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Golden anniversary NCAA tournament reaches climax this weekend

Overbooking flights can be a risky proposition when the destination city is host to college basketball's Final Four. A case in point occurred on Eastern Flight 69 to New Orleans last year. At a stopover in Washington, airline personnel tried to free up some seats. But a seemingly unbeatable offer, including a seat on the next available flight to the Crescent City plus a free trip anywhere within Eastern's domestic network, was ignored.

These folks figured they were already on a dream trip and didn't want to miss any of the fun - not even the traditional Friday afternoon practice sessions that precede Saturday's semifinal doubleheader. Thousands turn out for these workouts, just to watch the participating teams limber up and run a few drills.

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And certainly a good crowd is expected today here at Kemper Arena, when the winners of four regionals, including local favorite the University of Kansas, take the floor. The Jayhawks, who play only about 35 miles away in Lawrence, Kan., are joined by fellow Big Eight Conference member Oklahoma, and champions from the East (Duke) and West (Arizona).

In Saturday's opening game, Kansas, 25-11, meets Duke, 28-6, at 5:30 (Eastern time) in a rematch between a pair of 1986 semifinalists. (Duke won that contest, but lost to Louisville in the final.) Arizona, 35-2, and Oklahoma, 34-3, put their glittering records on the line in the nightcap, with the winners playing for all the marbles Monday night at 9:12 p.m. All three games will be televised by CBS.

Clearly, the National Collegiate Athletic Association men's basketball tournament has come a long way since its humble origins in 1939, when the inaugural championship went to a University of Oregon team called the ``Tall Firs'' because of a towering front line.

That event, held in Evanston, Ill., was hastily organized by a group of coaches, did not get the full support of the college basketball community, and lost money.

The organizational responsibilities were taken over by the NCAA the next year, and the tournament has made money every year since. It has also grown consistently in size and popularity, to the point where it realistically belongs in the company of such premier American sports spectacles as the World Series, the Super Bowl, and the Indianapolis 500.

And this year's gala conclusion of the tournament's 50th edition is more festive than ever. Players and coaches from previous Final Fours are on hand, and the occasion will also be celebrated with a golden anniversary dinner and exhibition, commemorative coins, books, and a highlight videotape.

The games will be played in 17,000-seat Kemper Arena, which can accommodate only a fraction of those who enter the annual ticket lottery. This is a sentimental journey to the city that has held more Final Fours than any other, nine between 1940 and 1964, when UCLA beat Duke for the first of 10 titles it would win over the next 12 years.

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UCLA's incredible run, broken only by Texas Western in 1966 and North Carolina State in '74, helped attract attention to the college game. Once the dynasty ended in the mid-'70s, however, the curtain rose on a wide-open new era. With more schools feeling they had a shot at the title, or at least a berth in the expanding tournament field, which has reached 64 teams, enthusiasm really skyrocketed.

Several recent Final Fours have been held in domed stadiums, and as the event moves into the 1990s, such mega-sites will become the rule.

Kansas City could use one this week. There are a lot of affluent Kansas alums in the city, and for this limited-seat engagement some are expected to pay exorbitant scalpers' prices.

College basketball is popular in these parts, owing to the rich tradition KU has built, featuring James Naismith, Phog Allen, Wilt Chamberlain, and Dean Smith. Now Jayhawk fans hope Danny Manning, winner of the Naismith Award as the nation's top college player, can lead the school to a repeat of its 1952 NCAA title.

Kansas has the least impressive record of the finalists, but other recent champions like Villanova and Louisville have shown you don't need eye-popping regular-season credentials. The Jayhawks have gotten hot in the tournament, but also have had perhaps the easiest route to this point, with wins over Xavier, Murray State, Vanderbilt, and Kansas State.

Duke, meanwhile, snapped top-ranked Temple's 18-game winning streak in the finals of the East regional. The Blue Devils, of course, gave fair warning as to their prowess by beating perennial Atlantic Coast Conference rival North Carolina three times this season. That gets your attention, as does the tenacious defense taught by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, a Bob Knight prot'eg'e who says ``basketball favors the continuous thinker.''

Krzyzewski, Arizona's Lute Olson, and Larry Brown of Kansas have all coached Final Four teams in previous years (Krzyzewski with the Blue Devils two years ago, Olson with Iowa in 1980, and Brown with UCLA the same year).

The only coaching newcomer to this level, then, is Oklahoma's Billy Tubbs - but he is a hang-loose type not likely to get the jitters, or allow his team to do so.

``My definition of a good shot is anything that goes in,'' he has said, summarizing his offensive approach. The Sooners create a lot of scoring opportunities with a full-court, pressing defense that results in frequent opponent errors.

While the Sooners have been on the rise for some time, Arizona has sprung up like a desert bloom. Before Olson took over in 1983, the Wildcats were 4-24, but Cool Hand Lute has turned the 'Cats into an emerging power, with two Pacific-10 titles over the last three years.

Skeptics claim Arizona has fattened up on lesser foes, yet this year's squad can point to victories over Michigan, Syracuse, Iowa, and North Carolina. And no one has come within 14 points of it since an overtime victory at UCLA on Feb. 20.

The battle among these teams should be a treat for basketball viewers accustomed to spine-tingling tournament finishes. Five of the last six championship games have been decided by three points or less, and if there's a better record of drama in any other major sporting event, it hasn't come to the public's attention.

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