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An hour or so later in Boston, hulking Pittsburgh center DeJuan Blair's shorts were sprayed in blood before the end of the first half, source unknown. Panthers freshman guard Jermaine Dixon was helped gingerly off the floor after getting hit in the groin in the opening minute of the second half. Less than seven minutes into North Carolina's 72--60 victory over Oklahoma in Memphis on Sunday, Tar Heels senior All-America Tyler Hansbrough was flipped over the shoulder of Sooners center Blake Griffin. Surely Wooden was cringing somewhere, witnessing the carnage.
(The enduring image of the regular season remains Blair flinging the 7'3" Thabeet over his shoulder in Pitt's victory at Connecticut on Feb. 16. "He had to let me flip him," Blair said and then added a grisly alternative. "If he had hung on, he probably would have wound up with a broken arm.")
Villanova assistant coach Doug West, who played for the Wildcats from 1985 to '89 and then for 12 years in the NBA, says, "The college game is more physical than the NBA right now. You can't hand-check a guy in the NBA like you can in college. You can't bump a guy making a cut in the NBA like you can in college. The NBA has legislated a lot of physicality out of the game. But the physicality is still there in college."
Duke assistant Chris Collins, whose team was crushed by Villanova 77--54 in the Sweet 16, says, "It's the first thing our NBA guys say when they come back to campus, that our game is rougher than the pro game." The progression is not entirely linear. There are players and coaches who will argue that the game was more physical before the implementation of the three-point line in 1986. And for two weeks the star of last year's NCAA tournament was wispy guard Stephen Curry of Davidson. But he's an exception. "The game has definitely changed," says Ray Ganong, strength-and-conditioning coach at Louisville for the last 23 years. "Kids come in bigger and stronger. There's a whole different paradigm than there was 15 years ago."
There is no more telling development than the use of protective padding. When Villanova's Cunningham strips off his uniform, his torso is covered in a tight, padded base layer and his hips, thighs and tailbone in heavily padded compression shorts. Connecticut's 6'7", 243-pound Adrien, a block of marble with a head, adds to his imposing presence with a long, padded sleeve on his left arm. Even Blair, whose 6'7", 265-pound body would seem to provide ample cushion, wears rib and lower-body pads. By comparison, many NFL players wear only a helmet and shoulder pads, with no protection for their ribs, hips and thighs. Basketball's padding craze began in 2004, when McDavid Sports Medicine Products provided padded gear to NBA players. "They tell us it makes them feel like they can attack the basket harder," says cofounder and president Bob McDavid. Nike jumped into the market this spring with its Pro Combat line.
THE SURVIVING four teams are predictably comfortable in the battles that define the evolution of the game. North Carolina's Hansbrough has been a contact magnet throughout his career, most memorably as the recipient of a shot from Duke's Gerald Henderson in March 2007 that left Hansbrough with a broken nose. "Tyler has taken a worse beating this year than in any other in his college career," says Tar Heels senior guard Bobby Frasor. "He gets scratched, hacked, his contact lenses get poked out, but he keeps coming at you. He gives us a physical presence, which is the key to everything we do."
As Hansbrough sat in the North Carolina locker room after the Tar Heels' 98--77 Sweet 16 victory over Gonzaga, his white jersey was dotted with blood, the result of a cut on the back of his right hand. "It seems like every time I've gotten fouled this year, it's been a hard foul," said Hansbrough. "People play me physical. I guess that's in the scouting report on me. But that just adds fuel to my fire. I don't mind a little contact."
Villanova, the Tar Heels' semifinal opponent, turns the concept inside out. Its most punishing athletes are its guards: Reynolds, Redding (6'5", 205 pounds), sophomore Corey Fisher (6'1", 185) and swingman Dwayne Anderson (6'6", 215), who will guard every opposing position. It was Reynolds who crushed UCLA senior Darren Collison with a hard foul early in their second-round matchup, setting the game's agenda. On the day before the East Regional final, Jamie Dixon watched film of Villanova, observing how the Wildcats guards repeatedly attacked overmatched Duke in transition and in the half-court. "Villanova doesn't run a lot of offensive sets," says Dixon, clicking through possessions. "They like to get their guards in one-on-one situations and take you that way. They're experienced and they're strong."
Michigan State is the home of the notorious war drill, a fierce rebounding session. "You start five guys inside and five guys outside the three," says 6'10" senior center Goran Suton. "The ball goes up, and the guys inside try to box the other guys out. The guys on the three-point line try to get an offensive rebound." Coach Tom Izzo made it famous during the 2000 season when he had his players run through it in football gear—and subsequently won the national championship. They haven't broken out the pads this season, but the war drill remains. "It gets rough," says Suton. "But it works. We've done it every day, every practice since I've been at Michigan State."
The Spartans also start every practice with a layup drill in which players are expected to finish while getting battered by coaches swinging pads at them. During scrimmages Izzo tells the scout team to foul relentlessly. "We're used to the bruises," says sophomore guard Durrell Summers. "At the beginning of the year you might feel it a little, but after a while you get used to being banged up."