By Grant Wahl
March 18, 2008

It takes a fair amount of nerve to look a college basketball coach in the eye, keep a straight face and ask a question that's usually better suited for Cosmo than for the pages of SI: Does size matter? But fear not, dear reader. No query is more pertinent heading into this year's fun-house mirror of an NCAA tournament, in which six genuine title contenders -- Duke, Louisville, Memphis, North Carolina, Tennessee and Xavier -- have shorter frontcourts than any national champion of the past 20 years. And while common sense may suggest otherwise (this is basketball, after all), no question is likely to draw a more surprising range of answers.

"Size absolutely matters," says UCLA coach Ben Howland, who might have been aiming for a three-peat if not for the once-in-a-generation Florida team that beat the Bruins in the last two Final Fours. There's a reason Howland calls his latest edition, the West region's No. 1 seed, "the best team we've had over the last three seasons." After enduring two years of bully treatment by the Gators' big men -- the second- and third-tallest championship front lines of the past two decades -- UCLA finally has its own transcendent titan, 6' 10" freshman center Kevin Love. As Howland says, "Having [Love] in there not only scoringwise but also reboundingwise was a huge factor in our success in the regular season."

Even the shortest title-winning frontcourt of the past two decades, UNLV's in 1990, had an All-America post player in burly 6' 6" forward Larry Johnson. But can a team with almost no post presence win a national title? Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski certainly thinks so, considering that the go-go Blue Devils' biggest player on the floor is often 6' 8", 220-pound freshman Kyle Singler. "If you have a good big man, that helps a lot," says Coach K, "but I don't think you need to have a great big man to win the whole thing." Perhaps, but the Blue Devils' margin for error is as slim as Singler himself. "Can Duke win a national championship with this team?" says UConn coach Jim Calhoun. "They could, but I don't know if they can put six wins together, because all they need [to lose] is one bad shooting game."

It's the height of fashion to say that perimeter play is the key to success in the NCAAs. But recent champions have also revived the fashion of height. After an eight-year stretch from 1996 to 2003 in which the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four was a guard or a midsized swingman, three of the last four MOPs -- Connecticut's Emeka Okafor, North Carolina's Sean May and Florida's Joakim Noah -- have been big men. What's more, finding worthy guards for this year's All-America teams was a far harder task than making a list of deserving post players: UCLA's Love, North Carolina's 6' 9" Tyler Hansbrough, Kansas State's 6' 10" Michael Beasley, Notre Dame's 6' 8" Luke Harangody, Stanford's 7-foot Brook Lopez, Louisville's 6' 11" David Padgett and Indiana's 6' 9" D.J. White.

That pituitary-powered procession doesn't even include three potentially game-changing centers on title contenders (Georgetown's 7' 2" Roy Hibbert, UConn's 7' 3" Hasheem Thabeet and Stanford's 7-foot Robin Lopez, Brook's twin brother) or the four-headed post hydra of Kansas, the deepest reserve of quality size in the land. "When you have four big guys, you can get to the second half with nobody in foul trouble," says Jayhawks coach Bill Self. "It's not devastating when one of our big guys gets two fouls in the first four minutes."

Yet more than ever the teams carrying a slingshot for Goliath aren't just double-digit seeds gunning for classic March upsets; they're also high-seeded powerhouses that have found innovative ways to mitigate their lack of stature. "When a team doesn't have a big man, everybody looks at the teams that do and says they automatically have an advantage, but I don't know if that's always the case," says Butler coach Brad Stevens, whose seventh-seeded Bulldogs have no player taller than 6' 8". "Often there's an advantage on one end of the court, but there may be a major disadvantage on the other."

How those relative Lilliputians attempt to defy nature -- and the conventional wisdom of basketball -- may well be the dominant story line of the next three weeks.

From a statistical perspective, size does matter in college basketball -- more so on defense than on offense, and more so at center and power forward than at small forward and guard. Ken Pomeroy, a stat guru for Basketball Prospectus, computed the average height for all 341 Division I teams and found a weak correlation with offensive efficiency (points scored per possession, adjusted for competition) and a slightly stronger one with defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession). But when he isolated what he called Effective Height -- the height of a team's center and power forward, i.e., the tallest 40% of a team's minutes played -- he found stronger correlations on offense and especially on defense, most of all in blocked shots, field-goal-percentage defense and defensive efficiency.

Pomeroy's conclusions: Having tall guards isn't that important, but there's ample reason for coaches to scour the world for exceptional big men -- Thabeet is Tanzanian, while 6' 11" Vanderbilt center A.J. Ogilvy is Australian -- or to invest time in a project such as Hibbert, whom former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. nicknamed the Big Stiff as a freshman before rechristening him Stiff No More.

That's good news for a few tall NCAA tournament teams: Georgetown, which has more frontcourt height than even North Carolina's 1993 outfit, the tallest champ in the last 20 years; Stanford, which is anchored by the Lopez twins; and UConn, which has seen Thabeet add offensive skills to his already formidable shot-blocking presence. Noting that Thabeet's scoring average has gone from 6.2 points last season to 10.4 this year, Calhoun says his center has become "a nightmare to play against because [defenses] have to double-team him, and when they give help, it opens up our perimeter players."

North Carolina coach Roy Williams is one of the game's leading proponents of pounding the ball inside; his 2005 champion Tar Heels scored more than half of their points that season from the two power positions, the most of any NCAA titlist in the last two decades. Williams argues that skilled post men are better at drawing fouls than are perimeter players -- witness Hansbrough, who leads the nation in free throw attempts (344) -- and that size matters more during the NCAA tournament because, he says, "it becomes more of a half-court game and people take fewer chances. Plus, in the NCAA tournament that three-foot shot doesn't have as much pressure on it as a 22-foot shot has."

