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Was the final already played in Anaheim?

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Good luck finding someone to come out and say it, maybe because the national championship isn't even scheduled until next Monday in New Orleans.

But there was a lingering sense in Anaheim, in the shadow of Disneyland, that the script has been green-lighted and college basketball's deciding game has already been played. That's how good Saturday night's ebb-and-flow, instant classic between Arizona and Kansas was.

Jayhawks coach Roy Williams watched Marquette manhandle Kentucky in the day's other Elite Eight matchup before walking into the locker room to give his kids their pregame instructions. But that wasn't the only upset he talked about. In a quirky bit of strategy, Williams brought up one of the many memorable NCAA tournament games he had lost, reminding his team that Kansas was favored in its 1997 regional semifinal against Arizona.

"I told the kids that all season long, Arizona and Kentucky had been the two best teams in the country," Williams said, "but we just had to be the best team for the next 2 1/2 hours."

The Jayhawks were that, leaving Wildcats coach Lute Olson to assess the most wide-open Final Four in years with a tinge of regret. He'd gone on from that upset over Kansas six years ago to claim his first and only national title, and the memory of that roller-coaster ride has never left him.

"I've said for a long time you have to be very, very good and very, very lucky to win. In Kentucky's case, they were unlucky," Olson said, referring to the ankle injury that limited SEC player of the year Keith Bogans to 24 wobbly minutes in the loss to Marquette.

"In our case," he added, "we got beat by a better team today."

There is no shortage of theories on what the most critical factor is to win the national title. Some people insist it comes down to guard play or dominating the post, others point to senior leadership. A decade ago, one of the most popular theories assigned full or partial points based on the NBA worthiness of the players on each team and ruled out those below a certain minimum.

But now the best players routinely go straight from high school to the pros, and almost everybody with potential bails out of college by the end of his sophomore year. And isn't that just like Williams' luck to be heading to the Final Four with strong guards, a star post player and senior leaders at a time when those factors provide less comfort than they used to?

On the other hand, the coach who learned his trade under Dean Smith at North Carolina has had better squads during his 15 seasons at Kansas that haven't gone this far. His two senior leaders, center Nick Collison and guard Kirk Hinrich, didn't play well on the same night in this regional, but both came up big when they had to. Collison was sensational against Duke in the semis, helping Williams avenge his loss to Mike Krzyzewski in the 1991 national title game. Against Arizona, Hinrich shredded a Wildcat defense packed in a zone to neutralize Collison.

Williams knows both returned to Kansas one more season primarily to improve their NBA standing. But he couldn't help being buoyed watching both of them on the bus returning from practice Friday night wolfing down burgers just like any other scrub. And neither has hidden his desire to help rewrite the part of Williams' rsum that reads "Can't win the big ones."

"Do we want to win a national championship for him?" Collison said. "That's an obvious question."

Less so is whether this has been Williams' best coaching job. He could very well have offers from UCLA and North Carolina within a matter of days, but those aren't his measure of success. Kansas started out 3-3 and still sitting on his desk is an article calling the team one of the disappointments of the young season.

"I've got an ego like everyone else and I'd love to say, 'Boy, we've been coaching our tail off,' " Williams said. "But the truth is we're only as good as those players and those seniors."

In the coming days, Williams' impressive NCAA winning percentage will be weighed against his singular failure to win it all. He will be reminded a thousand times before meeting Marquette of his 1-3 record in previous Final Four appearances. But the only thing that should concern him is whether his two stars' biorhythms are aligned next Saturday, and if that goes well, one final time come Monday.

Maybe that's why he showed up after the win over Arizona without even a single cord from the net his players had just cut down. More than anyone, Williams understands why nothing short of a national championship will do.

"I'd like," he said, "to be the last one standing."

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at