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Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
4/03/2007 10:04:00 AM

Goodbye to the Gators ... and a Top 10 For 2007-08

Cory Brewer
Rich Clarkson/NCAA Sports

ATLANTA -- The Florida Era was finished no matter what happened Monday night, but the euphoria of the victory party made it easier to let go. As the Gators' Oh-Fours -- juniors Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford and Joakim Noah -- were flashing two-finger, two-peat salutes on the stage at the Georgia Dome, only a small pocket of fans piped up with a chant of "One more year!" The plea quickly lost steam and was overwhelmed by the greater celebratory din.

Florida had just made history, beating Ohio State 84-75 to become the first team since Duke in 1991-92 to repeat as national champions, and only the sixth ever back-to-back title-winners. Noah, the indefatigable icon who last year had told reporters that winning the NCAA tournament was "better than sex" (then adding "I should know, because I'm doing it right!") this time made a statement with his actions on the stage. He first removed his mouthpiece and chucked it down onto the court, then took off each of his black Nikes and wildly heaved them into a sea of blue-and-orange fans. The message was clear: I won't be needing these anymore.

None of the Gators were interested in talking three-peat, and really, after two titles, what statements were left to make? Noah hinted that his work was done, saying, "I remember when I was telling people, 'I'm going back to school,' and they were like, 'What? Are you crazy?' But you know what? I feel like now all of a sudden people understand that it's more than money. It's more than that. Now you guys are going to write about history -- one of the best teams ever. That's special. That's something that everybody in this locker room will never forget."

With those memories fresh in the minds, the Oh-Fours are soon expected to make a collective jump to the '07 NBA Draft, where three of them will be Lottery Picks (Horford, Noah and Brewer, in that order) and Green will be fighting his way out of the second round. "If one of us goes," said Brewer, "we all go."

They're going -- and leaving the title race for '07-08 wide open in their wake. Who will cut down the nets next year in San Antonio? Herewith, a first look at the top 10 for 2007-08 (with the assumption Georgetown's Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert, Kansas' Brandon Rush, North Carolina's Brandan Wright, Ohio State's Greg Oden, Texas' Kevin Durant, UCLA's Arron Afflalo and USC's Nick Young also make the early jump to the NBA):

1. NORTH CAROLINA Provided Tyler Hansbrough passes on the draft to work on his offensive repertoire, he'll be back with a vengeance for his junior season. After coming within a Georgetown three-pointer of the Final Four in '07, the Tar Heels' baby backcourt of sophomores Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington has matured enough to help Psycho T take Carolina all the way.

2. UCLA Junior point guard Darren Collison, who was snubbed for All-America honors in '07, will emerge from Afflalo's shadow to become a household name. With five-star freshman power forward Kevin Love -- an old-school post player who's been college-ready since 16 -- adding an offensive dimension inside, a third straight Final Four and coach Ben Howland's first national title are well within reach.

3. KANSAS For the second consecutive season the Jayhawks will be the best team on paper -- but can they get it done in March? Ballhawks Russell Robinson and Mario Chalmers will ensure the D remains fierce, but bullish guard Sherron Collins and elastic forward Julian Wright need to become scoring stars. Collins' painful knee injury -- he was said to be crying in practice the day before facing UCLA in the Elite Eight -- may have been the difference between KU heading home, or packing for Atlanta.

4. MEMPHIS Chicago phenom Derrick Rose, Rivals.com's top-ranked point guard in the Class of 2007, joins one of the nation's deepest, most athletic rosters and should form a devastating duo in the backcourt with slasher Chris Douglas-Roberts. Look for another undefeated Conference USA season, and a serious run toward San Antonio.

5. OHIO STATE As long as ultrasteady point guard Mike Conley Jr. returns -- and that's no lock -- the Buckeyes will survive without their bearded baron of the paint. Incoming 7-foot freshman Kosta Koufos will try to fill Oden's shoes, while guards Jamar Butler and Daequan Cook, who played auxiliary roles in '07, will shoulder more of the scoring load.

6. LOUISVILLE Rick Pitino's collection of blue-chip youngsters -- particularly breakout NCAA tournament star Edgar Sosa, who dropped 31 on Texas A&M in a near second-round upset -- look ready to out-duel Marquette and Notre Dame for the Big East title.

7. WASHINGTON STATE Tony Bennett-ball was no one-hit wonder. The rookie head coach signed a seven-year extension, and the Cougars only lose forward Ivory Clark from their starting lineup. Led by its Island/Dairyland backcourt blend of Derrick Low (Honolulu) and Kyle Weaver (Beloit, Wis.), Wazzu will be in the thick of a tight Pac-10 race.

8. USC The national spotlight will follow super-recruit O.J. Mayo to Troy, where the Trojans are already loaded. He'll join Daniel Hackett and Gabe Pruitt in a three-headed backcourt, and as long as the chemistry clicks -- and it doesn't become the O.J.-only show -- USC will be a force.

9. TENNESSEE Sweet-shooting Chris Lofton, a likely Wooden Award front-runner, should have a fine swan song in Knoxville after nearly bouncing Ohio State from the bracket in '07. Look for point guard Ramar Smith, one of four freshmen who played major minutes, to have a big sophomore season. He arrived on campus late last fall and missed valuable time to prepare for his rookie campaign.

10. INDIANA Polished scorer Eric Gordon, the Indianapolis recruit who spurned Illinois for the Hoosiers, arrives in Bloomington for what may be his only collegiate season. Paired with forward D.J. White, they'll have Indiana challenging OSU for the Big Ten crown.

ON THE FRINGE: Michigan State, Marquette, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Butler, Texas A&M, Georgetown, Texas, Kansas State, Arizona, Syracuse, LSU, Oregon, West Virginia, Pitt, Duke, NC State, Gonzaga, Stanford, Wisconsin and Mississippi State.

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4/03/2007 10:00:00 AM

Blog Pool Update: This is the End

Joakim Noah
Luke Winn/SI

Joakim Noah
Luke Winn/SI

Hartsfield Airport, ATLANTA -- We've reached the end. Of the tournament, the pool, the Blog, everything. After 26 straight days of basket-blogging from Tampa, to Buffalo, to Chicago, to Jersey, to Atlanta (see the credentials photo above) I'm shutting down, flying back to New York and going to sleep. The second picture, which is the final image stored on my Canon Elph, was shot from the 36th floor of the Marriott Marquis at 6 a.m. after the title game. Yes -- I was still up.

Blog pool winner David Wunderlich, who was playing the tuba in the Florida pep band at the O'Connell Center for the title-game broadcast, will soon be receiving something I'd loosely refer to as a prize package. I saved him some confetti from the Georgia Dome floor, a Final Four program, a Gators media guide and a video game. Our good friends at the Gazelle Group, which runs the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic and the CBE Classic, became the pool's unofficial sponsor last week, and will also be sending Mr. Wunderlich some of their finest promotional clothing from those events. While Wunderlich's "Lee For Three" entry dominated our contest -- he finished eighth overall in the entire Hoops Bracket Challenge -- I'm not sure if I should be proud about my Marathon Oilers finishing 79th out of 642 entries. It was better than last year ... but it's still 79th.

