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Only the Strong Survive
April 06, 2009
As the physical play increases with the stakes, four bruising—and bruised—teams arrive for a showdown in Motown, determined to be the last men standing
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April 06, 2009

Only The Strong Survive

As the physical play increases with the stakes, four bruising—and bruised—teams arrive for a showdown in Motown, determined to be the last men standing

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THERE ARE players who are simply too weak to be recruited. They have skills. They have passion. They have the pedigree required of a major college basketball player. But there comes a moment when a coach like Villanova's Jay Wright closes his eyes and imagines the teenager thrust among the powerful athletes who populate the game and finds him lacking in a primal way. "There are some kids you look at," says Wright, "and you just can't see them surviving the physical pounding." And just like that, the page is turned; a bigger young man is chosen. And through natural selection, the game evolves.¶ Last Saturday night in Boston, Villanova advanced to its first NCAA Final Four since Rollie Massimino and his eighth-seeded Wildcats famously upset Georgetown 24 years ago in Lexington, Ky. This time, third-seeded Villanova won the East Regional in Boston when junior guard Scottie Reynolds converted a driving score with half a second to play, eliminating Big East rival Pittsburgh 78--76 and instantly seizing a place in college basketball history alongside epic buzzer-beaters Danny Ainge, Tyus Edney, Christian Laettner and Bryce Drew. Yet even as the TD Banknorth Garden shivered in delirium in the aftermath, a broader message was evident: The game belongs to the strong.

The winning play began when Villanova junior guard Reggie Redding pushed a tentative inbounds pass toward 6'8" senior forward Dante Cunningham, 35 feet away in the middle of the floor. As the pass neared, Pittsburgh forward Sam Young thought he could deflect it away. "But I got sealed off by his body," said Young. "I couldn't get to the ball." Cunningham snatched the ball and shoveled it in midair to Reynolds, who was rushing up the side of the floor.

Reynolds, a stocky 6'2" and 195 pounds, angled to the middle of the court and pierced the lane. Eight feet from the rim, he jumped into Pittsburgh's 6'6", 200-pound Gilbert Brown, banging their bodies together. "I leaned into him, and the contact bounced me backward like a rubber band," said Reynolds. "That gave me a little space." He released the winning shot just an instant before his feet landed back on the floor.

Two movements, executed on the court with millions watching but conceived in a weight room long before and in solitude. "We train 12 months a year," says Wright. "And I don't even look at it like we're the bullies. We look for guys who can compete. And then we do the rest of it to keep up with everybody else." Faced with elimination, Cunningham and Reynolds made strength plays in the final seconds. And in that sequence was a microcosm of today's college game.

After the roar had subsided, Villanova players stripped off their uniforms in a locker room at the end of a long corridor. Piles grew at the center of the floor: one for jerseys, another for shorts and another for pads. Hip pads, rib and back pads, elbow pads. It looked like football gear, and in a sense, it was.

I think they're permitting the game to become a little too physical today.... There's been a lot of blood here and there. I think permitting the game to become too physical takes away a little bit of the beauty.

THE FINAL FOUR commences Saturday at Ford Field in Detroit, with Villanova meeting North Carolina and Connecticut facing Michigan State. They represent three conferences at the political power center of the game and each has proved through four tournament victories that it possesses far more strengths than weaknesses. Villanova comprises interchangeable parts, all fearless and ready to reprise the school's upstart role a quarter century later; North Carolina seems nearly restored to the greatness predicted for it in November. Connecticut is gifted yet shadowed by controversy, and Michigan State is an emotional favorite, playing in its battered home state.

Yet the teams also arrive in Detroit as survivors of a brutal elimination event as college basketball becomes ever more physical by the year and less connected to its graceful, freewheeling past. "[Because of] the bodies and the athletes," said Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon before his team was knocked off, "it's become a very, very physical game."

Postgame tableaux play out like an episode of CSI: NCAA. In the aftermath of Connecticut's 82--75 victory over Missouri in the West Regional final in Glendale, Ariz., last Saturday, UConn trainer James Doran worked the locker room in his business suit, celebratory Final Four hat and blue latex gloves. Doran moved from Hasheem Thabeet to Stanley Robinson to Jeff Adrien, cleaning cuts with cotton swabs. With seven minutes remaining in the game, Robinson had suffered a five-inch gash on his shoulder. He was treated on the bench with a coagulant that burned so fiercely that the team's trainer had to grasp Robinson's arm to keep him from pulling away. Later, Robinson would also get a six-inch slice across his right biceps, just below a tattoo of the 23rd Psalm.

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