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

Four Cornerstones

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

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Never mind, or those increasingly popular (and profane) Duke-baiting T-shirts. Hoop-heads wishing to pinpoint the moment when Duke hatred reached critical mass nationwide can refer to 9:35 p.m. last Friday in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, when insult-hurling fans of three heartland school—literally a critical mass—united to rain thunderous boos on the Blue Devils as they took the court for warmups before their NCAA regional semifinal against Illinois. All that was missing was a suitably ominous Wagnerian soundtrack as Duke guard J.J. Redick gathered his fellow Microsoft employees, er, teammates, and issued a defiant war whoop: Nobody likes Duke!

For manifold reasons—sustained success, polish and smarts, more TV time than Simon Cowell—Duke's staggering 10th Final Four appearance in 19 years has pushed it into New York Yankees/Evil Empire territory. So reviled are the Blue Devils that they'll no doubt turn rampaging Connecticut into a cuddly fan favorite when the two schools meet in a national semifinal at the Alamo-dome this Saturday. Yet whether Duke wins a fourth NCAA title for coach Mike Krzyzewski this week, or whether UConn, Georgia Tech or Oklahoma State takes home the top prize, will depend less on the inevitable inhospitables who show up in San Antonio and more on its Indispensables, the four players whose contributions will be the most vital to their teams' survival.

Indispensable isn't synonymous with best, though the way UConn junior guard Ben Gordon has mushed the Huskies through the draw (average victory margin: 17.5 points), he may soon assume both mantles. UConn's national player of the year candidate, 6'10" center Emeka Okafor, can take over a game defensively unlike any college big man since David Robinson. But with Okafor slowed by back and shoulder ailments, Gordon is finally shedding the qualities that caused coach Jim Calhoun to label him Gentle Ben as a freshman. "He needed to develop more of a you-can't-stop-me mentality," Calhoun said after Gordon's 36 points (and four three-pointers) helped sink Alabama 87-71 in the Phoenix Regional final. "That's what you saw today, a guy who was confident that he could get any shot he wanted."

Nor should you let his Sphinx-like mien fool you: Gordon does not lack passion. He has been spotted in the off-season running stadium steps at 6 a.m. while wearing a weighted vest, on his own initiative. Police once chased him out of his high school gym in Mount Vernon, N.Y., when they found him working on his jumper after midnight, and he's a weight-room demon. Yet Gordon is undeniably laid-back, and despite packing a 39-inch vertical leap and all manner of moves, he is not especially flashy. Befitting his funeral-director demeanor, he drives a 1988 Lincoln Mercury that his teammates call the Hearse.

"I've never had an overly aggressive personality," Gordon says. "I was more the kind to size things up kind of casually and then make my move. Now I understand the importance of being aggressive right from the start." Sure enough, Gordon drew fouls attempting to throw down two early dunks against Alabama, causing the ever-cranky Calhoun to turn to his assistants and crack a smile. In UConn's semifinal against Duke, Gordon will need to bring the same 'tude, which means shadowing the trey-flinging Redick on defense—a must for any team hoping to short-circuit the Blue Devils' perimeter-based attack—and continuing to shoulder the Huskies' offensive load.

Despite Okafor's shot-blocking and rebounding hegemony, Gordon has been UConn's bellwether, both in March and during the Huskies' surprisingly inconsistent regular season. Gordon's slide from preseason All-America to honorable-mention status can be traced to his disappearing act in losses to Georgia Tech, Providence, Syracuse and North Carolina (in which he averaged only 10.8 points and 11.8 field goal attempts, well below his season totals of 18.5 and 14.1). Yet as Duke knows, all but one of those defeats came before February. "It's been an up-and-down year for me," Gordon says. "But I've learned a lot. I know what's expected of me, and I know this is no time to be shy."

Shy is the most accurate way to describe the personality of Duke's Indispensable, sophomore center Shelden Williams. When his teammates rushed the court to celebrate the Blue Devils' 66-63 Atlanta Regional triumph over Xavier on Sunday, Stoic Shelden was the last to join in. "I've never seen him get fired up about anything off the court," says his classmate, forward Shavlik Randolph. Yet when the 6'9", 245-pound Williams demands the ball in the post, clear-cuts the lane for a rebound or runs the length of the court to block a shot, as he did to stuff Musketeers guard Dedrick Finn last week, you can see the burn-off from an inner fire, if not the flame itself.

No Blue Devil will be more important against UConn than Williams. The team's thin seven-man rotation is suspect in only one spot: inside, where Williams the oak tree has only the reedy Randolph as a reliable backup. Matched up against Okafor, Williams will face the Herculean task of keeping him at bay—and of warding off Okafor's precocious freshman sidemen, Josh Boone and Charlie Villanueva—without accumulating a raft of fouls. "It's going to be key," Duke guard Chris Duhon says of the Williams-Okafor tilt. "You've got two big guys who can rebound and block shots. We need Shelden to know that his value to us is to stay on the floor and to not get in foul trouble."

Indeed, as the laconic Williams admits, it still pains him that he fouled out against Maryland in the ACC tournament final, forcing him to watch from the bench as the Terrapins pulled off a 95-87 upset. "The only time I feel pressure is if I have three fouls and can't help my team," he says. But if Williams shows the restraint that enabled him to remain a factor against Xavier despite earning his third foul early in the second half—he finished with 13 rebounds and five blocks, both game highs—then Duke's chances will skyrocket in a game that should have been saved for Monday night.

The other semifinal reminds us that this is the Year of the Indispensable Point Guard. Look around. From Michigan State to Missouri, from Florida to Texas, the lack of an elite PG spelled doom. By contrast, the rise of sophomore Jarrett Jack has brought unanticipated success to Georgia Tech, never more so than during Sunday's 79-71 St. Louis Regional final win over Kansas. Assuming the scoring burden for guard B.J. Elder, who was hobbled by a severely sprained right ankle, Jack had a career-high 29 points to go with, nine rebounds, six assists, four steals and countless comparisons with his Tech predecessors at the point: Mark Price, Kenny Anderson, Travis Best and Stephon Marbury. "You never know where that Big Mo is going to come from," Jack said afterward, and that's especially true for the nine-deep Yellow Jackets.

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