Finally, after all the fat has been trimmed from the NCAA tournament, college basketball's national championship comes down to a game between two teams that many expected to be here all along.
Duke (37-2), which this season has more victories than any team in college basketball history, has won 21 straight and held the No. 1 ranking for five weeks. The only team that has played as well as Duke in that stretch is Louisville, which has won 16 straight and 20 of its last 21.
Just about all pregame analysis rates this championship game, at 9 p.m. Monday in Reunion Arena, even and potentially memorable. Duke brings perhaps its best player ever -- all-America guard Johnny Dawkins, who has averaged 25.8 points per game through five games in the tournament -- and a group of achievers with a rare blend of athleticism and smarts.
Louisville, meanwhile, has been to the Final Four so often (four times in the last seven years) that only one of Coach Denny Crum's four-year players, Larry Williams (1975-79), did not go as far as the NCAA semifinal round.
And this time, the Cardinals (31-7) appear to have as good a team as they did in 1980, when they won the title. Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said today of Crum: "He's somebody whose system stands the test of time."
The individual matchups seem to favor Duke's opponent. All year long, Duke's critics have been waiting for a team to come along with an agile center and a couple of leaping lords at forward who could exploit Duke's only apparent weakness: a lack of height in the front court.
Never mind that the Blue Devils already have twice beaten North Carolina, which has four players at or near 7 feet, and Kansas (in Saturday's NCAA semifinal), which has two.
Those who like Louisville in this game look at 6-9 center Pervis Ellison, 6-7 forward Billy Thompson and 6-7 forward Herbert Crook and see the Cardinals holding an advantage.
But anyone who doesn't think Duke forward Mark Alarie is a fine athlete, graced with quick feet and timing, hasn't been paying attention all season. Alarie, who was primarily responsible for holding Kansas' Danny Manning to a season-low four points on Saturday, will be matched much of the evening with Thompson, who leads Louisville in scoring (15 points) and is No. 2 in rebounds and assists.
Duke point guard Tommy Amaker called that matchup and the one between senior guards Dawkins and Milt Wagner "probably the most pivotal matchups of the game."
Wagner, the Cardinals' second-leading scorer, said he didn't mind being matched up with Dawkins, even though Duke's all-time leading scorer has shot 62 percent from the field in the tournament.
"Dawkins is going to get some points; he always does," Crum said. "But the rest of those guys scare me just as much. They're quicker than people think. I don't really know if we even have any advantage in quickness. You've got to stop somebody on their team, and I'm trying to figure out who it is."
The same could be said of Louisville, considering that the Cardinals have had at least four players score in double figures in 24 games this season.
Crum said today he planned to start with Jeff Hall on Amaker, who, at 6-0, is four inches shorter; Ellison on Jay Bilas; Thompson on Alarie; Crook on David Henderson. Louisville holds a height advantage at nearly every spot.
The Cardinals' size advantage in the back court is what should most concern Duke. Louisville, more than any team in the nation, will allow its guards to post up low. And 6-5 Wagner and 6-4 Hall each can score 25 that way.
When Amaker heard Krzyzewski say that Dawkins would guard Wagner, he breathed a mock sigh of relief, but said: "We've played a lot of big guards, but they weren't post-up guards. It's going to be difficult for us to defend those guys by ourselves. We'll have to rely on help from the back side, and our quickness to beat their guards to spots on the floor."
And Dawkins, when asked about guarding Wagner, said: "There's no easy way out."
Crum tipped his hand a bit when he said: "Our guards are bigger, and hopefully they'll cause Duke some defensive problems. We have some ways to take advantage of the size of our guards."
It certainly won't be easy for Alarie, who also will need help guarding Thompson. Alarie has shown all season he is one of the best defensive forwards in the nation. But having to guard Manning for 25 minutes Saturday took so much of his energy that he had probably his worst offensive game of the season (four-for-13 shooting, three turnovers).
Duke cannot afford for Alarie, who averages 17 points, to have that kind of offensive game again.
Of course, not all the headaches belong to Duke and Krzyzewski.
Duke's performance was average at best in its 71-67 victory over Kansas, and Crum believes the Blue Devils won't have two straight like that.
Hall said of Amaker: "He's the player who goes most unnoticed, but when the game is over, he's the one who's probably put more into it than anybody else."
Crum said he didn't think his team had played any opponent with guards as quick as Dawkins and Amaker.
Henderson hasn't had a good tournament, but he has tended to perform well when the Blue Devils have needed him (27 points twice against North Carolina; 30 in the first game against Kansas; 28 points and eight rebounds against Oklahoma).
And Crum said what concerns him most is "that they play so well together. That's why they've won 21 straight."
Both teams plan to run as they have all season. "I can see it being a very high-scoring game," Amaker said.
Hall said his team tried to "fatigue" opponents much of the season, but that seems unlikely to happen with Duke, although the Blue Devils will need some quality minutes from reserves Danny Ferry and Billy King.
Wagner said one of the important factors for Louisville is getting off to a decent start. The Cardinals have a habit of falling behind by eight points, then dominating after halftime.
In fact, Louisville has outscored its opponents, 99-48, over the last six minutes of the five games it has played in the tournament. "We've been sluggish in the first half, but great in the second," Wagner said. "We have to get things together in the first half on Monday."
So much has been made about Duke's being a smart team, and nothing in a 90-minute meet-the-press session this afternoon dispelled that. In response to a question, Dawkins said: "I strongly believe that this Duke team can set new standards as far as academics and basketball are concerned. We've shown the two can go hand in hand."
Krzyzewski, in response to another question, said: "If I had to liken Duke to a player, I'd say Duke's a school that's got its head screwed on straight."
But the Cardinals, whose coach is a protege of UCLA's John Wooden, play smart, as does Duke, whose coach is a protege of Indiana's Bobby Knight. Louisville has to have had more than athletes to have played in six Final Fours in the last 15 years.
From all indications, the teams aren't as different as they have been made out to be, and there is enough talent, intelligence and class to go around.