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THIS FAB FOUR EVEN OUTSHINES EMERALD CITY

Three things became apparent on the descent into this lovely city Thursday afternoon:

First of all, it wasn't raining. I point that out because, in the minds of average Americans, Seattle is to rain as Buffalo is to snow. So when sports writers come to town, they're obligated to make gratuitous comments about the weather.

Second, there is a large, bright orange basketball on top of the Space Needle. Not on the point of the needle, but on the observation deck below it. The Space Needle is 605 feet high, or the approximate size of Bryant "Big Country" Reeves.

Third, there is a massive American flag on top of the King County Stadium -- otherwise known as the Kingdome. They say it's the second-largest flag in the country. I don't care about the flag. I just hope the roof holds up this weekend.

They do things big here in Seattle. This is the city's third Final Four in 12 years (they had it in 1984 and '89), and promises to be the most memorable one yet.

This isn't exactly Cinderella and her ugly stepsisters going at it. We have the defending champion (Arkansas), the 1993 champion (North Carolina) and the school with the most national championships (UCLA).

The fourth entry, Oklahoma State, won consecutive NCAA titles in 1945-46, shortly after they cut the bottoms out of the peach baskets. The Cowboys' coach, Eddie Sutton, is the only man to take four different schools to the tournament (Creighton, Arkansas, Kentucky and OSU).

North Carolina has more victories than any school in history. Its coach, Dean Smith, is the second-winningest coach ever. Sutton has been national coach of the year three times. Arkansas's Nolan Richardson won it last year, and he's still crying for respect.

They say actor Jack Nicholson is desperate for tickets. Nicholson recently jumped on the UCLA bandwagon. Let's hope he doesn't jump off and start swinging his 2-iron at the windshield.

We have a Big Nasty (Corliss Williamson of Arkansas) and a Big Country (OSU's Reeves). We have the last two Final Four most valuable players -- North Carolina's Donald Williams and Arkansas's Scotty Thurman.

We have OSU's Chianti Roberts.

At some point, we might even see the long-awaited Zidek-Zwikker clash in the pivot -- featuring North Carolina's 7-2 Serge Zwikker of the Netherlands and UCLA's 7-foot George Zidek from the Czech Republic.

I thought I'd lost my stomach for basketball after watching Rick Pitino brain-lock in Alabama, but I'm over it. Here's a look at Saturday's semifinals:

Oklahoma State-UCLA

The Cowboys might be the best defensive team in the country. Their opponents shoot 39.1 percent, and they played a tough schedule -- Arizona, Arizona State, Brigham Young, Tulsa, Providence, Michigan State, the Big Eight, plus the East Regional.

If they set the tempo and keep the game in the low 70's, they can pull the upset. Especially if their inside-outside tandem of Reeves and guard Randy Rutherford is clicking.

Still, OSU isn't quite deep enough to stay with UCLA if the Bruins play their customary aggressive style. Tyus Edney, the 5-10 point guard, could be the most valuable player in the tournament.

You could make the argument solely on Edney's end-to-end dash to beat Missouri. He had 22 points, 10 assists and three turnovers as UCLA wore Connecticut down in the regional final. He's the engine of this swift, talented team.

Reeves more than held his own against Wake Forest's Tim Duncan and Massachusetts' Marcus Camby -- quick, leaping centers. Maybe Zidek, a more physical player, will be better able to neutralize him.

OSU might not have an answer for Ed O'Bannon, UCLA's 6-8 star forward. The Cowboys shut down Lou Roe of UMass, but O'Bannon has a more developed offensive game and should create foul problems for OSU's front line.

UCLA 78, Oklahoma State 72

Arkansas-North Carolina

They're the last two NCAA champions, but they must feel like survivors. Arkansas has gone through two overtimes and a one-point win to get here.

Meanwhile, North Carolina doesn't have any depth, its banged-up roster is an "ER" episode waiting to happen, and still Dean Smith manages to get to the Final Four for a 10th time.

After what happened in Birmingham, it's hard to pick against the Tar Heels again. Still, I believe Arkansas can do what Kentucky failed to do last week -- use depth, swift tempo and defensive pressure to wear North Carolina down.

One thing the Razorbacks have that Kentucky didn't is a legitimate big man who can take the ball at Rasheed Wallace -- Williamson.

Plus, the other Arkansas big men are good passers and will help Big Nasty attack the basket.

That'll put a lot of pressure on Wallace. He's Carolina's only legitimate interior defender, so Arkansas should force contact inside and get Wallace in foul trouble. Heaven knows, they have the big bodies to spare.

North Carolina will have to be hitting from the outside to win. Dante Calabria, a three-point threat, has to get involved early to open things up for Donald Williams, Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse.

Corey Beck, Arkansas's point guard, could be the difference. Like UCLA's Edney, he is the leader and emotional center of his team.

Arkansas 86, North Carolina 83

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