A few Thank-Yous to hand out before I board my flight:

• To all the entrants, especially those who took the time to give their pool picks names like "6'9" With The Afro" or "My Morning Bracket," or check in via e-mail with kind words or photos (such as the shot of Wunderlich + Lee Humphrey). You guys make this thing worth writing about.

• To Gazelle for offering to beef up the prize package

• To El Myr for serving a quality green burrito in Little Five Points

• To the Trackside Lounge in Decatur, for staying open 'til 3:30 a.m. on title-game eve, when all the bars in Atlanta closed up shop at midnight due to what one local informed us was the "Ray Lewis Law."

• To the Georgia Tech coaching staff for allowing their practice gym to host a brutal game of hoops-writer basketball on Monday. The run left one Gators beat writer and one SI editor limping around the press room with busted ankles on Monday. Although I was not among the injured, I am still in a world of hurt this afternoon.

• To SI photogs John W. McDonough and Bob Rosato, for being nice enough to immortalize myself and Grant Wahl -- who wrote a killer Florida story in this week's mag -- by getting us into the background of a few beautiful game shots. In the first, you'll need to locate me Where's Waldo-style; in the second, the backs our heads (as well as the side of Andy Katz's) are rather easy to spot. The Gators made history, and we managed to step into the frame.

Joakim Noah
John W. McDonough/SI

Joakim Noah
Bob Rosato/SI

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4/03/2007 02:35:00 AM

Florida's Place in History

Crunk Dance
After the Big Dance was over, the Gators got down one final time in Atlanta.
John W. McDonough/SI

ATLANTA -- It was Sunday, nearly 34 hours before Florida's players would make history of their own against Ohio State on the Georgia Dome floor, when they sat at a press-conference dais and were quizzed by a reporter about what they thought was the greatest college basketball team of all-time.

Always-giddy forward Corey Brewer, who would go on to be named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player on Monday after scoring 13 points and grabbing eight rebounds, giggled and said 1996 Kentucky, partly to appease his coach, who was sitting to his right, and partly because Ron Mercer was his Tennessee homeboy. The rest of the Gators starters completed the assembly-line history quiz: Taurean Green said '93 Carolina. Al Horford said '98 Kentucky. Lee Humphrey said '72-73 UCLA. Jo Noah said he lived in France for so long as a kid that he was unqualified to reply, but added he had been a fan of '00 Florida. Donovan then chimed in with '96 Kentucky, as well as '90-91 UNLV and '70s UCLA. Strangely enough, no one said Duke's '91-92 juggernaut, the team whose feat of back-to-back national championships had stood unmatched for 15 years, until the Gators equaled it the next day with an 84-75 win over Ohio State. On the eve of immortality, perhaps they wanted to avoid the obvious comparisons.

By Monday night, though, once Florida had departed from yet another confetti-strewn court, after dominating their second straight Final Four, there was little doubt that they had placed themselves at least on par with the Blue Devils, and possibly the Bruins, whose dynasty reigned in the days of a five-round Dance rather than the 65-team NCAA tournament. So it begged re-asking the question: Gators, now who do you think is the greatest?

Donovan needed no prompting for his answer, putting the historians on notice in the opening remarks of his press conference: "I sit up here very, very humbled because I think I was fortunate enough over the last two years to coach a group of guys that has to go down in history as one of the greatest teams of all time. I'm not saying they were the most talented. I'm not saying they were flawless. But when you talk about the word 'team,' what that encompasses in terms of unselfishness, sacrifice, playing together, they have got to go down and be considered, in my opinion, one of the best teams to ever play."

Their coach wasn't the only one making best-ever references. Green, sitting in the locker room with clipped strands of the net tied to his championship hat, said, "We've gotta be up there. Two national championships in a row -- and what's made us so great is that we all love playing with each other. I don't think there's been a team with our chemistry and our camaraderie that played so well together."

To really appreciate this Florida team -- and realize why they're better than the double-Dukies -- you have to buy into those tired old notions of love and chemistry no matter how sappy they seem at face value. Because the Gators made it look so easy over the past two Final Fours -- destroying George Mason and UCLA in '06, then UCLA again and Ohio State in '07 -- they never gave us a Laettner moment, a single shot or image that's perfectly packaged for decades of Jumbotron montages. What they did was more big-picture. Their band of juniors gave up more than $6 million in NBA cash (that would have been the combined total of Noah, Horford and Brewer's first-year contracts in '06-07), and returned on a mission to continue playing the most stunning brand of team-ball the sport has ever seen. That will be their legacy, even if unselfishness is harder to archive in a highlight reel.

The essence of Florida's camaraderie was displayed on the celebration stage just seconds after Brewer had been announced as MOP. The Gators barely acknowledged the individual honor and instead formed a ring around the NCAA championship trophy, looking inward at each other while tens of thousands of roaring, blue-and-orange clad fans were looking down at them.

Green moved to the center and began dancing, with the others swaying around him and yelling "Aha! Aha!" in gruff voices. He said the Aha Dance was a ritual that began at the start of this year's SEC tournament as a way for the players to "get crunk" before and after games, and Green, whose nickname is "Crunk Juice," acts as the ringleader. Whereas Ohio State jogged (and Oden walked) out of its locker room and directly onto the court just minutes before the game, Florida stopped on its way to the floor to perform the dance in a back hallway of the Georgia Dome, culminating in a group yell of "Kick ass!" It was only natural, then, that they repeated it afterward -- or at least until the stage began wobbling dangerously from the gyrations of a dozen rowdy champs. "We had to do [the dance], because that's what got us here," said Green. "We stopped because we felt the stage shaking, and we thought it was going to break."

Soon after, the Gators sat in a row on the edge of that same stage, soaking in every second of One Shining Moment on the Jumbotrons. Noah had his right arm around Brewer and his left around reserve Jack Berry, and the Noble One would recline, eyes wide in an expression of pure joy, every time he or a teammate appeared in the montage. Noah mouthed most of the words, while Brewer alternated between looking teary-eyed and ecstatic. "It's unreal, One Shining Moment, it almost makes you want to cry," he said. "That's why you love college basketball, all the guys diving on the floor, everybody playing as hard as they can play just to be in this moment where we are right now."

A moment, mid-game, that exemplified Florida's balance came with 9:39 left and the Gators up 58-47. A glance at the scoreboard revealed that four of the players they had on the floor -- Brewer, Green, Humphrey and Horford -- all had 11 points each, while Noah, last year's Final Four MOP, had four. Ohio State did not enjoy the same equilibrium: At that point, Mike Conley Jr. had scored nine and Greg Oden had 17, but Jamar Butler and Othello Hunter had zero, and David Lighty had two. The final box from the title game shows six Gators with at least eight points, while just three Buckeyes surpassed that mark. Noah's constant refrain of "When we win, we all eat," had never been more evident. What other team could watch its previous year's tourney star, Noah, deliver a sub-par, eight-point and three-rebound effort on the biggest stage of the season -- and have it not be the least bit of an issue?

