Saint Joseph's and Stanford sure had us going for a while. In the end, though, they couldn't juke college hoops' most enduring (and endearing) reality: nobody's perfect. Don't sweat it, fellas. It's Tourney time now, and whether you've got two losses, like Gonzaga, or 12, like Valpo, everyone gets a restart. That humiliating loss to Richmond? Forget about it, Jayhawks. That meltdown vs. Maryland ... and Florida State ... and Virginia ... and, oh yeah, Georgia Tech? Forget about it, Tar Heels. That intense phobia (or is it hatred?) prompted by Geno's Gang? Forget about it, ladies. As Ben Gordon, Hakim Warrick and Alana Beard will tell you, the past means zippo now. All that matters is moving on.
Jim Calhoun has pushed and prodded. He's unleashed the verbal fury. He's even gotten physical. For three years, UConn's coach has tried it all, but he has yet to break through the quiet that surrounds his star guard, Ben Gordon. "By nature, he's not a confrontational person," Calhoun says. "He's not a yeller. Ben has a highlight game, but doesn't necessarily want to be a highlight."
The Huskies haven't lived up to the preseason No. 1 noise. And yet, turning for home, no other team can boast a 1-2 punch as powerful as Gordon and center Emeka Okafor (assuming the big man and his back are at full strength). Gordon calls his close friend "one of the greatest defensive players in college history." Maybe so, but it's Gordon who is the team's, if not the nation's, most complete player. This season, he was one of only three D1 players to average at least 15 points, 5 assists and 4.5 rebounds. And he carried the Huskies to the Big East tourney championship, averaging 27 ppg and hitting the game-winning shot against Pitt in the finals. "There isn't anything Ben can't do," says Calhoun. "He's had 16 rebounds in a game. He's had 11 assists. He's hit 7 of 8 from three."
Why, then, is Gordon sometimes so intent on disguising his talent? The 6'2", 195-pound junior, whom Calhoun once famously dubbed Gentle Ben, benches nearly 300 pounds and squats 500. Yet he hides his rock-hard physique in a baggy T-shirt beneath his jersey, and often shies away from contact in games. (During last year's Tourney win over Stanford, Coach yanked him off the floor for failing to fight through a pick.) He has a 39-inch vertical that allows him to get off his shot on just about any defender. But too often he's busy setting up younger teammates like Josh Boone and Charlie Villanueva. Says Calhoun, "I keep telling him, 'Some of the guys you're passing to might have a better shot. But I'd rather you take a lesser shot because you're a better player.'"
The disinterested ease with which Gordon plays leads critics to wonder where his heart lies. But no one questions his work ethic. Known for his odd hours, Gordon can be found hoisting shots as midnight closes in on Gampel Pavilion. All the toil has Ben in line for a career in the NBA, where he thinks playing at point guard, his natural position, rather than in his current combo-guard role, will help him exploit the NBA's open-court game. Most scouts expect him to leave after this year and become a high lottery pick. "I think in the long run I'll be a better pro than college player," he says.
That's all well and good, but the problem is, he's still in school. And he's got one last shot to step out of Okafor's shadow and into the national spotlight. "People have to realize that when Meck gets credit, it's not like I'm thinking I should get the same pub," says Gordon. "But the Tournament is a time I can get my name out there more. It's the stage everybody's looking at. They want to see what the best players can do. I don't think there's a more complete guard than me. I have the total package."
Okay, Ben, deliver it.
Illinois alum Roger Ebert opens his sixth annual Overlooked Film Festival in Champaign on April 21. He should consider screening game film of Deron Williams.
As a high school senior in The Colony, Texas, the 6'3" guard went for 17.6 ppg and 8.4 apg, but he wasn't a McDonald's All-American like teammate Bracey Wright, now balling for Indiana. As a freshman last season, Williams led the Big Ten in dimes, but backcourt mate Dee Brown was named the league's 2003-04 preseason player of the year.
