Lousiville star Darrell Griffith was asked today what it feels like to be a "living legend." Griffith stroked his goatee for a moment, turned to teammate Derek Smith and said, "Go ahead, Derek, tell them what it feels like."
Smith, a sophomore from Hogansville, Ga., was ready.
"Well, I am a living legend in Hogansville," he said. "It's a responsibility. You have to live up to it every day."
Griffith and Smith may not be ready for "Saturday Night Live," but their easy humor may provide a clue as to why the Cardinals enter the NCAA semifinals as the oddsmakers' choice in a tournament where the word "favorite" has been synonymous with "loser."
Louisville and Iowa will go at it first Saturday (WRC-TV-4, 1 p.m.), followed by UCLA and Purdue. The winners meet Monday night for the national championship.
Louisville is 31-3, ranked No. 2 in the polls and features that incredible leaper, Griffith. So the Cardinals are the favorites in a field rounded out by 20th-ranked Purdue and two teams not in the top 20.
"Favorites," snorted NBC commentator Billy Packer as he watched Iowa practice today. "What's a favorite in this tournament? I'm not picking anybody."
That was the consensus as the four survivors of the 48-team draw went through their final workouts in front of about 4,000 fans at Market Square Arena.
"I think there's less pressure on us than the last two times we were here because no one expected us to get here," said Louisville Coach Denny Crum, who reached the final hour in 1972 and 1975 only to lose in the semifinals, both times to UCLA. "When no one expects you to win, it makes things a lot easier."
None of these four teams was supposed to get this far, at least according to the way the NCAA seeded the regional playoffs. Louisville was seeded second in the Midwest, Iowa fifth in the East, Purdue sixth in the Mideast and UCLA eighth in the West.
"Am I worried about the Lousiville? Heck, I'm just glad not to have to play Georgetown again," Iowa Coach Lute Olson said after putting his team through a tough one-hour workout. "I think we'll be ready to play, though."
Olson also proved that the Louisville players are not the only ones bucking for a spot on the next Bob Hope Special.
"We've had Tommy Grogan, who's a backup quarterback on our football team, acting as Griffith in practice all week so we'd be ready for him," Olson said. "The only problem is, Tommy's vertical leap is a little different than Darrell's. I think it's 14-to-18 inches." Griffith reportedly can jump 48 inches.
While Louisville, living up to its "Doctors of Dunk" logo, drew most of the oohs and aaahs from the crowd gathered for the four workouts, the other teams did not seem awed.
"We've worked all week to tell the kids to come in confident," said UCLA Coach Larry Brown. "It's great to get to the final hour, but once you're there you have to go all out to try and win it. We've worked more this week on coming in here with a positive feeling than really going hard in practice or anything like that."
The favorites in Saturday's games, on paper anyway, must be Louisville and Purdue. Louisville is favored because of Griffith and Purdue because of 7-foot-1 Joe Barry Carroll, the center who averages 22 points and zero words per game.
Carroll did not talk to the press today -- he broke his silence briefly after the regional final last Saturday -- because his coach, Lee Rose, didn't ask him to come to the press room.
Carroll will present a major problem for UCLA, which will try to stop him with 6-7 James Wilkes. "We drew straws and James won," Brown said today.
"I know I'll get some help," Wilkes said. "I'll try to front him a lot and deny him the ball and hope I get help on the backside to avoid the lob. It's also important to pressure their outside guys."
Because UCLA undoubtedly will try to double-team and sag on Carroll, the shooting of forwards Drake Morris and Arnette Hallman will be crucial. The Bruins do have a major edge in quickness. In beating Old Dominion, top-ranked DePaul, Ohio State and Clemson to get here, they also proved they can be devastating when they get their transition game in gear.
"We haven't played a team with their quickness all year," Rose said. "We've seen individuals who are as quick as someone like (Rod) Foster, but not an entire team."
Foster is one of four freshmen playing important roles for the Bruins. But they are not the only young team in the tournament.
Louisville starts three sophomores and a freshman along with Griffith, a senior, Iowa has one senior, Ronnie Lester, on its entire team. UCLA is starting two freshmen and a sophomore. Only Purdue, with two seniors and three juniors, has a veteran team.
"That's why I don't understand why we're the favorites," Crum said. "How can a team with three sophomores and a freshman in its lineup win the national championship?"
Actually, if precedent holds, Iowa or Purdue will win here. No team starting a freshman has ever won this tournament.
On the other hand, no team with more than seven losses has ever won, either. If Purdue (22-9), Iowa (23-8) or UCLA (21-9) come out on top Monday, that streak will end.
"I think everyone who's there has already proven that the records don't mean much," said Iowa forward Kevin Boyle. "I think all the players feel the same about it: just being here is a dream, something you think about when you're a kid. I think everyone's loving it."
Clearly, today was fun for the players. All horsed around during the workouts, with Louisville the only team among the four that will press for 40 minutes, leading in slam-dunks, running, and jumping and gibberish jabbering.
"I think when they talk that way I can't understand," Crum said. "But I understand. It's one of those things that's helped keep us loose all year."
If there is a buzzword for this final four it is "loose." The players use it, the coaches use it, the press uses it. At least one member of every team today described his teammates as "loose."
"The looser you are the better," said Griffith.