And what other team, for that matter, would have been able to weather such phenomenal performances from the likely No. 1 pick in the '07 NBA Draft, 7-footer Oden (25 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks) and a likely lottery-pick in '08, speedy point guard Conley (20 points, six assists, two turnovers)? It was almost as if the defending champs consciously decided to take turns snuffing out every Ohio State run. When the Buckeyes cut Florida's lead to two in the first half, at 24-22, the Gators' gunners answered with three straight treys -- one each by Humphrey, Brewer and Green -- to take an 11-point advantage. And when OSU sliced the UF lead to six in the first two minutes of the second half, it was the fearsome frontcourt that responded, with Chris Richard throwing down a follow dunk and Horford hitting a jumper from the right elbow to make the score 46-36. From then on, the game's end result was never in doubt.

Florida's roster is as eclectic as it is talented, and Donovan's biggest feat with this team was finding a way to fuse wildly different personalities into a well-oiled unit. Many previous title teams seemed a lot more alike; of the old Dukies, Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley were cut from a similar brat-boy mold, and there was a general attitude of cockiness that pervaded the Blue Devils' ranks. Michigan State in '00 was loaded with Flintstones who grew up in the same rough-and-tumble automotive town. Even the Buckeyes, whom the Gators beat Monday, had an inside-outside duo in Conley and Oden who had played together since the seventh grade. While Florida's Fab Five includes two small-town Tennesseans, they couldn't be more opposite, as Humphrey is the innocent rube and Brewer is the goofy kid with a wild streak. Put them together with the son of a French pop star/tennis hero (Noah), the son of a Dominican-born NBA player (Horford), and the son of another NBA player and college coach (Green), and how, exactly, was it supposed to work? How did they manage to go 33-6 and 35-5 over the past two years?

Donovan understands just how improbable this seemed three years ago. "I could sit there, recruiting a guy like Jo, and say, 'There's no way that he and Al Horford are getting along,'" he said Sunday. "You know what I mean? Just their personalities being a room together [would clash]. I think the reason it's all meshed and jelled is because of what's most important for them. The most important thing for them is competing, being part of team, and they enjoy winning."

While hordes of reporters were around Noah, Green, Horford and Brewer after the game, Richard, the team's elder statesman, stood on one side of the locker room absorbing the scene, wearing a title T-shirt thoroughly stained with soft-drink spray. When asked to explain the Gators' harmony, he said: "We all mesh. All of us are completely different, but when we get together, we put aside all of our differences for the betterment of the team. Lee is just a quiet choirboy. Taurean is a hyper water-beetle. Jo is the rebel. Al is the mentor, the most mature one. Corey's just a go-with-the-flow kind of guy. And I'm just enjoying the ride."

The ride took the Gators from being an unranked team at the start of '05-06, to a 3-seed heading into that Dance, to a national-title run where they had one close game -- beating Georgetown by four in the Sweet 16 -- but won their others by margins of 26, 22, 13, 15 and 16. The ride continued back to Gainesville for '06-07, where Noah, Horford and Brewer were lauded as heroes for bucking the trend of early departures to the NBA. It put them under a media microscope that magnified their every move and misstep in their encore run. Noah had spent much of the lead-up to the game talking about how debilitating the attention was, especially when it turned negative during their late-February swoon. "People were scrutinizing your every move," he said. "Do you know how much that weighs on you?"

On Monday, Noah was running around the court in his socks -- having already thrown his shoes into the crowd -- and singing a different tune. "People can say whatever they want, but there's no lying in championships," he said. "At the end of the day you have to say [we're] back-to-back national champions. That's serious in my book."

It's serious in any book, and in an era where most elite prospects are either one- or two-and-done, a veteran, NBA-talent-laden powerhouse like '07 Florida may never reign again. While it will be years before we know for sure how these Gators will be remembered, Noah was asked how he'd like them to be. As the de-facto mouthpiece of the team -- from his "better than sex" proclamation after the '06 title, to his "keep hatin'" rants during this Dance -- he deserved the right to weigh in.

"I want people to remember this team as one that made sacrifices," Noah said. "I want people to remember this team as one that went through so much adversity. I want people to remember this as a team that could have taken the easy way out and got paid. Instead we decided to come back, because our love for one another, and our love for winning, was more important than dollars."

The memories mattered more than the money. And with that wisdom, the Gators achieved greatness.

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4/02/2007 07:16:00 PM

The Night Is Young

ATLANTA -- The facade of the Georgia Dome, three hours before game time:

Georgia Dome
Luke Winn/SI

An empty arena, waiting to be filled with belligerent fans ...

Empty Arena
Luke Winn/SI

.. like these guys.

Georgia Dome
Luke Winn/SI

Talk amongst yourselves, and the blog will be back after the game. Prediction: Florida 73, Ohio State 67. Final Four Most Outstanding Player: Al Horford. Coach still refusing to say he won't leave for Kentucky: Billy Donovan.

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4/02/2007 09:54:00 AM

Blog Pool Update: The Final Two

Pool leader David Wunderlich, left, with Florida's Lee Humphrey last week.

ATLANTA -- Florida and Ohio State emerged from a field of 65 to reach tonight's title game, but their accomplishments pale in comparison to that of Blog Pool finalists David Wunderlich and Kai Sung, who out-picked a 642-reader field to be on the verge of online glory.

If, as expected, Florida cuts down the nets at the Georgia Dome, Wunderlich -- a tubist in the Gators pep band -- takes home the big prize. That's Dave above on the left with Final Four shooting star Lee Humphrey, after whom the prophetic bracket-entry "Lee For Three" was named. Wunderlich and Humpty posed for the photo after returning home from the Midwest Region in St. Louis, but our tubist didn't get to make the trip to the ATL. He'll be at the O'Connell Center tonight in Gainesville, playing his heart out while the game is broadcast on the arena's video boards.

Kai Sung
Kai Sung (right) takes home the pool crown if Ohio State pulls off the upset tonight.
If Jo Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer somehow catch mono and can't play, and Ohio State manages to win, our champ will be Sung, a 23-year-old PhD student in the biology department of Johns Hopkins University. Sung's bracket is named Golden Olden, presumably after Greg Oden, but he didn't get to pose with his pool-entry's inspiration. Instead, that's Kai on the right, in a Hawaiian vacation photo with his girlfriend. While he resides in Baltimore -- and has offered to serve as a bar taxi there should we visit -- he grew up in the Columbus 'burb of Worthington and took classes at OSU in high school before going on to Cal Tech. Which means he's slightly smarter than your average Buckeye fan.

Finally, we're happy to inform our poolsters that the Tourney Blog has acquired a last-minute, semi-official prize-package sponsor. I had initially planned on sending the winner a box of random SI junk, a commemorative tourney issue and perhaps a used PlayStation2 game. But the kind folks at the Gazelle Group, who run the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic (otherwise known as Coaches vs. Cancer) and the CBE Classic -- and who also have been gallivanting around Atlanta all week --- have offered to outfit the pool champ in some fine hoops-themed threads. Dave and Kai, get excited: There's nothing more fashionable these days than a 2005 Guardians Classic t-shirt.

