After the Oklahoma State-UCLA game in the first Final Four semifinal today comes the really Big Show.
North Carolina center Rasheed Wallace calls it the "battle of champions." And indeed, when defending NCAA champion Arkansas faces the 1993 titlist, North Carolina, in the nightcap of the semifinals at the Kingdome, there will be a galaxy of stars on the floor.
"We are playing a great basketball team," said North Carolina coach Dean Smith. "I think it's the best team I have seen -- as I started watching tapes -- this year."
In the Arkansas corner of this heavyweight NCAA bout is the 1994 Final Four most outstanding player, 6-foot-7 junior forward Corliss Williamson, along with 6-6 junior forward Scotty Thurman, who made the three-point shot that sank Duke, 76-72, in last season's final.
In the other corner, are Dean's Men: 6-6 sophomore Jerry Stackhouse, arguably one of the best players this year in college basketball; 6-10 sophomore center Rasheed Wallace and 6-3 senior guard Donald Williams, the most outstanding player of the 1993 Final Four.
It is thought that this is the first time that two most outstanding players of two previous Final Fours are in the same field.
"Really sometimes, the stars probably wind up canceling each other out," said Stackhouse. "Role players are really the guys who can step up and dictate what happens in these games."
But Stackhouse also said one of the keys to the game would be if North Carolina could shut down Williamson, who has averaged a team-leading 23 points and 9.5 rebounds in four NCAA Tournament games. That burden may fall on Wallace, who is North Carolina's top inside player with 89 blocks this season.
Williamson says stopping Stackhouse, also the Tar Heels' leading scorer and rebounder, is a key for Arkansas as well, but his own scoring may not be as important.
"I don't think stopping me from scoring is going to stop this team from winning," Williamson said. "I think we have several other guys on the team who can step it up."
The game pits two heavyweight coaches against each other, North Carolina's Smith and Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson. This is Smith's 10th Final Four spread over four different decades. This is Richardson's third, but all in the last six years.
"I always said I have gotten here late," Richardson said. "I have to catch up. There is only one way to catch up, and that is to play the best. Anytime, anywhere, anyplace -- play the best . . . The best in the business, in my estimation, is Dean."
Arkansas is a larger team with more depth than North Carolina. The Razorbacks would like to play the game at a fast tempo. But Smith says the Tar Heels probably won't back down much just because they don't have as much depth. Arkansas has averaged 88.2 points a game this season. North Carolina has averaged 84.9.
"We have played good teams and we have always looked to fast break, ever since I have been the head coach," said smith, in his 34th season at North Carolina. "If they press us, we will take it through, and if we get an easy one, we'll take it. If we don't get an easy one, we will wait until we get a good one."
Meanwhile, the other matchup has been likened to the tortoise and the hare, Oklahoma State plodding its way up and down the court, UCLA making the same trip in overdrive.
Much of today's NCAA Tournament semifinal between the Cowboys and the Bruins depends on which team succeeds in dictating the tempo of the game. Slow and steady Oklahoma State would prefer a half-court defensive duel. Fleet UCLA wants a foot race.
"We like to run," Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton said Friday. "But if someone runs better than we do, we hope we can adjust and make them play our style of game."
That means a disciplined, half-court defense and forcing the opponent to work hard for every shot. It worked wonders in the East regional against Wake Forest and Massachusetts, and now Sutton will try to apply it to UCLA's racehorse attack.
UCLA coach Jim Harrick thinks Oklahoma State's deliberate style is overstated.
"They were the third leading point-scoring team in the Big Eight Conference, so they don't play real slow," he said. "They play medium. I think to be a good basketball team you've have got to play fast, you've got to play medium, you've got to play all styles. A good team plays all styles."
The Oklahoma State-UCLA matchup is loaded with heavy-duty offensive players. The Cowboys emphasize the inside-outside game of Bryant "Big Country" Reeves, who shattered a backboard during Friday's practice, and the three-point shooting of Randy Rutherford. Ed O'Bannon is the centerpiece of UCLA's attack.
But if this game boils down to a test of tempo, the burden will be on the point guards, Andre Owens of Oklahoma State and Tyus Edney of UCLA. That could be a fascinating chess game.
Owens offered a scouting report on Edney.
"He has great quickness and he can handle the ball," he said. "He makes a lot of things happen for UCLA . . . creating off the dribble, pushing the ball up the court when it's time to push it."
And Edney made it sound like he was ready to do exactly that to force the game into UCLA's style. "I think we can do that by just trying to pressure them defensively," he said. "Full-court press them a little bit. Just basically try to get the game moving as much as possible. Tempo up as much as possible."
It was Edney's baseline to basket dash in the final 4.8 seconds that saved UCLA against Missouri. And, although Owens hasn't had that kind of spectacular individual moment in the tournament, he has played steady basketball at the point for Oklahoma State.