Williams doesn't play to the cameras. He's simply the guy who hits all his marks. While the frenetic Brown has been streaky, the Illini have come to rely on Williams (13.9 ppg, Big Ten-best 6.1 apg) for big buckets and stops. The night he dropped a careerhigh 31 on Wisconsin on Feb. 18, he also made two critical steals against Badgers star Devin Harris to help seal a 65-57 win.
Earlier this season, Williams struggled to shake former coach Bill Self's high-low sets in favor of new guy Bruce Weber's motion offense. "All year, Coach has been telling me to run to the open spot, run off screens, break things off, anything to lose the defender," says Williams. A lackluster December loss to Providence, in which Williams had three times as many turnovers (9) as points (3), cost the Illini the USA Today/ESPN Top 25 ranking they'd held for a school-record 67 straight weeks.
Two nights after the Providence debacle, Williams broke his jaw in a collision during a game against Maryland-Eastern Shore. He missed nearly a month, during which he survived on soup and milkshakes. Williams shed 26 pounds to weigh in at a svelte 190, and he gained lots of quickness. Then, in a mid- February film session, the light went on. Says Weber, "Deron looked up and said, 'I actually think I know what I'm doing now.'"
Even though he's put 10 pounds back on, neither he nor the Illini have slowed down. They closed out the regular season with 10 straight W's and claimed their first outright Big Ten title since 1952. Their mojo is back-and their star is ready for his close-up.
Selection Sunday is Cell Phone Sunday throughout hoops nation, as assistant coaches burn anytime minutes to beg for videos of bracket foes. But once again there will be no frantic calls logged in Lexington. The Cats already have nationwide coverage.
Al Robinson, a seventh man for the Adolph Rupp teams in the '50s that went six deep, spends 30 hours a week taping games for Tubby Smith's crew (right). Last year's catalog was so complete that he handed over three IUPUI tapes hours after the Cats' NCAA opener was announced. "While most teams are scrambling," says associate head coach David Hobbs, "we're already breaking down film."
Kentucky has helped foot the bill for Robinson's 24 VCRs and three satellite dishes. Beyond that, he does all the work for expenses and a trip for him and his wife to the Wildcats' Tourney games. Born and raised in Lexington, Robinson has UK logos throughout his house-from kitchen countertop to the bottom of the indoor pool. It's a house the trucking company and warehouse owner tries not to leave in-season, but when he does, he's sure to give the Wildcats' video coordinators his keys. "If I can help them win one game," says Robinson, "it's worth it."
FRONT TO BACK
You're rocking the No. 14 jersey in honor of the people's player of the year, as you hype the numbers of his dangerous sidekick. But before you pencil in Saint Joseph's as your office-pool champ, champ, shouldn't you at least be able to name the other three starters in crimson and gray? The Hawks frontcourt may not be PTPers, but they're not planning on drafting behind their super backcourt, either. Here, then, is a primer to Hawk Hill's version of The Others.
THE MAD BOMBER
Like older brother Matt, who averaged 19.5 ppg at Notre Dame last season, Pat Carroll is a big (6'5") wing shooter with sweet range. Sure, he struggled in the Hawks' first 15 games, hitting just 35.7% from long distance, but the junior has been unconscious ever since, making 54.4%. Most important, Carroll has shaken off last year's Dance disappointment, when he air-balled a straight-on, last-second trey in a first-round loss to Auburn. "After a shot like that, you're like, 'Aw, man, nothing could be worse,'" he says. "But that's a learning experience. I'd love to be in that situation again."
THE SUPER SCRUB
John Bryant says he was never more than the third-best player at Woodbridge (Va.) HS. But Phil Martelli saw enough in the "ball-mover and screen-setter" to give him a free ride. The 6'7" power forward has repaid him in floor burns and box-outs. Bryant doesn't think much of limiting BC's Craig Smith to two points in December, even though that sort of D will be the difference in the Tourney. But the junior is proud of his picksetting mastery. "I should be on Dickie V's All-America screen team," he says.