Remember, though: Height has a greater impact on the defensive end. Ask Stanford coach Trent Johnson about the influence he expects from the Lopez twins on this year's tournament, and he talks about defense. "You'd think we'd be able to rebound and defend around the basket and challenge shots," Johnson says. "When Brook and Robin are both on the floor, there's no question it makes it tough for teams to attack the rim and shoot the five- or 10-footer."

But for all the advantages that height provides, many of this season's elite teams have found strategies that have offset their size deficit. To wit:

Extend your offense and defense to exploit your speed and quickness. They may have adopted different schemes in recent years -- Memphis runs the dribble-drive motion offense, while Duke employs a Phoenix Suns-style spread formation -- but the Tigers and the Blue Devils have similar philosophies when it comes to spacing out the floor for the small-ball staples of fast breaks, penetration and three-pointers. So, too, do Texas and Tennessee, and the Vols take the concept a step further by spreading out the same way on defense in their gambling full-court press.

When you have hyperquick players, explains Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, "the only place where you don't have an advantage is in the paint. On defense you pressure the ball, you turn them over and you create offense out of your defense. Then you spread the floor offensively and use the three-point line, and you can score points without having a low-post presence."

The strategy has its pitfalls when shots aren't falling and defensive pressure isn't forcing many turnovers, but when it's working, taller (and slower) foes often don't stand a chance. "The athleticism of Memphis and Tennessee makes them play so much bigger than they are," says Calhoun, whose towering Huskies fell to the Tigers 81-70 in November. Likewise, Gonzaga coach Mark Few, whose size-rich Zags lost to Memphis and Tennessee, calls the Vols the quickest-handed defenders he has faced in his nine years as a head coach. "It's not as easy to exploit [your height advantage] as some people think because they're just flying around [inside]," Few says, "and it's harder than heck to get the ball in to somebody."

Run your undersized big men into post-ups like crazy. It's no surprise that Duke, Memphis, Tennessee and Texas get a low percentage of their points from their frontcourts, but North Carolina is relentless about inside scoring despite having a surprisingly short front line. How does Hansbrough take advantage of taller defenders in the low post? Often by beating them downcourt in the Tar Heels' aggressive fast break and secondary break. (UConn is an exception at the other extreme, a tall team that relies on its perimeter players for scoring.)

Turn your penetrators into "posts." When Texas was lacking a low-post big man at the start of the season, coach Rick Barnes instructed his Longhorns to clear out the lane and let point guard D.J. Augustin become an all-in-one entry pass and finisher. "There are different ways to get a post game," says Barnes. "Having D.J. drive the ball to the rim and score or get fouled is no different than punching the ball inside to a post guy and having him score or get fouled." Augustin still drives with abandon, but Texas has since added a more conventional post presence in 6' 7" freshman Gary Johnson, who was cleared to play in January after sitting out with a heart-related condition.

Find a gritty, undersized big man to take care of the dirty work. For much of the last four seasons Memphis has depended on 6' 9", 265-pound forward Joey Dorsey to defend opposing big men and also to gobble up rebounds with manic intensity at both ends of the floor. But as he worried more about his NBA prospects and less about what made him so important to the Tigers, Dorsey swooned in February, so coach John Calipari yanked him from the starting lineup. "I don't want to put pressure on guys," Calipari says, "but if Dorsey and [6' 9" forward Robert] Dozier don't really step up, we can't win this thing. When you look at Florida and all those teams that won, their guard play was unbelievable, but they had someone who could defensively anchor down the lane and then get a couple of easy baskets."

Maximize the skills and outside shooting of your undersized big men. Most teams from outside the traditional power conferences have a clear height disadvantage in the NCAA tournament. There are a few exceptions this season, including Brigham Young, Gonzaga, Oral Roberts and St. Mary's. "We're probably more equipped to match up with some of the power-conference teams because of our size," says Oral Roberts coach Scott Sutton, whose Golden Eagles include three starters who stand 6' 8", 6' 9" and 6' 10".

But more typical of the so-called mid-major realm are Butler and Drake, the two teams in the Top 25 with the shortest front lines. What their big men lack in stature, however, they make up for with their three-point shooting. Butler's 6' 7" Pete Campbell hits 44% (91 of 206) from beyond the arc, while Drake's tallest starter, 6' 8" Jonathan Cox, makes 43% (40 of 94) of his treys. "We have difficulty sometimes defending on the inside," says Drake coach Keno Davis, "but teams with bigger players have trouble guarding us on the perimeter."

The Jayhawks' Self knows exactly what Davis is talking about. Two years ago Self's big men couldn't keep up on the perimeter with another Missouri Valley sniper, Bradley's 6' 7" Marcellus Sommerville, whose 21 points (and five three-pointers) helped the Braves upset Kansas. "From a matchup standpoint, you're nervous when your big guys are chasing around a conference player of the year who's a perimeter four man, and that happens a lot in the mid-major conferences," Self says. "Sommerville just killed us because our big guys weren't used to guarding out there quite as much."

Then again, Self can speak with confidence these days: His Jayhawks may own the best combination of size, depth and balance of any team in the tournament. Most other contenders, though, enjoy less flexibility. Where would Georgetown put Hibbert if the Hoyas were to meet Duke? (In the middle of a zone defense, perhaps?) Would Stanford play both Lopezes at the same time against, say, Texas? And how would those tiny teams guard the big guys inside? "That's why the NCAA tournament is so great," Self says. "There are so many subtle things that happen through matchups. That is what makes it so much fun."

Will size win the ultimate prize? Check back in three weeks, for no NCAA tournament is better equipped to answer the question than this one.

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