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4/01/2007 03:38:00 PM

Quality Meats at the Final Four

Tyler Hansbrough
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

ATLANTA -- I'm sitting in the press room at the Georgia Dome, where reporters are at a sea of tables the width of a football field, writing their preview stories for Monday night's title game. Soon I'll get started on mine -- I've drawn the task of playing Captain Obvious and providing you with an airtight argument of why Florida will win -- but at present I'm on the Web site of online grocer FreshDirect, looking up prices of meat. USDA Prime filet mignon is $24.99 per pound (pricey, but the description reads, "one bite and you will understand why it's such a popular cut"). Their good Genoa Salami is only $6.49 per pound, and comes with no description. Filet's superiority to salami is rather obvious, but this provided solid supporting evidence.

Why does any of this matter? Because of Joakim Noah. Not because the Florida star requested that I shop for him, but because I keep laughing over one of his stock title-defense quotes, the general version of which goes like this:

"Last year our motto was P.H.D.: poor, hungry and driven. This year, it's harder because you've got to keep that P.H.D., but there's filet mignon everywhere around you and salami and all these great foods. It's hard, but at the end of the day, it's just extra focus and extra sacrifice."

In Noah's personal food-rating system, salami is as much of a delicacy as filet, $18.50 price difference be damned. This could (as some readers pointed out) be a French-gourmet thing, seeing that Noah grew up around Paris charcuteries, but I still have trouble putting them on the same pedestal. And if I'm a grocer in Gainesville, I'm changing the salami labels right now. The smart ones will at least double it to $13 per pound; one of Noah's other stock lines is "When we win, we all eat," which means that there's likely to be a run on steak and cold cuts when they return to campus with their second straight national title.
Greg Oden and Joakim Noah are enthralled by the media's questions.
AP (2)

For those of you upset that prime Sunday blogging space is being wasted on meat products, all I can say is, when you're at the Final Four, it's essential to keep an eye on Jo Noah at all times. He's the circus, whether you like it or not. He's the best quote, whether you're sick of listening to him or not. And he's by far the most intriguing star. Sit in on an Ohio State press conference -- like today's, for example -- and listen to Greg Oden follow up a Mike Conley Jr. quote with "what Mike said" for the second time, and you'll get my drift.

I get the feeling that Noah, despite his high entertainment value, is a hyperactive character who's not best-suited to sitting still for the media for extended periods of time. Colleague Stew Mandel said he watched Noah, in the locker room on Friday, pause between answering questions to get in a few seconds of playing Sonic the Hedgehog on his Sidekick 3. And although I have no confirmation on this, my instincts tell me Noah was texting jokes back-and-forth with Taurean Green while they were on the dais on Sunday, hiding their Sidekicks under the table. And still, when the Gators were egged on with a question about how Ohio State's Ron Lewis called the Buckeyes "great" and the Gators "good," it was Noah who immediately piped up to mock the reporter for trying to make it into a story.

In fake horror, Noah replied, "Oh my God! He said that!"

He then continued with a big grin, "No! What a bad person. I don't even know what else to say. I really don't know."

There have been more than a few times, over the past three weeks, where Noah has crossed the line from provocative to mildly nauseating, with all of his exaggerated talk about the "haters" wanting to see Florida fail. The Gators have been criticized, but not to that degree -- they were, after all, the overwhelming favorite to win it all entering this tournament. And yet I'm always happy that he's around, because the hyperbole is usually secondary to the quality lines he drops, such as saying on Sunday that "he grew up rock-and-roll," and telling a story of recently staying up until 6 a.m. with football player Tony Joiner, reminiscing about their careers at Florida.

Late Saturday night, in the locker room after beating UCLA for the second straight year, Noah had a small group of reporters around him, and launched into a great rant on the old, Bill Walton-era Bruins, who won back-to-back titles in 1972-73:

"Today I was just flipping through the channels, and HBO had a special on UCLA in the 1970s with Bill Walton. [It's called The UCLA Dynasty.] That really inspired me, that whole story. I didn't know about that team. I knew that John Wooden won a lot of championships. Coach Wooden -- is that his name? John Wooden? [Reporters say yes, many of them trying to suppress laughter.] John Wooden won a lot of championships, and he was an unbelievable coach. But I didn't know too much about the team itself, and it was really interesting to see Bill Walton and his stance on the war in Vietnam -- just his protesting. [Noah had initially protested going to the White House after Florida's national title, because he's against the Iraq War.] He was an All-American, he was such a big popular figure out there, and he didn't care, because it was all about his heart and what he believed in. He and coach Wooden had their differences, but coach Wooden would let him be himself, because that's just who Bill Walton was, and that was really interesting. If anything, I felt like that got me excited to play today. Got me hyped. So thanks, UCLA!"

I interviewed Walton as a part of our Kevin Durant package in February (the SI cover story, and a long feature on the Web site), and my favorite quote was about the contrast of his on- and off-court relationships with Wooden. Speaking about his freshman season in Westwood, Walton said, "In the controlled environment of a John Wooden practice, I was able to learn and develop and mature. And off the court, coach kept shaking his head and saying, 'What are you doing?'"

I suspect Gators coach Billy Donovan could sympathize with Wooden's situation. Iconic players like Noah and Walton come along about as often as repeat national champs, though, and the mild headaches they cause are well worth the entertainment -- and the rewards.

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3/31/2007 10:51:00 PM

For Ohio State, This Is No Surprise Party

Ohio State
OSU's (from left to right) Mike Conley, Ron Lewis, Greg Oden and David Lighty held Georgetown under 50 percent shooting -- and moved on to face Florida on Monday.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Freshmen Conley and Oden are strong believers in coach Thad Matta.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
ATLANTA -- The postgame modus operandi of Ohio State's Greg Oden, the most stoic superstar in college basketball, usually consists of perfunctory handshaking and a couple of good-game compliments for his teammates. "Normally, that's all he'll do," said fellow freshman Mike Conley Jr., the point guard with whom Oden has formed a devastating duo since they were seventh-graders at Craig Middle School in Indianapolis. Saturday night at their first Final Four, however, was a special occasion, and Conley said Oden took him aside on the floor at the Georgia Dome after their 67-60 win over Georgetown, and said five meaningful words:

"We're here. We made it."

Here, as in 40 minutes away from the national championship that Buckeyes coach Thad Matta told them they could win -- not eventually, if they hung around and developed, but in Year 1 -- back on his visit to the players' Indy homes in 2005. "This was his dream, and he was so confident about it," Oden said of Matta. "This is what he said on our recruiting trip -- that we were going to be here. It's just crazy, like, how the hell did he know that?"

Thad knew it, Greg, because he was bringing in one of the best inside-outside duos ever in college hoops, and putting them on an urgent timetable for greatness. In Conley, he had the phenomenally savvy floor general -- "from the first time I saw [him], I thought he was the perfect point guard for our system," Matta said -- who would go on to score 15 points and dish out six assists against one turnover in Saturday's semifinal. In Oden he had the best college 7-footer since Tim Duncan -- one who would overcome early foul trouble against the Hoyas to score 13 points, grab nine rebounds and affect the interior with his defensive presence. Insert them into a lineup with talented freshman role players like David Lighty (whose defense helped hold G'town star Jeff Green to nine points), and savvy vets like two-guard Jamar Butler (10 points, four assists, zero turnovers), and you have an instant formula for making a national title run.