THE SWAT LEADER
Martelli thinks Dwayne Jones, a 6'11" defensive stopper who blocked six Gonzaga shots in the Hawks' season opener, may one day emerge as a low-post scoring threat. But as long as the Hawks guards are carrying the load, Jones' biggest offensive contribution will be drawing fouls in the lane. Problem is, stray shooting (44.4%) from the stripe won't do the trick in March. "It's eventually going to come down to me on that line," Jones says. Jameer! Delonte! Come quick!
A TOUCH OF GRAY
Jaron Brown likes to shift to grandpa mode at Pitt's practices. "When I was your age," the senior forward tells freshman C Chris Taft, "I could do windmills." The whipper-snapper forgives the old sage his tall tale because Brown's very real dead-bolt D and veteran guile have propelled his team from punching bag to title contender. "He's their backbone," says Syracuse assistant Troy Weaver.
How old is Grandpa Jaron? Old enough to have verbaled to Rick Pitino before Pitino ever ruined the Celtics. Old enough to have prepped with Caron Butler and DerMarr Johnson, who've played in some 300 NBA games between them. And most important, old enough (24 to be exact) to put the Panthers' Big East finals meltdown behind him and lead his team past the Sweet 16, where the Panthers were tripped up the past two years by Kent State and Marquette. "This year," he says, "we know we can win."
Pitt's offense has been revved up with PG Carl Krauser's push-it play and SG Julius Page's zone-busting shooting. Brown takes care of the rest. The past two years, he led the team in rebounds. This season, he's tops in steals (60) and second in scoring (12.1 ppg). Built like a fullback, the 6'4" Brown guards anyone from point guard to power forward. Ask Carmelo Anthony: Brown held him to 14 ppg (8.2 below his usual) in two games against Syracuse in '03. "He's the hardest worker I've ever played with," says Krauser.
Brown has always leaned heavily on sweat and toil. Tubby Smith ignored the Lexington native after Pitino bolted, and Brown didn't have the grades to qualify anyway, so he went to Maine Central Institute. When he still didn't make his boards in 1999, he redshirted at Pitt to get in shape and to get ahead in his studies. Since Brown earned his undergrad degree in four years, he qualified for a bonus season, under NCAA rules. Now, he's continuing his studies while teaching his 'mates a thing or two about grit.
Old guys usually get retirement cruises before they head off to Shady Acres (or Europe). This one is hoping for a trip to San Antonio.
WHO WANTS IT?
Sharing is nice-from November to February. But in March, teams that spread around the wealth usually go home empty-handed. Since the NCAA started keeping stats in 1948, only five national champs have had a leading scorer who averaged fewer than 15 ppg on the regular season. So what does that mean for Stanford, which has five players putting up some 10 to 15 a night? It means one of these guys better start hoarding the ball. Okay, guys, come and get it.
JOSH CHILDRESS 15.3 ppg
Pippen clone can pop the three, penetrate and play above the rim. The junior can be passive at times. Plus, teams will be locking down on him.
MATT LOTTICH 12.4 ppg
The shooting guard can get his shot off in a flash. And when the senior finds his zone, he simply doesn't miss. Athletic defenders can throw him off his game by making him put the rock on the floor.
JUSTIN DAVIS 11.1 ppg
Stanford's primary threat in the low post can also stretch D's with his tight foul-line jumper. After sitting out 10 games with a bum knee, the senior returned for the Pac-10 tourney. But will he be 100% for the Big Dance?
CHRIS HERNANDEZ 10.1 ppg
The junior point guard will own the ball as the clock unwinds, because he's unflappable at the line (91.4%). The coaching staff is still trying to get him to stay under control and pick his shooting spots.
ROB LITTLE 9.9 ppg
The 6'10" junior center is a master at sneaking into the lane to pick up the garbage. Being prone to foul trouble + 55.4% free throw shooting = significant crunch time on the pine.
Hakim Warrick is upwardly mobile. After averaging 6.1 ppg and 4.8 rpg as a freshman, Syracuse's 6'8" human pogo stick came back with 14.8 and 8.5 in support of Carmelo last season. Now, he's up to 19.9 and 9.0, punctuated by an array of posterizing dunks that cue Orange fans to scream, "Please Hak, don't hurt 'em!"
