Knight's return, Duke's defense highlight season

Posted: Sunday, November 04, 2001

The eyes of college basketball will be on Texas Tech when the season starts, and most of the attention will shift to defending national champion Duke as it ends.

The five months in between will be full of the early season tournaments that help determine the balance of power, the conference races that decide who moves on and the NCAA tournament, the 65-team event that ends April 1 in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

First, there's the matter of coaches returning to the sport.

No comeback will be as scrutinized as Bob Knight's at Texas Tech.

The debate raged over whether Knight and his temper would return to a Division I school after Indiana fired him in September 2000 for what the university called a pattern of misconduct.

Knight won three national championships in his 29 years at Indiana and now takes his 764 victories to the sideline in Lubbock, a city that has embraced him as he tries to rebuild a program that finished tied for last in the Big 12 last season.

''There's a very positive apprehension about how we're going to do,'' Knight said. ''I mean, you're really looking forward to it and you're looking forward to taking these guys totally unacquainted with what you're doing and seeing them develop as a team.

''But then in the back of your mind you're saying, 'I wonder if we'll beat anybody.' That, to me, is what coaching is all about.''

There's no doubt about Knight's ability to win games -- it's his behavior that has raised concern. But the coach with a history of sideline tantrums and physical confrontations with players is being welcomed by the Red Raiders.

''What happened in the past is in the past,'' Texas Tech athletic director Gerald Myers said. ''I am his boss. I am his friend. I think we can deal with both of those roles. I don't anticipate any incidents, or any thrown chairs.''

Knight, who signed a five-year contract, needs 116 wins to pass North Carolina's Dean Smith as the winningest coach in Division I history.

''I think he'll finish his coaching at Tech,'' Myers said. ''He's kind of rejuvenated in his career.''

There's another coach with a national championship on his resume returning to the college ranks. Rick Pitino, who won it all at Kentucky in 1996 and then headed for a less-than-successful run with the Boston Celtics, takes over at Louisville.

Pitino not only had to handle the in-state switch, he had to deal with replacing Denny Crum, who retired rather unwillingly after 30 seasons and two national championships with the Cardinals.

''I know all of you were not fond of me when I was Kentucky's coach and I'll make no bones about it -- I'll always love UK and my players,'' Pitino said when he was introduced as Louisville's coach. ''Now it's my time to lead the Cardinals back to prominence.''

Another coach making a return is Rick Majerus at Utah. He coached just one game last season before leaving for health and personal reasons.

In an age when college basketball fans expect the best young players to leave early for the NBA, two of last season's All-American team will be back this season.

Juniors Jason Williams of Duke and Casey Jacobsen of Stanford return from the first team, while two members of both the second and third teams also will be back -- Troy Bell of Boston College and Tayshaun Prince of Kentucky; and Frank Williams of Illinois and Udonis Haslem of Florida.

Williams and his Duke teammates will be out to match what the Blue Devils did 10 years ago, repeat as national champions.

''I told this team what I told the team in 1992, 'You are not defending a title, you are trying to win another one,''' Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

It worked then, but this team has to find a way to replace national player of the year Shane Battier and five-year senior Nate James.

''Experience means so much,'' Krzyzewski said. ''Fortunately, this group has that.''

The Blue Devils also return center Carlos Boozer, forward Mike Dunleavy and guard Chris Duhon, and add freshman guard Daniel Ewing and Rutgers transfer Dahntay Jones.

''We want it just as bad as last year,'' Williams said. ''It's like putting your finger tip in honey and tasting it and never getting a chance to do it again. You say, 'I want it again really bad.'''

Last season's other Final Four teams return in different stages.

Arizona, which lost to Duke in the title game, was hurt by graduations and early departures. The only starter back is guard Jason Gardner, and he had applied for the NBA draft, then withdrew his name.

Maryland has four starters back from its first-ever Final Four team, while Michigan State, which has been in the last three Final Fours, has to replace four seniors and early entries Jason Richardson and Zach Randolph.

As the talent leaves the sport, it continues to come in.

Despite high school big men Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry being taken in the NBA's first four picks, there are still exciting freshmen to watch this season.

Dajuan Wagner, the son of former Louisville star Milt Wagner, brings his scoring prowess to Memphis, while fellow guards Ewing at Duke and Ben Gordon at Connecticut should have an impact. Among the bigger players expected to step into big roles are James White and David Lee at Florida, and Rick Rickert at Minnesota.

One change in this year's NCAA tournament will be a move to keep teams closer to their natural region, avoiding last season's West Regional that included Maryland, George Mason, Georgetown and Hampton playing in Boise, Idaho.

This year's tournament will end in Atlanta for just the second time. The other was 25 years ago when Al McGuire, who passed away in January, led Marquette to a title in his final game as a coach.

The fact that there is a tournament to settle the national championship on the court is still the reason basketball is the ''Better College Sport.''

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