Teams arrive in Detroit, determined to be the last men standing
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
Last Saturday night in Boston, Villanova advanced to its first NCAA Final Four since
The winning play began when Villanova junior guard
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
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.
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
Postgame tableaux play out like an episode of
An hour or so later in Boston, hulking Pittsburgh center
(The enduring image of the regular season remains Blair flinging the 7' 3" Thabeet over
Villanova assistant coach
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
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
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
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
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
Connecticut survived 18 games in the Big East, long regarded as the most physical conference in the country. The Huskies' feistiness originates with coach
It is a Final Four that will resist easy form. Emotional issues are in play for every team, along with the far more pedestrian matter of three-point shooting, on which games can swing wildly. Some players will rise and others will shrink from the stage. Other predictions are more certain: bodies on the floor, fouls on the scoreboard, blood in the air.