After Ohio State's victory on Saturday, a beaming Matta stood in front of press row at the Georgia Dome, waiting for his CBS interview to commence. The fact that he was flanked, on such a grand stage, by two freshmen (Oden and Conley) who just sent a junior-laden Georgetown team packing, should be remarkable in the context of college basketball history. And yet the shock factor was entirely absent. This was not the equivalent of the 'Melo-and-McNamara March Madness run, which caught us by surprise in 2003. The rapid rise of the Baby Buckeyes to Monday night's title game had been a giant, red alert on the national radar screen for quite some time.

Conley and Oden last lost a tournament game together in 2003, which was their freshman year of high school at Lawrence North. Since then, they've won three straight high school state titles, a Big Ten tournament title, and gone on a 22-game winning streak to set up a rematch with Florida in Atlanta. To Conley, though, the latter two accomplishments didn't seem like locks when he arrived in Columbus in the summer of '06. "It was kind of weird, that coach was telling us from Day 1 that we were going to be in this moment, and I kind of believed him there," he said. "But now, I'm truly a believer."

If anyone threw doubt into the equation on Saturday, it was Oden, who picked up his second foul just 2:49 into the game and was sent to the bench -- for the rest of the first half -- with a stat line of zero points, zero rebounds, zero blocks and two turnovers. His dinosaur duel with the Hoyas' 7-foot-2 center, Roy Hibbert, looked like it would be a wash, as Hibbert also was whistled for his second foul at the 6:48 mark of the first half.

The only place Oden's presence was felt was on the outside of the Buckeyes' huddles; at the 15:38 media timeout he stood a step behind his ring of teammates, sucking on a water bottle and paying only mild attention to Matta's instructions. At a 9:48 break, Oden no longer looked to be sweating or had any need of hydration, and had drifted far enough away from the huddle that one of the managers actually had to gently nudge him back into the fray. Oden looked on with the expression of an outsider, as if he were peering at his teammates through a storefront window. Ohio State, it seemed, was in danger of its most dominant force checking out for the evening.

Meanwhile, Georgetown -- one of the country's most well-oiled offensive units -- improbably failed to find a way to capitalize on Oden's absence. Part of it was the effectiveness of OSU's zone. Part of it was that Green forgot his mojo back in D.C., finishing with only nine points on five field-goal attempts. "We should have taken advantage of it more," Georgetown freshman DaJuan Summers said of Oden's foul trouble. "We should have gotten inside more. Guys were thinking about it too much. We weren't executing well, and we weren't running our offense the way we normally do."

Still -- how could Ohio State play Oden for less than three minutes against an elite frontcourt and be leading 27-23 at half? The credit goes to Conley, the lighting-quick kid who's so often referred to as Oden's sidekick, but in truth, has most frequently been the Buckeyes' most valuable player.

"When he goes out," Conley said of Oden, "I feel like that's my time to shine."

In the first six minutes of Oden's pine-sentence, Conley scored six points and finished the half with 11 on 5-of-7 shooting. More valuable was the fact that he took care of the ball (committing zero turnovers) while still pushing the pace to a level at which Georgetown was uncomfortable. "North Carolina got them in the first half with a lot of transition buckets, and it really hurt them," Conley said of the Elite Eight game in which the Hoyas trailed by six at the break. "We felt if we could do that, we'd be better off."

Said Matta of Conley, "He did some things today through scouting that I can't explain. I mean, it was amazing. ... When he gets the ball in his hands, he makes great decisions."

Thanks to Conley's breakaway speed (he is, after all, the son of an Olympic gold-medalist in track-and-field), Ohio State finished with a 14-4 advantage in fastbreak points. And although Oden lost the individual battle with Hibbert -- Big Roy had 19 points, and 11 in the second half -- the bearded Buckeye did eventually leave his mark on the game.

Hibbert went out with his fourth foul, a silly hold of Othello Hunter on a long rebound, with 8:50 left in the second half and the game tied at 44-44. Georgetown appeared to be launching into one of its patented, second-half runs, and the Buckeyes needed a counter-punch. Oden provided two brutal blows. He subbed in as Hibbert shuffled toward the Hoyas bench, and scored over Green in the paint 21 seconds later. At the 6:37 mark Oden erupted: He took off from a step inside the free-throw line and seemingly raised the ball up to top-of-backboard height before trying to dunk it over Green. The two players collided, the ball went off the back rim, and they both collapsed to the floor. Green was whistled for a block. While Oden only made one of his free throws, it was a statement play that riled the crowd and deflated the Hoyas, who never got closer than four for the rest of the night.

In the locker room afterwards, where Oden was cracking rare smiles and freely offering up his Matta memories, he had only one lament. "If I would have made that dunk," Oden said with genuine disappointment, "it would have been on the One Shining Moment tape."

Still 40 more minutes to audition for Luther Vandross' music video, Greg. If it plays out just like Matta envisioned two years ago in central Indiana, both you and your point guard will be among the final, indelible images -- and it won't seem the least bit crazy.

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3/31/2007 04:51:00 PM

The Scalper Walk, and the Pregame Scene

If these fans were looking for tickets, they should have been able to find them.
ATLANTA -- It's a few hours before tip-off, and the scalpers here are hurting. Somehow at a Final Four with the best field in recent memory, the ticket market is lagging well behind the magnitude of the games. I just finished a one-hour walk around downtown ATL, bantering with scalpers ... as well as a CNBC guru and your AP Player of the Year. Details follow.

• You can get inside for a price in the general range of face value, if you're willing to sit in the upper deck and do some half-assed bargaining. Most of these scalpers are hardly putting up a fight in the negotiations. Here's a choice conversation from the corner of Peachtree St. and Andrew Young International Boulevard:

"You need tickets? I've got two 300s [upper-deck] together. Real seats, not obstructed view. $400 a book [of all three games].

"Face is $160, right? I'll give you $150 a book."

"That's bullsh--. You think you're some kind of hustler. $250."

"$400 for the pair."

"I can't do that."

"I'm going to go look around --

"Fine, give me the money."

The lower-level seats were going for much more -- at least $400 a book, if not $500 -- but still far less than the multi-thousand-dollar prices that were quoted online this week.

• My favorite scalper was using a tactic straight out of The Wire (although he was hawking tickets, not pandemic). He was an older guy, maybe in his late 40s or early 50s, and he'd flag down the process and do the negotiations, and then he'd bring over a minor -- a kid no more than 13 or 14 -- to show the tickets and exchange the cash. The weird thing, scalping is legal on non-state property in Atlanta. So what was the point? Was he just grooming his son to take over the family business?

• Second-shadiest dealing: The coaches who pulled up to that scalper a few seconds after I talked to him, hiding behind the barely pulled-down, tinted windows of an SUV, trying to unload their books. The guys were too anonymous to be recognized, but they clearly considered themselves to be on a covert mission.

• Ran into CNBC sports business guru Darren Rovell, a fellow Northwestern guy, on my scalper search. He was also canvassing the scene and said the lowest he'd found a pair of upper-deck books for was $180. So he beat me by $20, which doesn't hurt my pride; he covers money for a living and I just do basketball. Rovell did give some solid insight into the dead market, though, pointing out that even though we have epic matchups, the two headliners, Florida and Ohio State, are still football schools; UCLA didn't travel cross-country in huge numbers, and Georgetown doesn't have a big enough alumni base to bring a massive crowd.

