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IT TAKES a fair amount of nerve to look a college basketball coach in the eye, keep a straight face and ask a question that's usually better suited for Cosmo than for the pages of SI: Does size matter? But fear not, dear reader. No query is more pertinent heading into this year's fun-house mirror of an NCAA tournament, in which six genuine title contenders—Duke, Louisville, Memphis, North Carolina, Tennessee and Xavier—have shorter frontcourts than any national champion of the past 20 years. And while common sense may suggest otherwise (this is basketball, after all), no question is likely to draw a more surprising range of answers. ¶ "Size absolutely matters," says UCLA coach Ben Howland, who might have been aiming for a three-peat if not for the once-in-a-generation Florida team that beat the Bruins in the last two Final Fours. There's a reason Howland calls his latest edition, the West region's No. 1 seed, "the best team we've had over the last three seasons." After enduring two years of bully treatment by the Gators' big men—the second- and third-tallest championship front lines of the past two decades—UCLA finally has its own transcendent titan, 6'10" freshman center Kevin Love. As Howland says, "Having [Love] in there not only scoringwise but also reboundingwise was a huge factor in our success in the regular season."
Even the shortest title-winning frontcourt of the past two decades, UNLV's in 1990, had an All-America post player in burly 6'6" forward Larry Johnson. But can a team with almost no post presence win a national title? Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski certainly thinks so, considering that the go-go Blue Devils' biggest player on the floor is often 6'8", 220-pound freshman Kyle Singler. "If you have a good big man, that helps a lot," says Coach K, "but I don't think you need to have a great big man to win the whole thing." Perhaps, but the Blue Devils' margin for error is as slim as Singler himself. "Can Duke win a national championship with this team?" says UConn coach Jim Calhoun. "They could, but I don't know if they can put six wins together, because all they need [to lose] is one bad shooting game."
It's the height of fashion to say that perimeter play is the key to success in the NCAAs. But recent champions have also revived the fashion of height. After an eight-year stretch from 1996 to 2003 in which the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four was a guard or a midsized swingman, three of the last four MOPs—Connecticut's Emeka Okafor, North Carolina's Sean May and Florida's Joakim Noah—have been big men. What's more, finding worthy guards for this year's All-America teams was a far harder task than making a list of deserving post players: UCLA's Love, North Carolina's 6'9" Tyler Hansbrough, Kansas State's 6'10" Michael Beasley, Notre Dame's 6'8" Luke Harangody, Stanford's 7-foot Brook Lopez, Louisville's 6'11" David Padgett and Indiana's 6'9" D.J. White.
That pituitary-powered procession doesn't even include three potentially game-changing centers on title contenders (Georgetown's 7'2" Roy Hibbert, UConn's 7'3" Hasheem Thabeet and Stanford's 7-foot Robin Lopez, Brook's twin brother) or the four-headed post hydra of Kansas, the deepest reserve of quality size in the land. "When you have four big guys, you can get to the second half with nobody in foul trouble," says Jayhawks coach Bill Self. "It's not devastating when one of our big guys gets two fouls in the first four minutes."
Yet more than ever the teams carrying a slingshot for Goliath aren't just double-digit seeds gunning for classic March upsets; they're also high-seeded powerhouses that have found innovative ways to mitigate their lack of stature. "When a team doesn't have a big man, everybody looks at the teams that do and says they automatically have an advantage, but I don't know if that's always the case," says Butler coach Brad Stevens, whose seventh-seeded Bulldogs have no player taller than 6'8". "Often there's an advantage on one end of the court, but there may be a major disadvantage on the other."
How those relative Lilliputians attempt to defy nature—and the conventional wisdom of basketball—may well be the dominant story line of the next three weeks.
FROM A statistical perspective, size does matter in college basketball—more so on defense than on offense, and more so at center and power forward than at small forward and guard. Ken Pomeroy, a stat guru for Basketball Prospectus, computed the average height for all 341 Division I teams and found a weak correlation with offensive efficiency (points scored per possession, adjusted for competition) and a slightly stronger one with defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession). But when he isolated what he called Effective Height—the height of a team's center and power forward, i.e., the tallest 40% of a team's minutes played—he found stronger correlations on offense and especially on defense, most of all in blocked shots, field-goal-percentage defense and defensive efficiency.
Pomeroy's conclusions: Having tall guards isn't that important, but there's ample reason for coaches to scour the world for exceptional big men—Thabeet is Tanzanian, while 6'11" Vanderbilt center A.J. Ogilvy is Australian—or to invest time in a project such as Hibbert, whom former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. nicknamed the Big Stiff as a freshman before rechristening him Stiff No More.
That's good news for a few tall NCAA tournament teams: Georgetown, which has more frontcourt height than even North Carolina's 1993 outfit, the tallest champ in the last 20 years (chart, left); Stanford, which is anchored by the Lopez twins; and UConn, which has seen Thabeet add offensive skills to his already formidable shot-blocking presence. Noting that Thabeet's scoring average has gone from 6.2 points last season to 10.4 this year, Calhoun says his center has become "a nightmare to play against because [defenses] have to double-team him, and when they give help, it opens up our perimeter players."
North Carolina coach Roy Williams is one of the game's leading proponents of pounding the ball inside; his 2005 champion Tar Heels scored more than half of their points that season from the two power positions, the most of any NCAA titlist in the last two decades (chart, left). Williams argues that skilled post men are better at drawing fouls than are perimeter players—witness Hansbrough, who leads the nation in free throw attempts (344)—and that size matters more during the NCAA tournament because, he says, "it becomes more of a half-court game and people take fewer chances. Plus, in the NCAA tournament that three-foot shot doesn't have as much pressure on it as a 22-foot shot has."