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Winners know Big Mo

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MINNEAPOLIS — So it's Arizona and Duke for the national championship Monday, which brings up a subject I've been thinking about a lot lately: momentum. Like good breeding and good math skills, you either have it or you don't.

Arizona and Duke, they have it.

Maryland and Michigan State, not so much.

Saturday's semifinal match-ups provided a crash course in the proper and improper application of momentum, also known as "on a roll" and "Big Mo" — which I will henceforth refer to as "Mo."

When it comes to winning a national championship, everything is about Mo, or the lack thereof. Take, for instance, Arizona's win over Michigan State. The Wildcats took a two-point lead into the locker room at the half. But in the second half, different story entirely. They scored 14 straight points, and that was it. Big Mo had spoken. The Wildcats were headed to the championship game, Michigan State was headed to Pizza Hut.

Duke, of course, had a different situation. Maryland was the one with Big Mo on its bench at the start of Saturday's contest. The Terps got their lead to 22 points in the first half. But nearly as quickly, Mo changed seats. Duke got its first lead with 6:50 to go in the game and ended up winning by 11. Maryland had Mo but did something to irritate him, so he got up and left.

If you want to get technical, Arizona and Duke could each claim ownership of Mo going into Monday's game. Both are unscathed through the tournament. Both had periods when Mo left, then returned, during the season.

Arizona has Mo going for it because the Wildcats own the nation's longest streak with 11 wins. They have it because they have a cause, having dedicated the season to the late Bobbi Olson, wife of their coach. They have it because they won the title in 1997 and coach Lute Olson is the active leader among coaches with 22 NCAA Tournament appearances. They have it because Geraldo Rivera attended Arizona and he's been on a roll of some sort — Hey, he's kept a job in TV, hasn't he? — for 30 years.

On the other hand, Duke is equally familiar with Mo. The Blue Devils have two national titles and are in their ninth Final Four in the past 16 years.

There are, of course, a lot of coaches who discount the importance of having Mo in their corner. In the NBA, Sacramento coach Rick Adelman, for one, and Utah's Jerry Sloan, for another, have said going into the playoffs that momentum doesn't mean all that much. But the Jazz's history has shown otherwise. If the Jazz are playing well at the end of the regular season, they're usually dangerous in the playoffs. If they aren't, you can count on them not getting past the second round.

Ask any stock broker or out-of-work dot-com executive about the importance of Mo.

Who doesn't want to be best friends with Mo? If it weren't for Mo, there wouldn't be such thing as Eminem. We would have stopped hearing about Carlos Santana in 1971. Why does everyone under the age of 30 want to wear a tattoo? It's not because it looks great. It's because tattoos have gotten close to Mo.

Mo is responsible for a lot of people's success, truth told. Without Mo, nobody would be watching "The Sopranos." ESPN owes its existence to Mo. In the early '80s, I used to get mail from the network publicity people, asking me to please put an item in the newspaper about their broadcast schedule. Now, ESPN doesn't need me any more. It has Mo.

I had Mo on my side in the press room Saturday night, when I opted for the vegetable plate instead of the bratwurst. What happened? I followed it up with a Mountain Dew and cheese nachos. End of Mo.

Without Mo there wouldn't have been any Wal-Mart, and there certainly wouldn't be any lines at Media Play, waiting for the latest Harry Potter book. Las Vegas, America's fastest-growing city, definitely has Mo.

Julia Roberts has Mo. Cal Ripken had a long and close relationship with Mo.

Do all of the aforementioned recipients believe Mo is the only factor? Of course not. But would any of them prefer to operate without Mo? Not a chance.

So on Monday night, the question of questions isn't who plays the better defense, who crashes the boards, who shoots a better percentage. It's who's going to capture Mo. I don't know who that's going to be. But in a Saturday interview session, Duke's Shane Battier was asked about a vow he made to avoid uttering a single sports cliche the entire season. "I gave it 110 percent," he said.

Sure enough. The man has Mo.

E-mail: rock@desnews.com