State since Magic Johnson in 1979. In 2000, they took the next step and won the national championship. There was a new cast of players for 2001, but the excellence continued.
Jason Richardson was the leading scorer with 15 points/6 rebounds. Charlie Bell was a good all-around guard, averaging 14 points/5 rebounds/5 assists. Andre Hutson, a holdover from the championship run, mixed it up inside for a 14/8 average. And Zach Randolph, with a long NBA career as a rebounder in front of him, got his start with an 11/7 average for the ‘01 Spartans.
Michigan State was ranked in the top five all year and slugged it out with Illinois in the Big Ten, tying the Illini for the regular season title. An upset loss early in the conference tournament didn’t cost Sparty a 1-seed, but it did move them away from their home region and into the South. Although, as events would have it, that was exactly the place to be.
The Spartans messed around for a half against Alabama State and were only up four at intermission, before their suffocating defense and rebounding dominance took hold in a 69-35 win. Dominating the boards was again key in the Round of 32 against Jerry Tarkanian’s Fresno State team. Michigan State’s rebounding edge was 45-31, with 14 from forward David Thomas in the 81-65 win.
Atlanta was host for the regionals and Michigan State was the only favorite to make it. The 2 thru 6 seeds—North Carolina, Florida, Oklahoma, Virginia and Texas—were all gone. The path to another Final Four was wide open for the Spartans.
And their rebounding effort didn’t let up. A 77-62 win over 10-seed Gonzaga was marked by a 47-28 board advantage, with Bell going for 21/10 and Hutson adding 19/10. 11-seed Temple had beaten #7 Penn State in the other regional semi. The Owls were no better at matching up with Sparty down low. The rebounding margin would end up 39-25, with Randolph getting 14 on his own. Hutson completed a great weekend with an 11/10 game, while Thomas filled up the box score with 19/7. Bell scored 14 points, got Most Outstanding Player and leaves me again wondering why Hutson wasn’t the pick. I promise, I don’t second guess every regional MOP selection, but it just seems like 2001 was a bad year for judgment. But it wasn’t a bad year in East Lansing, as they went back to the Final Four.
A program with a long history of success, the Terps had never made a Final Four. A great team in 1974 had lost in the conference tournament, at a time when only one team per conference could qualify for the NCAA. Six NCAA trips under Lefty Driesell in the 1980s got a few Sweet 16 appearances, but never the Final Four. Gary Williams was bringing Maryland to the NCAA Tournament for the eighth straight time in 2001 and looking for the breakthrough.
The Terps were led in the backcourt by Juan Dixon and his 18ppg. Lonny Baxter was the inside presence at power forward, averaging a 16/8. Terence Morris was a quality third contributor, with his 13/8 average. Maryland went 21-10, took third in the ACC behind Duke and North Carolina, and earned the 3-seed in the West Regional.
A hair-raising first-round game with George Mason out in Boise nearly ended this run before it began. But Dixon was on, scoring 22 points and guard Byron Mouton stepped up with 22 more. It was enough to escape with an 83-80 upset.
The Round of 32 with Georgia State would draw some national attention and speculation that the Committee had ulterior motives in the way set up the bracket. The Panthers were coached by Driesell, who had left Maryland amidst scandal after the tragic cocaine-induced death of Len Bias in the summer of 1986. After 11-seed Georgia State escaped Wisconsin in the first round, the battle was set up.
Only Maryland had too much talent and after their narrow escape, were focused in. They held Georgia State to 31 percent shooting, while Baxter went for 19/14 in a 79-60 win. The Terps were headed for Anaheim and the regionals.
Another matchup with an interesting local angle was up next. #10 Georgetown had escaped a quad where 2-seed Iowa State suffered a stunning first-round loss. Baxter was on a roll now, and his 26/14 performance led the way past the Hoyas, 76-66. And the forward kept it rolling against top-seeded Stanford in the final. He sealed his MOP honors with a 24/6 game and the Terps as a whole shot 58 percent. The 87-73 win was surprisingly easy and Maryland was, at long last, going to the Final Four.
THE 2001 FINAL FOUR
Arizona-Michigan State was the early game and it was close at the half, the Wildcats leading 32-30. But Arizona would pull away after halftime. All five starters scored in double figures, while Hutson’s 20 was the only notable performance for Sparty. Gardner’s 21 set the pace and led Arizona to an 80-61 win.
Maryland shocked the nation in the nightcap, taking a 22-point lead on Duke. But the Blue Devils would deliver a shock of their own. They forced 21 turnovers while only committing seven of their own. The margin was cut in half by intermission. Battier finished with 25/8, Williams added 23 and Duke sizzled down the stretch. They won 95-84 and after the dramatic 33-point swing was over, Coach K could be seen mouthing the words “Wow!” as the clock ran down. Maryland, with its key players all returning, would nurture the bad feelings all the way to a national title in 2002.
Monday Night has delivered some incredible moments over the years at the Final Four. 2001 wouldn’t be one of them, but Duke-Arizona was still a pretty good game throughout. Arizona would be sunk by poor shooting from behind the arc. Gardner and Arenas combined to go 0-for-12 from trey range. Woods played well down low, with 22/11, but it wasn’t enough.
Williams was a little off for Duke, going 5-for-15, but he still had 16 points. It was Dunleavy who was the surprise hero that every championship game seems to produce, knocking down 21. And Battier was consistent as always, delivering an 18/11 that got him Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors. Duke was able to get Arizona just at arm’s length in the second half and won 82-72.
Mike Krzyzewski took a special place in basketball’s coaching pantheon with his third national championship, matching his mentor Bob Knight. Coach K wouldn’t stop here, adding rings again in 2010 and 2015.