But before he can become the stuff(er) of legend, he's got one more move to make: from regular-season star to Tourney killer. He's been doing a pretty decent Melo impersonation so far. Last year's crew cruised into the postseason on a seven-game win streak. Warrick led Cuse to five victories down the stretch this year, including W's over Pitt and UConn. True, the Orange lost a close one to B.C. in the Big East tourney. But guess who was demanding the ball in crunch time? "Carmelo always wants the last shot," says Warrick. "That's what I want."
Syracuse's road to the Final Four won't exactly be paved with yellow bricks. The team is without PG Billy Edelin, who left the squad in February for personal reasons, forcing the Orange to rely heavily on inexperienced freshmen like wing Demetris Nichols and guard Louie McCroskey. So more than ever, Warrick can't just be seen. He must be heard. "Lately he's welcomed the role," assistant Troy Weaver says. "He's shown he's the man."
The show's not over yet.
When fans think of Michigan State's 1979 national title team, Magic Johnson first comes to mind. But coaches most remember Jud Heathcote's 2-3 matchup zone, a defense that ushered in a movement. Last season, Syracuse rode its 2-3 to the title (Melo who?), and another wave of coaches was turned on to the power of the zone. So expect to see a lot less man-toman in this year's Tourney and a lot more of the defense that made Jim Boeheim famous.
Providence coach Tim Welsh, who honed his craft as an Orange assistant, finally turned to the zone late last season. One year later, this NIT also-ran is looking more like a Final Four contender. Think the zone is passive? Not the way the Friars run it. Forward Rob Sanders traps with fury on the baseline and wings. Anyone who penetrates meets 6'10" C Marcus Douthit (upper right), one of the meanest shotblockers around.
Stanford's Mike Montgomery and Texas' Rick Barnes are staunch advocates of the man-to-man. Yet each is now using the zone as a changeup to their base D's. The Cardinal use a 1-1-3 pressure zone, with a guard picking up the ball at halfcourt, to dictate the pace. Barnes' traditional 2-3 highlights his perimeter stars, Royal Ivey and Brandon Mouton.
Gonzaga also uses a 2-3 match-up zone to complement its man-to-man. What's the difference between Syracuse's 2-3 and the Zags' 2-3? Glad you asked. When the Orangemen's wings step out on the perimeter to cover a man, they wait for a guard to rotate over, then retreat back into the post. When the Zags' bigs, like Cory Violette (right), step out, they stay out. This sets them up to play with more aggressiveness.
Gonzaga's staff goes out to lunch every Tuesday with Heathcote and his former assistant, Don Monson, father of ex-Zags coach Dan Monson. As they dine at Jack & Dan's Tavern, the architects of the Spartans' 2-3 critique the Zags' 2-3, proving that every trend has a second movement.
Francisco Garcia took Louisville's stumbling, bumbling February pretty hard, but life or death? Please. Garcia knows the difference between misery and tragedy. Misery is a losing streak, the kind that turned Louisville's 16-1 start into a record with bruises. But there was always going to be enough for a selection committee to love. Tragedy has nothing to do with RPI.
On Dec. 8, 2003, the sophomore swingman made his nightly call to his mother, Miguelina, who lives in a crime-scarred neighborhood in the Bronx, N.Y. Earlier in the day, Garcia had heard from Luis Flores, the star point guard at Manhattan and a longtime friend. Flores had experienced a vivid nightmare in which he saw Garcia dying in a car accident. That prompted him to leave a voice-mail message: don't ride in a car today.
"What's that mean, Moms?" Garcia asked Miguelina.
"Nothing," she said. "Nothing is going to happen to you."
Then, as always, Garcia asked about his younger brother, Hector. Miguelina paused. "He's not here," she said. She couldn't say the rest.
Hector, only 19, was dead, gunned down that evening in an apartment building foyer a block away from home. When Francisco called back six hours later, Miguelina summoned the courage to break the news. "It was so hard to believe that I didn't even cry when she told me," Garcia says. "I couldn't find my tears."
"Dedo y una," Miguelina says, describing the relationship between Francisco and Hector. Finger and nail.
