Big Bang Theory
In a field loaded with tall, talented front lines, at least half a dozen top contenders are smaller teams that have offset their lack of stature with speed and versatility -- weapons they hope will cut the behemoths down to size
Posted: Tuesday March 18, 2008 8:49AM; Updated: Wednesday March 19, 2008 1:13PM
It takes a fair amount of nerve to look a college basketball coach in the eye, keep a straight face and ask a question that's usually better suited for Cosmo than for the pages of SI: Does size matter? But fear not, dear reader. No query is more pertinent heading into this year's fun-house mirror of an NCAA tournament, in which six genuine title contenders -- Duke, Louisville, Memphis, North Carolina, Tennessee and Xavier -- have shorter frontcourts than any national champion of the past 20 years. And while common sense may suggest otherwise (this is basketball, after all), no question is likely to draw a more surprising range of answers.
"Size absolutely matters," says UCLA coach Ben Howland, who might have been aiming for a three-peat if not for the once-in-a-generation Florida team that beat the Bruins in the last two Final Fours. There's a reason Howland calls his latest edition, the West region's No. 1 seed, "the best team we've had over the last three seasons." After enduring two years of bully treatment by the Gators' big men -- the second- and third-tallest championship front lines of the past two decades -- UCLA finally has its own transcendent titan, 6' 10" freshman center Kevin Love. As Howland says, "Having [Love] in there not only scoringwise but also reboundingwise was a huge factor in our success in the regular season."
Even the shortest title-winning frontcourt of the past two decades, UNLV's in 1990, had an All-America post player in burly 6' 6" forward Larry Johnson. But can a team with almost no post presence win a national title? Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski certainly thinks so, considering that the go-go Blue Devils' biggest player on the floor is often 6' 8", 220-pound freshman Kyle Singler. "If you have a good big man, that helps a lot," says Coach K, "but I don't think you need to have a great big man to win the whole thing." Perhaps, but the Blue Devils' margin for error is as slim as Singler himself. "Can Duke win a national championship with this team?" says UConn coach Jim Calhoun. "They could, but I don't know if they can put six wins together, because all they need [to lose] is one bad shooting game."
It's the height of fashion to say that perimeter play is the key to success in the NCAAs. But recent champions have also revived the fashion of height. After an eight-year stretch from 1996 to 2003 in which the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four was a guard or a midsized swingman, three of the last four MOPs -- Connecticut's Emeka Okafor, North Carolina's Sean May and Florida's Joakim Noah -- have been big men. What's more, finding worthy guards for this year's All-America teams was a far harder task than making a list of deserving post players: UCLA's Love, North Carolina's 6' 9" Tyler Hansbrough, Kansas State's 6' 10" Michael Beasley, Notre Dame's 6' 8" Luke Harangody, Stanford's 7-foot Brook Lopez, Louisville's 6' 11" David Padgett and Indiana's 6' 9" D.J. White.
That pituitary-powered procession doesn't even include three potentially game-changing centers on title contenders (Georgetown's 7' 2" Roy Hibbert, UConn's 7' 3" Hasheem Thabeet and Stanford's 7-foot Robin Lopez, Brook's twin brother) or the four-headed post hydra of Kansas, the deepest reserve of quality size in the land. "When you have four big guys, you can get to the second half with nobody in foul trouble," says Jayhawks coach Bill Self. "It's not devastating when one of our big guys gets two fouls in the first four minutes."