Monday April 5th, 2004

If only we knew it was a preview of the national championship game. Maybe there would have been more than a meager 7,607 spectators at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 26 for Connecticut vs. Georgia Tech.

"It seems like a lifetime ago," Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said of that game Sunday.

So, what do we take from the Yellow Jackets' 77-61 victory more than four months ago that will shed light on Monday's all-important rematch?

Absolutely nothing.

A quick recap. The then-unheralded Jackets came out and simply ran the No. 1 team in the country off the floor. Georgia Tech's B.J. Elder and high-flying Isma'il Muhammad each scored 22 points. Connecticut star Emeka Okafor, hampered by back spasms, managed just nine points. The Huskies shot just 1 of 10 from 3-point range.

The game was certainly indicative of one thing: It showed that the Yellow Jackets, at the time considered a middle-of-the-pack ACC team, were instead one of the best teams in the country.

Now, the reasons why the earlier contenst isn't at all representative of what Monday night's game will be like.

The rosters have changed: Arizona transfer Will Bynum had yet to become eligible for Georgia Tech. All he's done the past three NCAA tournament games is hit the last-minute, game-winning or go-ahead shot while serving as a second capable ball handler alongside Jarrett Jack. Bynum wasn't even at the game.

"I was in Chicago [his hometown] cheering like a little kid," said Bynum.

Connecticut, meanwhile, didn't yet have the services of freshman Charlie Villanueva due to NCAA eligibility questions. Though a reserve, his athleticism and physicality gives the Huskies a different dimension.

The rotations have changed: At the time of the first game, Rashad Anderson was coming off the bench for the Huskies. These days he's a starter who shoots 41 percent from 3-point range while playing drastically improved defense.

"He wouldn't let Duke's J.J. Redick touch the ball the last three minutes," Calhoun said of Anderson in Saturday's semifinal win.

Meanwhile, Tech's two big scorers in the win over UConn, Muhammad and Elder, have played limited roles recently, Muhammad due to the emergence of Bynum, Elder because of a severe ankle sprain.

Okafor is healthy: Keep in mind, an "unhealthy" Okafor played 34 minutes and grabbed 13 rebounds in the first game. Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt credits his center, Luke Schenscher, for limiting Okafor offensively in the first matchup, but Calhoun insists "Okafor was not Okafor."

"It was a very difficult game to play in," said Okafor. "I was hurting. I was trying to tough it out, but I was really limited. I wasn't as mobile as I normally was."

Okafor was certainly Okafor in the second half Saturday against Duke, scoring 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting. Now imagine what he can do against the Jackets if he doesn't miss nearly the entire first half with foul trouble.

Schenscher is a beast: The 7-foot-1 Schenscher had shown almost no sign of becoming an offensive weapon at the time of the last meeting. Now, double-digit point efforts are becoming routine, like his 18-point showing against Oklahoma State. The Jackets aren't afraid to run their offense through him, where in the past they worked around him.

"Schenscher is just a different player," said Calhoun. "I think he's grown 7 inches. He's got to be 8-foot-3, right?"

Tech has a different identity: Hard as it is to believe, the Jackets have reached the national title game playing a different brand of basketball than the fast-break style used during its 11-0 start in November and December.

Look at the scores of some of Tech's tournament wins: 65-60, 57-54, 67-65. Jack still runs the break as well as anybody, but he's become equally adept at setting up the offense and either penetrating, kicking out to Elder or Lewis for a 3-pointer or feeding Schenscher in the post.

"The early part of the season, we basically did it just on transition offense -- defense, rebound and transition offense," said Hewitt. "For the whole month of January, I kept saying, 'You've got to get better in your halfcourt offense.' Starting with the Tennessee game [Feb. 7], they started to understand that in the halfcourt, we can execute and get good shots."

Connecticut has a different mindset: The Huskies were anointed as national champs before the season even began -- and it got to their heads. They thought they were unbeatable, and they played like it, often going through the motions. The Tech game was a prime example.

These days it's a different story. Starting with their gutty performance in the Big East championship game against Pittsburgh, the Huskies have been playing with the heart of a champion. It showed again Saturday night when they rallied from eight down in the final 2:30 against Duke.

"I believed the character they showed against Pittsburgh would come back," said Calhoun, "even if it was three weeks ago."

Finally, Connecticut wants to prove it's the better team: Neither Calhoun nor the players say this game is about revenge -- the national title is motivation enough -- but there's certainly a feeling among the Huskies that their performance in the first meeting didn't show the real Huskies.

"We didn't play up to capability," said point guard Taliek Brown.

The Yellow Jackets, meanwhile, finds it amusing that they're the underdog yet again despite having beaten the Huskies by 16. Hewitt event went on a soapbox rant Sunday about how the Jackets' lack of respect is an indictment against his squad's old-fashioned style of team basketball. "People don't appreciate the way the game is supposed to be played," said Hewitt.

It's not that, coach. Anyone who hasn't gained an appreciation for Hewitt's team the past few weeks has been watching a different tournament. Jack and Bynum are gamers. Schenscher is a treat.

It's just that the Huskies have done nothing in the tournament to suggest they haven't been the best team in the country all along. The game should be much more competitive than the one in November, maybe another thriller on the heels of Saturday's double feature. But Okafor will be dominant, Jack and Elder will struggle against Ben Gordon's defense and Connecticut will deliver Calhoun his second national title.

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