As mosh Pits go, it didn't exactly rival the ones at Limp Bizkit concerts, yet Kansas coach Roy Williams hardly cared as he joyously careened off his players on the floor of the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis., on Sunday. So geeked was the 51-year-old Williams, in fact, that he set off another free-for-all in the locker room after the Jayhawks had dispatched Oregon 104-86 in the NCAA Midwest Regional final. "Coach is always starting mosh pits," forward Nick Collison said later, shaking his head. "He loves banging around with the guys."
That's not the only kind of banging left in college basketball, even if all the top 7-footers have lit out for the NBA. For all the talk of Cinderellas, three-point wonders and pressure defenses, this week's Final Four in Atlanta—where Kansas will join Indiana, Maryland and Oklahoma—will come down to one thing: powerball. All a team needs (insert sarcastic snort here) is an exceedingly gifted big man or two. "The supply of centers in the college game shrinks every day," says the Jayhawks' 6'10" Drew Gooden, the preeminent collegiate frontcourtman, "so you're seeing a new breed of power forward, guys who can run and jump, step out on the court and do things inside and outside."
All of the Final Four teams have at least one such player, whether it's Kansas's black Viking, Oklahoma's erstwhile nun, Indiana's master of psychology or Maryland's recovering narcoleptic. Indeed, sleeper only begins to describe 6'10" Terrapins sophomore Chris Wilcox, an athletic wonder who never played much basketball during his adolescence in Whiteville, N.C., because he would fall asleep at 7:30 every night. Even in high school, his mother, Debra Brown, says, "if Chris and his friends went to a club, he would sleep in the car while they were inside." Sure enough, Wilcox somnambulated through his freshman year at Maryland, averaging only 3.6 points, 2.1 rebounds and 8.6 minutes a game. "It was tough for me," he says. "I would always be like, Why am I not playing?"
This year Wilcox finally woke up. On a team that, like Oklahoma, doesn't include a McDonald's High School All-American—and keep in mind, no national champion has been without one since the award was instituted in 1978—coach Gary Williams is fanatical about player development. Frustrated by the Terps' lack of toughness in their NCAA tournament loss to St. John's three years ago, Williams hired Kurtis Shultz, a 6'6", 295-pound personal trainer (and former Maryland basketball player) whose clients include Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. During the off-season Shultz put Wilcox and his teammates through all manner of unconventional drills. They carried 150-pound heavy bags up stairs, played a game called King of the Lane (in which they had to push their hulking trainer from the paint) and even boxed against Shultz, wearing 16-ounce gloves with their hands wrapped, to learn how to breathe while taking body blows. No player impressed Shultz more than Wilcox, whom he calls "a freak. For someone as strong as he is to be so quick and agile is unbelievable. He's only 19 years old, but he has an NBA body already."
Wilcox's skills have come along too. "If Chris couldn't dunk, he couldn't do anything," Gary Williams says of Wilcox as a freshman. "So he developed his jump shot and his post moves." If Wilcox doesn't break an opponent's will inside—his averages have spiked to 11.9 points and 7.1 boards a game—then frontcourt mate Lonny Baxter surely will. Similarly fortified by Shultz's workouts, Baxter defied his 6'8" height and ruled the lane with 29 points in the Terps' 90-82 defeat of UConn in Sunday's East Regional final. "He's like Charles Barkley," says teammate Byron Mouton. "When you're strong like that, you can go through people."
That might be harder than usual in Saturday's semifinal against the Jayhawks' Gooden and Collison, whose combined 43 points and 35 rebounds against Oregon on Sunday gave further evidence that they may be the best tandem of college forwards in more than a decade. Diversity is the hallmark of both players' games—they post up and run the floor with equal facility—and lifestyles. A white kid from the farm town of Iowa Falls, Iowa, the 6'9" Collison has a Jay-Z jones and has dated African-American coeds. For his part, Gooden, the son of an African-American father and a Finnish mother, has an Asian-American girlfriend. Owing to Gooden's exotic bloodlines, his father, Andrew, calls his son a black Viking. "He's got rhythm, strength and agility," Andrew says. "He's Leif Ericsson and Shaka Zulu."
Gooden's rise from an unheralded high schooler in Richmond, Calif., to a first-team All-America this year has coincided with a fascinating give-and-take between player and coach. "It's very hard to find a kid who wants to be a post player, almost like there's a stigma," says Roy Williams, not just of Gooden but of most big men these days. "So you have to tell the kid, 'Hey, we'll try to help you develop your total game, but you have to do some things for us inside.' " It's a precarious balance, which is why Kansas assistant Joe Holladay believes mat with Gooden, Williams has done his best job of coaching a player in his 14 years with the Jayhawks. "He's accepted that Drew will do something stupid each game," Holladay says. "In the past he would have automatically jerked him out, but now he's like, O.K., you're allowed one a game. By giving Drew that leeway, he has made him a much better player."
Williams has liberated the Kansas players another way this season, by making practices 30 minutes shorter than usual at Collison's request. As a result Kansas's top big men—Collison, Gooden and 6'9" freshman Wayne Simien—were spared untold hours of pounding, and the Jayhawks led the nation in scoring, at 92.0 points a game. "Coach has been more relaxed this year," says Collison, who is a junior. "Look at our turnovers. We have a lot of them, but he lets them go because they're the result of the pace we play."
Oklahoma may seem to mosey compared with its Big 12 rival Jayhawks, but the Sooners' attack is no less power-oriented, Thanks mainly to 6'8", 250-pound senior forward Aaron McGhee, the tournament's third-leading scorer with 89 points in four games. Yet when McGhee joined the Sooners last year—after stops at Cincinnati and Vincennes ( Ind.) junior college—Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson got one glimpse of his tattoos, shaved head, ripped-like-an-inmate physique and soft playing style and said, "You look like Godzilla, but you play like a nun?
"The tiling that stood out when he came to us was how soft he played for such a big guy," recalls Sampson, who kicked McGhee out of practice three times last year for his lackadaisical behavior. "He'd never played strong inside before, had never been asked to. I laid into him pretty good." Even McGhee admits mat he "took off some games" last year and mat he didn't refocus himself until he spent last summer in Norman following the Sooners' disappointing first-round loss to Indiana State in the NCAA tournament.