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To the list of life's vexing choices—timeless dilemmas like paper or plastic, and tastes great versus less filling—basketball adds pass or shoot. For most of his career Texas sophomore point guard T.J. Ford fell consistently on the first side of that divide. In the finals of the Slam Dunk to the Beach Tournament in Lewes, Del., during his senior season at Houston's Willowridge High, Ford guided the Eagles to victory with 11 assists and zero points. A year ago, as a Longhorns freshman, he led the nation with 8.3 assists per game while sinking only five three-pointers all season. Small wonder that when he made his debut at Harlem's fabled Rucker Park last summer, the public address announcer made sport of him during the introductions: " T.J. Ford of Texas! Led the nation in assists! Can't score!"
So it was a surprise to see Ford, not a minute into the Longhorns' 76-71 defeat of Texas Tech in Lubbock on March 1, making the net snap with a three-pointer for the game's first points. It was a bellwether shot, emblematic of his newfound range and confidence. "Last year teams played so far off him, they wouldn't give us a chance to do what we needed to do on the low block," says Longhorns center James Thomas. "He's made our lives a whole lot easier."
With Ford finally lifting his eyes to the rim, Texas has lifted itself in the polls. After another 76-71 victory, at Oklahoma last Saturday—in which Ford further established his shooting bona fides by scoring 14 of his 18 points over the final 10 minutes, including the game-winning fadeaway jumper with 20 seconds left to play, to lead his team back from a 15-point deficit—the Longhorns were 22-5 and ranked No. 3, well-positioned to grab a top seed in the NCAA, tournament. This puts Ford at the center of another vexing choice: Who, from among at least a dozen worthy candidates, is the year's outstanding player? The five most prestigious honors are handed out by the AP (the Adolph Rupp Trophy), the National Association of Basketball Coaches, the Atlanta Tipoff Club (the Naismith Award), the Los Angeles Athletic Club (the Wooden Award) and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association (the Oscar Robertson Trophy). This season there's no obvious selection from such usual sources as the ACC, Big Ten and SEC, where league pedigree alone often wins voters over. And after two recent conference calls to winnow the finalists for their Oscar, board members of the U.S.B.W.A. threw up their hands and left 15 names on the list.
If the player of the year should be the most crucial guy on the most dominant team, we probably ought to anoint Jason Gardner, point guard of No. 1 Arizona. If he should be the most versatile player in the land, we could hand the award to forward Nick Collison of Kansas, who might wheel inside for a lefthanded hook on one possession, then pull up for a majestic three the next. If he should be the game's most powerful inside force, or its most acrobatic scorer, cases can be made for Xavier forward David West or Marquette guard Dwyane Wade, respectively (see boxes).
But Ford gets SI's vote the way any centrist candidate would, by cobbling together a platform of disparate planks. He's as essential to Texas as Gardner is to Arizona, perhaps (given the Wildcats' superb talent) more so. Like Collison, his shot chart features marks all over the forecourt. He has Wade's explosiveness—few point guards have a vertical leap of 44� inches—and when the situation calls for it, he too will spring for 30 or more points, as he did when he went for 32 in a narrow loss at Oklahoma State on Feb. 22. Yet at a time when so many point guards regard themselves as ankle-breaking scorers and their teammates as statuary, Ford is a bracing throwback. "The only time I have to score is when the team needs me to," he says. "My job is to make guys better. If you average four, I can get you to average eight or 10."
Though Ford was named national freshman of the year in 2001-02, the season was in some ways a struggle. In the Longhorns' opener, a loss to Arizona, he turned his left ankle while trying to keep up with his more experienced counterpart, Gardner. He never fully returned to his old self for the rest of the season, which ended with Oregon's Luke Ridnour outplaying him in Texas's 72-70 Midwest Regional semifinal loss in the NCAA tournament. Walking off the floor in Madison, Wis., that day, Ford turned to Longhorns coach Rick Barnes and vowed to remake himself.
Over the summer he launched as many as 1,000 shots a day, using a gym bag full of aids—everything from a padded glove to keep the ball off the heel of his palm to a wooden splint placed on the end of his left index finger to prevent him from larding the ball with sidespin. Using Texas's Gregory Gym and Student Rec Center as his labs, he tinkered with how he planted his feet, with the arc of his shot, even with the angle at which he cocked his wrist. Managers, trainers, even a girlfriend rebounded for him. "He'd always lived in the gym," says Barnes. "But [last summer] he learned how to go in the gym and work."
At the same time, Ford addressed his other weakness: his toothpick of a body. Texas strength and conditioning coach Todd Wright had to show him what a squat was, but within six weeks Ford was hoisting 355 pounds. Ford added 15 pounds to his 5'10" frame—he's now up to 165—while keeping his body fat below 4%. "He's like a fine race car," says Wright. "You just try to find ways to tune it up and make it run more efficiently." Ford's off-season tune-up—which was really more like an overhaul—ended with a symbolic act: cutting off his taillike braids. The new close-cropped 'do "made him a little more aerodynamic, too," says Wright.
Even as he has added a jump shot to his portfolio, Ford hasn't neglected his primary duty of distributing the ball. Though at week's end his scoring average this season had risen by four points, to 14.8, his assists had fallen only to 7.2. Eight other Long-horns had scored in double figures at least twice, and none doubt where the credit belongs. "Sometimes I don't think I'm open," forward Brad Buckman says, "and T.J. will just slide the ball right to me."
NBA scouts have noticed the steep ascent of his learning curve. "If he comes out, he'll be a lottery pick," says one. "He's a true point guard. That he shoots 41 percent and isn't six feet, are those concerns? Yeah, but that won't keep people from drafting him."