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A perfect final, you betcha
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They say emotion will carry only so far. In Minnesota -- home to that most emotionless of species; quiet and reserved, polite and demurring -- they actually say emotion will carry only so far, then. As in: Do you like the Final Four, then? What do you think of our weather, then? So, then, you really don't want to set foot in this hellhole again, then, for the rest of your life, then?

Moreover, in The Cities -- Minneapolitans-St. Paulsies would sooner be caught confessing they voted for Jesse Ventura than calling their cities "Twin" -- they also say: you betcha. A lot. A whole lot. Quite a lot, you betcha, then. It's a language kind of thing, about which someone once wrote that "Minnesotan" is the musical equivalent of a one-string guitar. Alas. It will surely be under a canopy of wonder and irony and accompanied by a merged soundtrack of local boys Prince Rogers Nelson and Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan, to you misfits who've never set foot in Hibbing) that when the NCAA basketball championship finally winds up amid Ice Fishing Zebra that the final combatants -- Arizona, then, and Duke, you betcha -- have experienced a symphony of emotions from pain and laughter to joy and desperation the season long.

Take the Blue Devil guard, Jason Williams, for example. Only a sophomore, he has simply jersey-rigged his Jersey street ball, refined it amid the more structured culture along Tobacco Road and created a dazzling new art form while absolutely smoking the sport like no other since Isiah Thomas 20 years ago. In the second half of Duke's 95-84 passion-play quatre with Maryland in the semifinals on Saturday -- if these teams play four more times, yea forty more, would the result ever change? -- Williams dragged his oxygen-deprived mates kicking and screaming into another championship game. And yet he has a blue devil of a time sometimes even getting noticed, so cute and clever and charismatic is his own teammate, the senior forward, America's Prarie Home Companion, Shane Battier.

Among all the signature elements of Battier's remarkable career, let it not be forgotten that he is the sole remaining partner in the once-fab freshman firm of Burgess, Brand, Battier & Avery, who were going to stockpile all those national titles in Durham. Didn't happen. Moreover, when they started disappearing like strangers in the night -- Chris Burgess transferring to Utah; Elton Brand and William Avery leaving early for the NBA; the enchanting leaper, Corey Maggette, a year younger, also jumping to the pros, Duke was going to fall apart. But that never would happen either. Couldn't have -- all credit and glory to Coach K-Man, of course.

But save some for Who'sYourDaddy? himself, the one who stayed the course, both Duke's and K's. If his university has achieved a certain kind of notorious Yankees/Notre Dame/Microsoft gag-me-with-a-spoon public "backlash" -- and in Minny, the favored team on the street seemed to be "ABD" (Anybody But Duke, then) -- blame that on Battier, as well. The kid often seems to be so too perfect. His Holiness is a religion major, for godsakes, who once said his three favorite dinner companions would be "Jesus Christ, The Buddha and Confucius." Battier plays the trumpet and works on Wall Street; he describes his personality as "complex and pseudo-intellectual" yet he sometimes wears fake monster teeth to surprise his friends. He is the most admired Player of the Year since Bill Bradley some 35 years ago. But -- with all due respect, Senator -- a much livelier quote.

Battier blocked North Carolina rival Joe Forte's shot last month with a run-from-behind, game-turning, one giant leap for Dukiekind manuever and later described it thus: "I saw him on the horizon and I went after it like a cheetah." If Battier didn't rehearse that line, we love him; if he did, we might love him even more. How can the most virulent Dukie despiser not chuckle over the insouciance of a player awash in such honor and dignity who refers to himself as "Sharpei Head."

As the Blue Devils' bluest blood helped his team verify its usual birthright in the title game, this Final Four needed every bit of Battier's charm and humor to allay the strange, sad echoes that seemed to alight in the Metrodome here at the end, imprinting the tragedies that trailed college basketball's darkest season.

It wasn't merely that the star-crossed 'Zonas bore the most oppressive cross of bereavement. What intensity the mixture of bitter and sweet their coach, Lute Olson, who had lost his beloved wife, Bobbi, to cancer three months before, must have felt returning to the very city -- Lute in the land of lutefisk -- where they were married while he was a three-sport star at local Augsburg College?

"Four Bobbi" blared from the billboards in Minny as well as from decorative buttons on most every red-clad 'Cat supporter in sight. And then at the games: Sitting one row in front of the mourning Olson family was none other than ESPN Radio's Bob Valvano, the brother of Jim, the coach who taught the world how to battle cancer. Across the court was Bill Hancock, a longtime NCAA tournament official whose son, Will -- the much acclaimed publicist at Oklahoma State -- was a victim of that school's horrific plane crash. And also in the arena were CBS' Billy Packer and Dick Enberg, themselves still grieving the loss of their own late companion, Al McGuire.

Given all those snapshots, all the pain and suffering, everything that the college game had survived in 2000-01, it was difficult to agree with Olson, as well-meaning as he could be. Following his team's crushing dethronestation of Michigan State's holders (tennis term) in the other semi, the Arizona coach beseeched his own courageous squad to be tough, stay focused and keep their eyes on the prize, saying, "Nobody recalls the guys who finish second."

We tried and true sentamentalists would beg to differ with Cool Hand. Beyond Monday night, win or lose, both survivors from this bewitched, bewildering tournament will be remembered.

You betcha.

Curry Kirkpatrick is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at

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