SI Vault
Grant Wahl
April 05, 2004
To win the NCAA championship, each of the remaining teams will require a peak performance from its indispensable player
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
April 05, 2004

Four Cornerstones

To win the NCAA championship, each of the remaining teams will require a peak performance from its indispensable player

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2

A Fort Washington, Md., native who bears an eerie resemblance to Cuba Gooding Jr., Jack is a one-man roundball information center. "Well-connected is not the word," says Tech assistant Cliff Warren, noting Jack's ever-present pager, cellphone and flip-top Sidekick. "I think he can call up any player in the country." But there's also an on-court application for the data in Jack's wired world. After a disappointing freshman season, he performed a detailed video autopsy with Warren last summer. "I watched every single game, win or loss," Jack says. "Some of them were painful. He would ask me my thought process on every play: Who I was trying to get the ball to, the time on the clock, the score, every little thing I could correct."

The devil is in the details for Jack, a connoisseur of throwback jerseys—Oscar Robertson, Tiny Archibald and Julius Erving are represented in his collection—who actually bothers to learn the history behind the threads. By Sunday night he had used his encyclopedic hoops knowledge to wow reporters with his alltime NCAA tournament team, his treatise on the history of Tech point guards ("It goes back to Roger Kaiser...") and a detailed instant scouting report of this Saturday's semifinal foe, Oklahoma State. "We have to do a good job of keeping them off the boards, and they have great scorers in the back-court in Tony Allen and John Lucas [III]," he explained. Whether Elder's gimpy wheel would heal by Saturday wasn't clear, but you got the sense that Jack would be working every angle in the interim. "Me and Lucas were on the same AAU team when we were 13," Jack said with a wink. "We'll probably talk tonight."

Lucas could send his pal this text message: Georgia Tech may not have anyone who can stop Allen, the Cowboys' relentless 6'4" senior slasher who attacks the basket on drives, post-ups and isolation plays. Lucas, a Baylor transfer whose game-winning three-pointer beat Saint Joseph's 64-62 in last week's East Rutherford Regional final, has grabbed the headlines this season. But Allen is Oklahoma State's Mr. Indispensable—or, as Doug Gottlieb, the former Cowboys guard and current broadcaster, calls him, "the most important player on the team. Tony will always find ways to score points. Lucas is tough, but he grew up with his dad [former NBA player John Lucas Jr.] as a millionaire. Tony is street tough."

That was part of the problem after Allen, a West Chicago native, transferred to OSU from Wabash Valley (Ill.) C.C. two years ago. Before he had played a game in Stillwater, Allen was arrested in August 2002 and charged with assault, obstruction and resisting an officer after a fracas at a fast-food restaurant. Though the charges were dropped, coach Eddie Sutton punished the entire team by making them run an epic two-hour series of wind sprints. "That was a wake-up call," says Allen, who set about changing his life. Once lax about his studies, Allen now carries a 3.0 GPA and stands six hours short of a degree in education, and last September he was baptized at the Eagle Heights Baptist Church in Stillwater. "I got tears in my eyes when I went under the water," he says.

"He's not the same Tony that I knew," says Allen's mother, Ella, nor is he the same player who joined coach Eddie Sutton's program with little fanfare, having toiled in the shadows of more publicized teammates at Chicago's Crane Tech High ( Georgia Tech's Will Bynum) and in junior college ( Kentucky's Antwain Barbour). One of seven transfers on this year's Cowboys team, Allen spent last season adapting to Sutton's hothouse practices and defensive demands. "Coach would scream in my right ear, and it would make the left side of my head feel numb," he says. Now the Cowboys' stopper (he had two steals and a game-high three blocks against St. Joe's), Allen has only one major weakness—his 28.8% shooting this season from beyond the three-point arc—which he offsets with his timely forays into the lane. What's more, says associate head coach Sean Sutton, "Tony's at his best in the last eight minutes, when it counts."

As much as Allen was looking forward to seeing his high school chum Bynum in San Antonio, he issued a playful challenge as well: "If he sticks me, we're going straight downstairs to the block." Translation: If Bynum, who's 6 feet, tries to cover Allen, he's going to get eaten up in the post. It's that kind of bravado-combined with Elder's ailing ankle—that gives the edge to the Cowboys on Saturday, when the 68-year-old Sutton squares off against Georgia Tech's 40-year-old coach, Paul Hewitt. In the other semifinal, a rematch of UConn's 1999 title-game stunner, the Huskies' superior talent (especially Gordon, who's seizing his moment) and Duke's lack of depth inside will be enough to send the Blue Devils packing.

That leaves a Monday-night matchup between Oklahoma State and UConn—and not a shred of doubt about who'll be the sentimental choice, as Sutton aims for his long-awaited first title three years after a plane crash killed 10 members of the Cowboys' program. So far, however, the Huskies have been ruthlessly unsentimental while dominating this tournament as few teams have in the past decade. As UConn, SI's preseason pick, cuts down the nets in the Alamodome, keep in mind: In the rough justice of the brackets, only one team can be truly indispensable.

1 2