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The Four Tops
April 07, 2008
A quartet of powerhouse teams, each with a uniquely skilled star, is set for a showdown in San Antonio in the strongest Final Four ever
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April 07, 2008

The Four Tops

A quartet of powerhouse teams, each with a uniquely skilled star, is set for a showdown in San Antonio in the strongest Final Four ever

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FOUR SECONDS. That's all it took. Four seconds for UCLA freshman forward Kevin Love to bury Xavier for good after the Musketeers had mounted a comeback with an 11--2 run in the second half of last Saturday's West Regional final. Four seconds for Love to snatch the ball out of the net, take one step out-of-bounds—his right foot planted, his left foot inches above the floor—and snap an immaculate, 70-foot chest pass to teammate Russell Westbrook for a layup and a 14-point lead. Four seconds to crush Xavier with basketball's answer to a 60-yard touchdown throw. For one glorious, fleeting moment the old-school chest pass was as sexy as a Dwight Howard slam dunk. "I love hearing the oohs and aahs you get from the crowd," Love says, "because you rarely ever hear them for a pass. You usually just hear them for a dunk."

It was a remarkable pass by a special player in an unprecedented NCAA tournament, the first in which all four No. 1 seeds have advanced to the Final Four. But Love's once-in-a-generation outlets won't be the only singular skill on display this week in San Antonio, where the Bruins will join Kansas, Memphis and North Carolina in "as high quality a Final Four as there's ever been," says Jayhawks coach Bill Self. In a bracket with chalk deposits the size of the cliffs at Dover, each team features a star with an unconventional signature move that could unhinge an opponent this week, especially an unfamiliar one. (None of the Big Four faced each other this season.) In the end, each weapon could be decisive in close games between teams with remarkably similar (and rarefied) talent levels.

No Final Four in recent memory has showcased a more diverse bag of tricks. North Carolina junior forward Tyler Hansbrough has made a mockery of low-post fundamentals with his go-to move, an unorthodox (but highly effective) hybrid of a jump hook and a turnaround jumper that Tar Heels coach Roy Williams calls "the shot put." Kansas junior guard Mario Chalmers specializes in reading an opponent's eyes and springing into passing lanes for steals, an art he learned from his mother, Almarie, his YMCA coach during grade school in Anchorage. And Memphis junior swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts perfected his signature move, a herky-jerky midrange floater, on the asphalt courts of his native Detroit.

"Old-man tricks," Tigers point guard Derrick Rose calls the various ball handling maneuvers that Douglas-Roberts uses to penetrate the lane in Memphis's dribble-drive motion offense. "Earl the Pearl [Monroe] is my guy," says CDR, whose repertoire includes a freaky inside-outside dribble, a more traditional crossover and a series of unpredictable, hunched-over feints that Michigan State's Travis Walton, who tried in vain to guard him last week, called a "snake move."

"I just have an unorthodox kind of game, like everybody from Detroit has," says Douglas-Roberts, a first-team All-America whose 25 points helped Memphis torch Texas 85--67 in Sunday's South Regional final. "We like to create our own shot and take a lot of scoop shots and in-between shots." But once the 6'7" Douglas-Roberts approaches the basket, his favorite move is clearly the running teardrop ("My floater is always in my back pocket," he says), which he can loft above the outstretched arms of taller defenders with either hand from the baseline, the middle of the lane and any other nook or cranny the defense provides. "He'll shoot it from 12 to 14 feet to where it's not a true teardrop floater, it's more of a push floater," says Tigers assistant coach John Robic. "But he's so confident in it, that's what he wants to shoot."

He'll need that chutzpah in Saturday's national semifinal against UCLA, especially if the Bruins decide to use the same quirky one-man zone (with a stationary big man clogging the lane) that worked to perfection the last time these two teams played, a 50--45 UCLA win in the 2006 West Regional final. Then again, neither the 37--1 Tigers nor Douglas-Roberts is the same as two years ago. One big difference: CDR's three-point shooting has risen from 31.0% two seasons ago to 41.6% this year. "Chris has a consistent [outside] shot now," says teammate Doneal Mack. "So if he sees you back off, he's hitting it."

By contrast, if UCLA's Love spies too many Tigers attacking the rim, he'll make them pay with his court-length passes, aesthetic wonders so simple and clean that they seem to come straight out of a glossy European design magazine. With apologies to Davidson's jump-shooting Stephen Curry and Western Kentucky's buzzer-beating Ty Rogers, the most awe-inspiring highlight of the 2008 NCAA tournament didn't even take place during a game. In a sequence caught by CBS cameras that's fast becoming a YouTube classic, Love stood behind the baseline practicing chest passes at the Honda Center in Anaheim the day before the Bruins' first-round game against Mississippi Valley State. Normally this would be about as exciting as listening to coach Ben Howland ruminate on the finer points of the defensive stance. But as Love released the ball with a flick of his wrists, it flew over the free throw line, over the half-court line, over the other free throw line, over the rim and down through the net.

Swish. The Bruins, who'd seen Love's 94-foot parlor trick before, turned away and chuckled. But first-time observers whooped in disbelief. It was no fluke, but rather the result of years of training. Growing up, Love did fingertip push-ups to strengthen his wrists, and by his sophomore year at Lake Oswego (Ore.) High he could fire chest passes from one basket to the other. "I'll tell you the play that got me," says Kerry Keating, who recruited Love to UCLA and is now the coach at Santa Clara. "During a high school game he took a made basket, got out-of-bounds and with his momentum going away from the court flicked a chest pass 75 feet. I looked at people in the gym and asked, 'Do you know how hard that is?'"

As soon as Bruins speedsters Josh Shipp and Westbrook see that Love has gathered a rebound, they bolt to the other end of the floor like wide receivers taking off on fly patterns. "All we have to do is run," says Shipp. "We know the ball is coming right on the money." If they're covered, Love can also fire a shorter pass to point guard Darren Collison for a more traditional fast break. And though UCLA scores only about two baskets per game off Love's booming outlets, the constant threat of one causes foes to change their strategy. If they send fewer players to the offensive glass in hopes of preventing Bruins run-outs, then they won't grab as many rebounds.

Truth be told, Love's outlets seem better suited for Carolina's go-go attack than for the slower tempo of UCLA's defense-first schemes, but after visiting both schools Love opted for Westwood. ("It was amazing playing pickup with him," recalls Tar Heels guard Bobby Frasor. "He was throwing [outlet passes], and you're just catching them in stride.") A Tar Heels front line of Love and Hansbrough might not have been fair, however, with the former controlling the defensive blocks and the latter owning the offensive end with his unique shot put move.

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