Wednesday April 1st, 2009

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. -- former UCLA coach John Wooden NPR, March 2007

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.

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."

Connecticut survived 18 games in the Big East, long regarded as the most physical conference in the country. The Huskies' feistiness originates with coach Jim Calhoun, who will continue to be queried in Detroit about recent allegations of major NCAA recruiting violations. The team's personality is best defined by the bruising Adrien (who says of modern college basketball, in spectacular understatement, "It's a difficult game to referee"), the imposing 7' 3" Thabeet and the muscular point guard A.J. Price, who challenges the lane as often as Villanova's guards but shoots more effectively from outside.

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.

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