Kevin Durant may be out of our college basketball world in less than a month, but at present he's living large on the A-T-L awards circuit. I bumped into Texas SID Scott McConnell in the lobby of the coaches' hotel, while he was waiting for Durant to come downstairs before heading over to a pre-game interview with CBS. Durant arrived in a wrinkled-up white t-shirt and jeans, and was soon accosted for autographs by a few grown men holding basketballs and Sharpies.

Durant hung out with a small group of us (myself, Jeff Goodman from Fox Sports, and a few friends) in the hotel cafe for about 15 minutes, telling us that he had collaborated with McConnell on his speeches, but "lost count" of how many awards he had taken home at this point.

It's still amazing to me how meek Durant is off the floor -- he's just a quiet, polite 18-year-old who has yet to even come close to filling out his 6-foot-10 frame -- compared to how dominant he is on it, dropping 30-point games and thumping his fist against his chest.

For critics of the first-year rule who say players like Durant are just sham students, you'll be happy to know that he does not yet consider himself to be NBA Draft mode: "I'm in student-mode right now, full-time," he said. Like a normal college kid, he only owns one suit, which he was soon headed upstairs to put on before appearing on national television. Durant passed Alando Tucker -- who was headed to the same interview -- in the lobby, and gave him some kind of handshake. Tucker was eating a lunch of popcorn and Krispy Kreme donuts, still living a collegiate lifestyle that both he and Durant will soon leave behind.

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3/30/2007 05:07:00 PM

The Spoils of NCAA Stardom

Lorenzo Mata
Bob Rosato/SI

ATLANTA -- If you were to get a few minutes alone with UCLA's Lorenzo Mata on the day before the Final Four, what would you ask him? How he's going to guard Joakim Noah and Al Horford on Saturday night? How well he defended Kansas' big men in the Elite Eight? Both decent questions, but ...

I asked him about the picture. I mean, it was my Blogging duty to ask him about the picture. By the picture, I mean the now-famous shot of Mata -- who's clearly not the most suave Bruin -- lounging poolside with members of the UCLA dance team. He's wearing a flat-brimmed Dodgers hat and a hilarious half-grin, and they the dancers are all in bikinis. I linked to it in my Power Rankings back in December, having found it on both Bruins Nation and the Insomniac's Lounge, which called it "A Moment of Inspiration from Lorenzo Mata." I covered the Bruins early in the season for a magazine piece on Darren Collison, but hadn't had a chance to get back with them 'til now. Hence the fact-finding delay.

Lorenzo Mata
Insomniac's Lounge

On Saturday, Mata confirmed that the pic was, in fact, taken during UCLA's successful run through the Maui Invitational in November. "I got a lot of stuff" -- and by stuff, I think he meant crap -- "for that, but it's a great picture," Mata said.

And who gave him the most grief? None other than head coach Ben Howland. "Coach Howland found out about it and somebody printed it out for him," Mata said. "He brought it into practice one day, and called Mike [Roll] and some of the other players over and said, 'Look at this!' -- and they all got a laugh out of it."

I asked Mata if he had ever been asked to autograph a copy of the photo. "No," he said, "but I wanted the girls to autograph it for me."

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3/30/2007 04:21:00 PM

Managing the Oden Show

Greg Oden
Bob Rosato/SI

Greg Oden
Luke Winn/SI

ATLANTA -- With Greg Oden around, a team manager's job description goes well beyond the standard water-bottle and jersey-distribution duties. The locker room scene surrounding Ohio State's 7-foot phenom on Friday at the Georgia Dome was an absolute zoo, but the strangest thing was not the 70-80 TV cameramen and reporters jockeying for prime interviewing position. It was the two managers sitting on either side of him like bookends, taking in the 30-minute question-and-answer barrage in near-complete silence, serving no apparent purpose at first glance.

Then it hit me -- perhaps as I was pushed into a post by the back of a TV camera, or when I saw 5-foot-8 colleague Stew Mandel buried eight rows deep in the crowd. The managers -- Matt Ullner and Ty Schepfer -- were the protectors of Oden's personal space from the microphone-jabbers. As the space-buffers sat next to Oden in one corner, I tracked down another Buckeyes team manager, Kevin Rohrbacher, for the official explanation: "Greg came to us during the tournament and said, 'I need people to sit next to me -- that way I won't get smothered.'"

The managers have been doing more than prevent Oden's claustrophobia this season. Rohrbacher said each Buckeye player is usually expected to carry his own bags, but the managers frequently end up toting Oden's "because he just gets hordes of people asking for autographs." John DeTemple, another manager, said that on the occasions where the signature-hunters are too large in number, "We'll have to escort him out, blocking him off from the crowd, because Greg's so nice that he would literally spend all night there signing everything."

Rohrbacher then told a story of how, after the Buckeyes' 63-54 win over Michigan State on Feb. 3, at least 150 autograph seekers were gathered outside the rear entrance to the Breslin Center. OSU could not afford to have its bus delayed, so the managers devised a way to sneak Oden -- as well as one can "sneak" a 7-footer -- out a different exit and get the team on the road.

The managers are repaid for their extra work by the fact that Oden genuinely enjoys eating his team meals at their table rather than with with, say, his fellow starters. When CBS' cameras were trained on the Buckeyes during the tourney selection show, Oden was not front-and-center. Rather, he was in the back of the room, goofing around with the managers.

"We don't go out [in Columbus] with him, but he always talks to us about that stuff," said Rohrbacher. "He'll be like, 'You guys get no girls' -- and as far as I can tell, he does pretty well."

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3/30/2007 03:06:00 PM

The No-Socks Salute

Coaches Salute
Luke Winn/SI

ATLANTA -- Before enjoying the open bar at the Intersport party, I spent the early part of Thursday night at the Final Four Salute, a gala-type event where CBS' Jim Nantz chats up the teams and coaches in front of an audience of NCAA dignitaries. They put the thing on CSTV this year, so it lost some of its intimacy, and its format tightened: in 2006 in Indianapolis, Nantz brought out old pal Peyton Manning as a surprise for Tennessee boy Lee Humphrey, but there there were no celebrity guests in '07 (unless you count NCAA prez Myles Brand). I has hoping for Michael Vick to show up and offer them advice on getting "jewelry boxes" for their Final Four gift watches, but no dice.

The only way to amuse yourself at this thing is to grade the formalwear -- or lack thereof -- of the four teams. As a notorious underdresser I can sympathize with Ohio State coach Thad Matta, who was clearly embarrassed when he walked up to the stage wearing an ensemble that included a black golf shirt and no socks. Nantz, as well as Billy Donovan, John Thompson III and Ben Howland, were already up there in suits, and Matta sheepishly explained that Dononvan had told him "it was a casual event." Good to see Final-Four rookie hazing going on in the coaching ranks. (Check out the picture at the top of this post, if you missed Thad's ankles the first time.)

In the best-dressed team department, Georgetown was a clear No. 1, with sophomore reserve Octavius Spann as the star in a argyle-sweater-and-suit combo. UCLA was No. 2, with Arron Afflalo sporting a Miami Vice look; Florida was No. 3 (despite the best efforts of Jo Noah to drag them down by going tieless and untucked); and Matta's boys, obviously affected by the Donovan misinformation, were last. I'm running a picture of the Bruins below not to show off their suits, but because our man Lorenzo Mata was rocking the best kicks of the evening: Giant, pearly white athletic shoes with his beige dress pants. Straight outta GQ ... or Huntington Park, Calif. Probably more of the latter.