Two days after the shooting, on Dec. 10, Garcia had 24 points in a win over Seton Hall. On Dec. 13, the day Hector was buried back in their native Dominican Republic, Garcia had 21 points in a win over Florida. At the end of the game, Garcia stood on the court, crying.
Garcia, 22, is accustomed to hard times. Soon after moving to New York with his mother when he was 15, he was begging her to return to the D.R. Francisco spoke no English. He didn't know his father (they met for the first time four years ago). He struggled in school and had few friends. But hoops gave Garcia, who learned English watching cartoons and movies, an opportunity, taking him to prep schools in Connecticut and Massachusetts. When Pitino offered him a free ride to Louisville, he committed without even seeing the place.
Three years later, as he wraps up a season that has him on everyone's All-America short list, Garcia keeps reminders of Hector everywhere. His red adidas feature handwritten messages, including "R.I.P. Hector" and "You will be here with me."
"I think he's getting through it," says Pitino, who dealt with the loss of his infant son, Daniel, in 1987, the loss of his brother-in-law and closest friend, Billy Minardi, in the 9/11 attacks and the recent loss of one of his favorite former players at Boston University, Steven Wright. "When I lost my son, I coached through the Tournament," Pitino says. "You try to keep your mind busy while time goes on, and you heal."
Little by little, Garcia heals. At Hector's wake, he made a vow to his brother. "I told him he'll always be in my heart, that I would never let him down. I promised him that, and I'm going to keep it."
A team without a point guard? That's like an orchestra without a maestro. Or a rock group without a lead guitarist. Or a jug band without that guy with
the jug. Except when it's not. As two Top 10 teams have been showing, you can stay in tune if you've got the right backup in the wings. But if you
don't, well, it can sound like fingernails on a chalkboard. Or Nickelback.
Pat Summitt made it clear before the season that junior Loree Moore was her most indispensable player. So when the point guard tore her ACL against Duke in late January, many thought that killed the Lady Vols' title hopes. Eleven days later, UConn routed UT on national TV.
After Moore went down, the Vols sent out a lineup of center, power forward and three shooting guards. And something clicked. Four players averaged double figures in February, paced by 16-plus a night from pseudo-PG Tasha Butts (left). The team rattled off eight straight and locked up a No. 1 seed.
In January, All-America PG Jia Perkins left the team for undisclosed medical reasons. She's not expected back. Compounding the problem, 6'5" Cisti Greenwalt fractured her ankle a month later, leaving the once top-ranked Raiders with out their all-time blocks leader for the rest of the season.
Frosh Alesha Robertson (left) has stepped into Perkins' starting spot and paced Tech in scoring twice. And in the first game of Greenwalt's absence, spot starter LaToya Davis dropped a career-high 15 points in a W over No.1 Texas. Now, the Raiders are headed into the Tourney with renewed resolve.
The math told part of the story. When PG Lindsay Whalen was shelved by a broken hand in mid-February, the Gophers lost 20 points and five dimes a night. But there was simply no accounting for her steady-handed, even-headed leadership.
Center Janel McCarville (left), a nice second option, couldn't amp her game in Whalen's absence, and minus anyone to take over the point, UM tumbled down the stretch. But there is a silver lining for the Gophers. Whalen could be ready for the first round of the Dance.
It wasn't just any Senior Night at Cameron. For one thing, Duke's all-time leading scorer was playing her last home game. And then there was this: after one particularly brilliant senior-to-senior assist from Alana Beard to Iciss Tillis, the team as one pumped their fists and grinned from ear to collective ear.
It was hard to ignore the emotion. Duke has reached three of the last five Final Fours, but the lack of a championship trophy has kept the Devils from relishing the high points. "Last year, when we lost in the semis, you'd have thought the season was a total failure," coach Gail Goestenkors says. "Now we're focusing on enjoying the journey, looking more at the big picture."
