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Published: Sunday, 4/1/2001

Arizona has lots of talent - and a great coach

MINNEAPOLIS - Four years ago, Arizona's Lute Olson was one of the best coaches in college basketball. Then we forgot about him.

But Olson has the feel, the knack.

Olson's teams have produced the nation's best winning percentage over the past 13 years.

He's coaching in his fifth Final Four. More significant, he's one game removed from winning his second NCAA championship following Arizona's 80-61 chainsaw massacre of Michigan State in a national semifinal game yesterday at the Metrodome.

Olson won his first national title in 1997, with stars named Mike Bibby and Michael Dickerson, Miles Simon and A.J. Bramlett.

The Wildcats don't always have the best talent in college basketball. But they've always had Olson.

“In terms of the success of our program, it's been a case of having the right mix of players more so than having a huge number of McDonald's All-Americans. It's been a matter of getting guys that fit together,” said Olson, who has guided the Wildcats to 17 straight NCAA appearances.

Arizona is on a mission, dedicating the season to Bobbi Olson, the coach's wife, who died of cancer three months ago. The Wildcats have won 11 in a row, the longest streak in the nation.

Yesterday's game was over in the first half, when Arizona took Michigan State's best shot flush and didn't even wobble.

Instead it was the Spartans, the defending national champions, the supposed bullies of the big, bad Big Ten, wearing dazed and confused looks. They suffered the worst NCAA Tournament loss in school history.

If you take into account the significance of the moment, senior guard Charlie Bell played the single worst game of his career. He shot 1-of-10 from the field and scored three points. He had three assists and a game-high five turnovers.

Sophomore forward Jason Richardson was 2-of-11 from the field, and freshman guard Marcus Taylor was 3-of-9 for eight points. As a team, the Spartans shot 41 percent with 11 assists and 15 turnovers.

Arizona placed all five of its starters in double figures. Guards Gilbert Arenas and Jason Gardner combined for 33 points and nine steals.

“I don't want to take anything away from Arizona. Give Arizona credit,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose team was making its third straight trip to the Final Four. “For some reason, it looked like we weren't in it all game long. I didn't see (the seniors) play like this in four years.”

There's a first time for everything, you know. Particularly when the opponent is Arizona.

Michigan State put up kind of a good fight, but I saw something I thought I'd never see from the Spartans.

The Spartans folded in the clutch.

They refused to accept the fact that they couldn't pass against Arizona's barbed-wire defense. On three straight trips in the second half, Arizona stole forced passes and coverted the turnovers into seven quick points, turning a semi-competitive 62-52 ball game into a full-fledged 69-52 rout.

The result was enough to discourage any further attempts by Michigan State to challenge the Wildcats. The Spartans put up a good face, but once it gets to the point where passing the ball without having it intercepted is a victory of sorts, the game is pretty much over.

The Wildcats' talent was too great. Their coach is even greater.

John Harris is a Blade sports columnist. E-mail him at jharris@theblade.com.



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