UCLA formalwear
Luke Winn/SI

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3/30/2007 10:04:00 AM

For Hibbert, Oden, Two Paths to Center Stage

Greg Oden was seemingly destined for greatness long before he ever set foot on the Ohio State campus.
Bill Frakes/SI
ATLANTA -- Because the people around Roy Hibbert are so awed by what he has become, they're so willing to be brutally honest about what he once was.

"I remember playing against Roy in high school, and I thought he was probably the worst 7-footer I had seen in my life," Georgetown sophomore forward Patrick Ewing Jr., the son of perhaps the best 7-footer in Hoyas history, said last week. "I didn't think he was going to be good at all... He's proven me, and a lot of other people, wrong."

Three years ago, Hibbert -- who was then, as he is now, 7-foot-2 -- was a junior center at Georgetown Prep in North Bethesda, Md. He was a "size prospect," a term synonymous with "project," who lacked agility or even the most rudimentary low-post moves. Of his offensive repertoire, he said, "I would just turn and shoot." Now Hibbert is a junior center at Georgetown University who averages 12.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. He is one of the primary reasons the Hoyas have reached their first Final Four since 1985, and makes up one side of Saturday's most-anticipated individual duel. The other is fellow 7-footer Greg Oden of Ohio State, who will likely be the No. 1 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft.

Somewhere between his prep days and the present -- mostly over the course of his past two seasons under the tutelage of coach John Thompson III -- Hibbert acquired the ability to run above sloth speed, hit a jump-hook, make impeccable decisions in the flow of the Princeton offense, be a force in the Big East, and basically, be the kind of center who should be able to hold his own against a future great like Oden. Against the backdrop of a chalk-heavy NCAA tournament, Hibbert's rise to stardom is a true upset tale.

Chicago Bulls forward Mike Sweetney, who was the Hoyas' low-post star from 2000-03, remembers Hibbert as a big, lumbering prep-schooler whose parents would drive him into the city for summer workouts against Georgetown varsity players. Hibbert had committed early to the Hoyas in a less-than-fierce recruiting battle, and knew he needed to hone his skills against something other than 6-foot 11th- and 12th-graders. "We had to start off from Square 1 with Roy," Sweetney said this week. "He was basically a guy who was just trying to get up and down the floor and get a few rebounds. He'd get the ball and wouldn't even try to score. All I can say is, he came a long way. His work ethic is unreal."

Sweetney talked his share of smack as he beat up on the youngster ("He'd always tell me, 'I'm killing you, Roy, I'm killing you,'" Hibbert said) but also assumed a pseudo-big brother role, and to this day, they keep in constant touch over e-mail and text messages. At the mention of Hibbert's gentle-giant demeanor -- in the Dinosaur Duel vs. Oden, Big Roy has been called the leaf-eating Brontosaurus -- Sweetney offered up a warning: "Don't let Roy fool you. He talks a lot of trash. I've gotten e-mails from him that make me want to fly back [to Washington] from Chicago just to play him. He sent me a text once, when he knew I was in Chicago, asking, 'Are you coming to the gym today?' I said, no, I'm in Chicago, and he wrote back, 'You went there because you were scared of what I was going to do to you.'"

Former Georgetown assistant Ronnie Thompson, John Thompson III's younger brother, and now the head coach at Ball State University, helped recruit Hibbert out of prep school, and remembers him as "a huge project who literally had trouble running."

"The beautiful thing about Roy, though," said Ronnie, "is that even at that point, he carried himself like a ballplayer. Even if he wasn't good yet, he thought he was."

It took until this season of college hoops for the quality of Hibbert's game to counterbalance his confidence. A tireless worker, he spent his early days at Georgetown's McDonough Gym doing simple running drills, hula-hooping to improve balance, and shooting thousands of 'Kareem hooks' until he was comfortable hitting them with either hand. Hibbert averaged 5.1 points and 3.5 rebounds as a frosh, and then 11.6 points and 6.9 boards as a sophomore. Now, as a junior, he's emerged as one of the nation's most efficient offensive players, scoring 12.9 points on an absurd 67 percent shooting.

The guy, who as a recruit was rated -- for good reason -- behind such esteemed centers as Longar Longar (Oklahoma), Greg Stiemsma (Wisconsin), C.J. Giles (ex-Kansas) and Kalen Grimes (Missouri) has recorded five straight double-doubles to get Georgetown to the Final Four, and emerged as a potential Lottery Pick in either '07 or '08. Hibbert took a slow road to reaching college basketball's elite; upon entering Georgetown, he was nicknamed the "Big Stiff" by iconic coach Big John Thompson Jr., and only through a multi-year transformation did he earn a revision to the moniker: "Stiff-No-More." On Saturday, the former stiff awaits the biggest matchup of his life, a retro showdown against a former phenom who took a rapid route to prominence.

"Greg Oden has been a household name forever, since as far back as anybody can remember," Ronnie Thompson said. "No one knew who Roy Hibbert was in high school. He was just a kid from Adelphia who worked his tail off to get where he is."


Because everyone who saw Greg Oden was so awed, so early, by what he already was, it was difficult to expect anything less than him to immediately take Ohio State to the Final Four.

In the winter of 2004, when Oden was just a junior at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis, he was already on the sure-fire No. 1 pick list, right after LeBron James and Dwight Howard. Oden appeared in his first Sports Illustrated feature that December, with Tim Layden calling him "the brightest blip on the radar screens of talent hunters across the basketball spectrum in America." An NBA exec said of Oden in that story, "He's fabulous. He's the next great, difference-making big man from the United States. When he ends up in the NBA, whatever team gets him will become a contender."

In contrast to Hibbert, who quietly committed to Georgetown before his junior season and was only known in the D.C. area, Oden was the biggest name in all of high-school basketball. The hype machine around Oden was in full gear after he dominated the ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J., and then won the Las Vegas Big-Time tournament playing with current Buckeye teammates Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook on the Spiece Indy Heat squad.

"Greg left that summer being proclaimed as the guy," said Sonny Vaccaro, the former director of ABCD. "Big men don't dominate in a way that you remember as much as Kobe or LeBron did, but Greg was just so good. We'd have pro coaches come in for workouts, and they said the same thing about him they had said about Dwight Howard -- that they already knew he was going to be one of the greats."

Oden's commitment to Ohio State in the summer before his senior season (along with that of Conley, Cook and Cleveland star David Lighty) sent seismic waves through the college hoops world. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta was anointed as a star recruiter, and OSU was immediately thrown into national-title conversations for '07. Then-Indiana coach Mike Davis, who had hunted Oden and was widely criticized for letting the nation's No. 1 center and his sidekick, Conley, escape from the Hoosier State, was forced out of his job near the end of the '05-06 season.