At the center of the frame is Beard (left), who passed Johnny Dawkins to grab that scoring mark on March 1. The senior has lost only 19 times in 286 games since entering high school, and she used to wash away every one of them with tears. But after Florida State knocked off the Devils on Feb. 4-Duke's first conference loss in 51 games- Beard called a players-only meeting in Tallahassee to remind her teammates to take care of business, but to keep having fun while they do. "Alana told us we know how to win," says senior PG Vicki Krapohl, "and that we needed to play with passion." Since the Seminoles loss, the Devils have been locked in, winning their final seven conference games by a fantastical average of 30.1 points.
Beard has backed up her pep talk with 24.3 ppg.
Still, the Dukies admit they haven't completely erased the raw memory of Final Four heartbreak. That will take a few more March wins. And that will mean the underclass supporting cast will have to make a few more March plays. That burden may fall hardest on soph swing player Monique Currie, who's recovered most of her explosion after redshirting last season with an ACL tear. "She loves the big games," says Goestenkors. "She's one of the toughest players, physically and mentally, we have." She's got a nice smile, too.
Baylor forward Sophia Young wanted to be left alone. The previous night, her foul with 2.2 seconds left set up the winning free throw in Texas Tech's victory over the Bears. Then, a happy voice greeted her in the supermarket: "Hi, I just needed to tell you that y'all are doing so great."
Young smiled and accepted the stranger s compliment. After Waco's sordid summer of Bliss, no program needs injections of good cheer more than hers. Says Young (above): "It makes us very, very proud when people say something positive about Baylor."
The Bears, led by the one-two forward punch of Young (16.0 ppg, 8.6 rpg) and Steffanie Blackmon (15.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg), have made sure the warm vibe is not spurred by pity. The team had never qualified for the Tourney until 2001. Now, they're talented enough to grab the first Sweet 16 slot in school history, having already announced their arrival with home W's over Texas and Oklahoma and tough one-point road losses to UT and Texas Tech. "We've worked hard to build a program," coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson says. "And we'll try to keep doing things the right way.
The community is behind the effort. The women drew over 5,500 fans for their Senior Night trouncing of Texas A&M, almost a thousand more than the men attracted the previous Saturday against Missouri. "Since the tragedy here, our goal has been to be the shining light of this university," Young says. "We want to create some thing bright." The dark days in Waco are over.
TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT
When Jess Strom was in high school, a tense silence would fall over her family's suburban Pittsburgh house twice a winter. That was on the nights Strom, the star at Steel Valley High, would come home after another loss to West Mifflin High and her fiercest rival, Tanisha Wright (left), who also happened to be her best friend. It probably didn't help that their bedrooms were down the hall from one another.
It's no surprise, then, that Penn State's two junior guards join Kelly Mazzante to form the tightest backcourt in the country. But when they first met, they couldn't have been more different. Strom was laid-back, Wright, chatty. Still, they became instant AAU friends, growing ever closer on all those road trips. Wright lived with her grandmother, but she got rides to and from practice from the Stroms. Soon, she was sleeping in her friend's room, on the couch or, says Wright, "wherever I fell asleep." During her sophomore year, she moved in. "It evolved naturally," says Jess' mom, Patti. "Jess didn't have a sister. She needed another female around."
Whether Jess wanted to come home to that particular female after playing West Mifflin is another deal. "When it was over, it was over," says her dad, John. "It took until the next day before they wanted to communicate, but it was over."
Rivalry aside, Strom and Wright knew they wanted to play for the same college, though they never sold themselves as a package. But because Wright was the more acclaimed recruit, the word around Happy Valley was that Strom was on a bit of a coattail ride. She quickly quieted her critics, starting at the point from the outset and leading the Big Ten in assists the past two seasons after finishing second her freshman year. Wright's aggressiveness, meanwhile, has led to back-toback conference defensive Player of the Year awards and first-team All-Big Ten selections.
The duo, along with Mazzante, the conference's all-time leading scorer, give way to no one. This season, they've helped the Nittany Lions topple Top 5-ranked Texas and Purdue. And though the Boilermakers took the rematch in the Big Ten tourney finals, PSU has its eyes fixed on its first Final Four.
That will be a good day in the Strom house.