Keeping Their Guards Up Is Key

Times Staff Writer

Not so long ago, the ultimate goal when Jason Gardner and Chris Thomas faced off was the Indiana high school state championship.

Other times, it was only a pickup game at the YMCA or lunchtime ball when they were both basketball camp counselors last summer, with nothing at stake but pride.

"Man, they were trying to tear each other's hearts out," Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey said.

But when they meet today in a West Regional semifinal at the Arrowhead Pond, one player's team moves closer to the Final Four, and the other goes home.

The game between top-seeded Arizona (27-3) and fifth-seeded Notre Dame (24-9) figures to be played at a pell-mell pace amid a shower of three-point shots.

But it's still tempting to look at the matchup between the Wildcats and the Irish as a contest of point guards.

The one who falls prey to the seductive lure of a one-on-one fight might be the one who takes off his jersey for the last time this season.

"It's very important not to get into an individual battle," Brey said. "Maybe [Thomas] got into that with Brandin Knight or T.J. Ford earlier this season, but I think he's learned."

Yes, he has, Thomas said.

"My freshman year, I was caught up in personal matchups. Now I understand," Thomas said. "A lot of people will make it Chris Thomas versus Jason Gardner, but I'm just looking forward to playing Arizona."

Both players grew up in Indianapolis, where Gardner, two years older than Thomas, was a 5-10 basketball hero by seventh or eighth grade.

He's still 5-10, but now he's Arizona's hero.

Gardner starred for North Central High and was chosen Indiana's "Mr. Basketball" his senior year, leading his team to the state title.

Thomas was the star at Pike High, a "Mr. Basketball" and a state champion himself.

"Growing up, I was supposed to be the young Jason Gardner," Thomas said. "I was 3-1 against him in high school. He beat our team when we won the state championship, and when he won the state championship, we beat their team that season."

Gardner wasn't so sure about that.

"I don't really know," he said, as teammates Luke Walton and Rick Anderson snickered. "No, not three of four, definitely not," Gardner said.

"I won a state championship, he won a state championship. It worked out."

Only one of them will move on today, advancing to the regional final Saturday against the winner between second-seeded Kansas and third-seeded Duke that follows the Arizona-Notre Dame game.

"It's going to be a game played from end line to end line, sideline to sideline, and I know our players like to play that way," Arizona Coach Lute Olson said.

"For us, the best comparison of a team that we have played is Oregon. We had to deal with Luke Ridnour who likes to push the ball, and we'll see the same type of play out of Chris Thomas."

Besides Thomas, the Wildcats will have to deal with three-point shooters Matt Carroll and Dan Miller -- a player who has cut down nets at the Pond before, snipping a strand as part of the Maryland team that won the 2001 West Regional before he transferred to Notre Dame.

"It's just a great situation for me to be in, same round, same place," Miller said. "I'm just looking for us to do the same thing, advance two games. But we've got to start with Arizona."

That ought to be challenge enough.

"Arizona goes on explosive runs offensively, that's well-documented," Brey said. "We have to be able to slow that up, weather that."

Each team already has weathered a challenge -- Notre Dame in a one-point victory over Wisconsin Milwaukee in the first round, Arizona in a one-point, double-overtime classic against Gonzaga in the second.

"You take [Notre Dame], they almost didn't survive the first round," Olson said. "The second round was different, but nothing like what we faced.

"The whole thing in the NCAA playoffs is survival."

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