A right wrist injury that required preseason surgery limited Oden's immediate impact in Columbus; he missed the Buckeyes' first seven games and was still shooting (or as he said, "shot-putting") free-throws left-handed in February. Because the hoops world expected so much from Oden and didn't get double-doubles from him in every Big Ten game -- it was only every other one, as he averaged 15.9 points and 9.5 rebounds -- the debate raged over whether he really should be the No. 1 pick in '07 draft ahead of Texas phenom Kevin Durant. Oden's hard-to-believe, humble refrain of, "We have much better players than me on this team," started to gain some traction, as Conley emerged as the Buckeyes' leader while the bearded big man sometimes struggled to get his share of touches in the paint.

The impact that Oden's presence has had on this NCAA tournament, however, has been immense. In OSU's past two victories, his standard stats haven't been overwhelming (nine points, three boards while in foul trouble against Tennessee; 17 points, nine boards vs. Memphis) but his plus-minus rating has been off the charts. The Buckeyes won those two games by a combined margin of 13 points; when Oden was on the floor, they were plus-40. Said one NBA scout this week, "All the talk about taking [Kevin] Durant at No. 1 is ridiculous. If it was possible for Oden to have helped himself in that debate, he did."


In almost any other year, a game like the Florida-UCLA rematch would have unquestionable top billing at the Final Four. It could only be trumped by something as rare as what Hibbert-vs.-Oden offers: a classic, low-post duel that's been extinct from 21st-century college basketball. The reason for that, as Thompson III said last week, is because so many big men -- from Kwame Brown, to Howard, to Eddy Curry, to Andrew Bynum -- "just jumped straight from high school to the draft." The league's new age-minimum rule, by which Oden's class was the first to be affected, made Saturday night's showdown possible, and got the Buckeyes to the Final Four. Hibbert, meanwhile, made his way to the Georgia Dome under a different set of circumstances; he was never a threat to declare for the draft out of Georgetown Prep, and until recently, wasn't a threat to be taken in the draft lottery, either. Over the past three years, the gap between Hibbert -- the kid from Adelphi, Md., who always carried himself like a player, but wasn't always a player -- and Oden -- the kid from Indy who described himself in laughably humble terms but was clearly a superstar -- shrank enough to make this a fair fight.

The hoops nation as a whole, so enthralled over the return of the dinosaurs to March Madness, is perhaps more excited for the battle than are its participants. Both reserved giants, Hibbert and Oden tend to speak about it in more calculating terms:

Hibbert, when first asked about Oden after last Sunday's comeback win over North Carolina, said: "He's a great player, and I'm going to have to limit his touches. I've faced Aaron Gray [Pitt's 7-footer], but Greg is more athletic, so I'm going to have my hands full."

Oden, meanwhile, said this week: "It's going to be going against someone like myself. It's going to be a hard challenge for me. I'm not going to be able to just go over him with his long arms and ability to block shots. I'm going to have to play strong and use my legs a lot."

If it's a hard challenge for Oden, it's the ultimate challenge for Hibbert, who worked over North Carolina's Brandan Wright -- a 6-foot-9 forward who's projected to be the No. 3 pick in the '07 Draft -- in the East Region Final, but has yet to face a big man with Oden's defensive abilities. Hibbert's Georgetown mentor, Sweetney, will be keeping tabs on the matchup with keen interest; he's flying in to Atlanta late Saturday night with the rest of Bulls, who face the Hawks on Sunday, but won't arrive in time to attend the game. Big Roy's big brother does, however, plan on sending a pre-game text message devoid of trash-talk. It will be something, Sweetney said, along the lines of, "Play your heart out. Leave it all on the line. And DON'T get in foul trouble!"

It's a warning that we pray will be heeded. On a Saturday night when the nation will be looking up at a 14-foot, 2-inch clash of collegiate titans, whistles are the only things that could ruin it.

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3/29/2007 01:08:00 PM

Final Four Numbers: Picking Faves, Rating Big Men

No hatin': Joakim Noah leads the Gators in plus-minus rating.
Travis Lindquist/Getty Images

ATLANTA -- Checking in from the Marriott Marquis, where I just turned on the TV to find house channel 36 playing a silent slideshow of past NCAA champions. It spans from Jordan (1982) to Joakim (2006) and makes you do a double-take on the '95 slide, which for some reason is a photo of George Zidek cutting down the nets. I can't think of a better image to represent that tourney than Zidek, can you?

Enough of the backdrop. We get access to the teams tomorrow, which is also open-practice day at the Georgia Dome (and by open practice, we mean more of a shootaround/dunk contest/go through the motions kind of affair; all of the real work is done in hidden sessions elsewhere). In the meantime I figured I'd deliver what might be the Blog's last, or at least its penultimate, numbers post.

Odds vs. Efficiency
How Vegas, KenPom.com handicap the tourney's final weekend
Ohio State22.624.62.0
The first contribution comes from reader Jacob Wheatley-Schaller, a student at Emory, a fine local institution. He's been creating odds-versus-efficiency charts for us in the past two rounds, comparing the percentage chances that 1) Vegas and 2) Ken Pomeroy's efficiency numbers give each of the Final Four teams to win it all. (Perhaps Lynn College will issue Jacob three credits for his hard work.)

The table shows that while Florida is an overwhelming favorite in Vegas, the Gators are closer to the rest of the pack when it comes to efficiency. Pomeroy projects a one-point game between Florida and UCLA, which is a lot closer than most of us would imagine. Ohio State, meanwhile, is a marginal No. 2 over Georgetown in both categories.

For the second offering, I spent part of the morning poring over kenpom.com's HD tourney boxscores, which might just be the greatest invention of the 2006-07 season. HD boxes are statistical equivalent of watching a game on your 42-inch Sharp Aquos versus your 20-inch kitchen set, in part because they include one of the juiciest -- and previously unavailable -- college stats: player plus-minus ratings. Unfortunately the HD compiler depends teams' full play-by-play data, something that Georgetown and UCLA don't make available online, so we only have full tourney plus-minus for Florida and Ohio State. Which is better than nothing, given that they're the faves to meet on Monday night, and it also allows us to make a few Oden, Noah and Horford observations.

Here's the Gators' data (I've omitted their first-round game, which had a 43-point victory margin, because it's just a plus-bomb):

Florida's Plus/Minus Ratings
Combined data from past three rounds of NCAA tournament (total margin of victory: 23)

Here's the Buckeyes' data (first-round game also omitted):

Ohio State's Plus/Minus Ratings
Combined data from past three rounds of NCAA tournament (total margin of victory: 24)

Oden may not be scoring the most points for Ohio State, but his plus-43 rating is off the charts. The most surprising thing in both charts, to me, is that Noah actually has a higher rating than Oden; Jo gets ripped for his lack of ability to score in the half-court, but his impact on the Gators' energy, transition game and defense is massive. Just as eye-opening is the fact that the guy who is regarded as the more polished player, Horford, has the lowest plus-minus of any Gator starter -- and a rating 28 points behind Noah's.

The charts don't paint a pretty picture for either teams' reserve big men. Florida's Chris Richard has an abysmal negative-24 rating, mostly due to a couple of horrid defensive stretches against a perimeter-minded Butler team, while OSU's Othello Hunter is negative-16 after weathering a few Memphis runs on Saturday. In HD, the importance of keeping your star bigs out of foul trouble is extremely clear.

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