Just as Texas coach Rick Barnes sometimes calls T.J. Ford Mr.
Magoo for the way the point guard's eyes disappear when his face
crinkles with laughter, we too can be compared to the myopic
cartoon character for our failure to foresee how this NCAA
tournament would play out. We assumed that Texas was the least
deserving of the No. 1 seeds, but the Longhorns would turn out to
be the only top seed to reach the Final Four. We cheered as the
CBS tag team of Jim Nantz and Billy Packer body-slammed
tournament selection committee chairman Jim Livengood for
sticking Arizona and Kentucky on the same side of the bracket and
depriving us of our rightful title game--only to watch both breeds
of top-seeded Wildcat fail to make it to New Orleans. Worst, we
(SI included) handed out our player of the year awards before the
tournament offered the ultimate test.
As we head for the Big Easy, a double-adjective city, we'll need
a gris-gris bag full of additional modifiers to do justice to the
men who carried their teams there. The semifinals on Saturday
pair Ford with Syracuse forward Carmelo Anthony, and Kansas
forward Nick Collison with Marquette guard Dwyane Wade (the
winning teams advance to Monday night's final) in a player of the
year playoff, even if two of the five major official awards have
already been handed out. (Ford, SI's choice, has won the
Naismith, and forward David West of Xavier has taken the Oscar
Until Wade (page 44) dropped this line on Kentucky--29 points, 11
rebounds, 11 assists, four blocked shots, several exhausted
statisticians--Collison's 33 points and 19 rebounds in the
Jayhawks' 69-65 West Regional semifinal elimination of Duke
seemed to be an untouchable standard. Collison has been tending
to unfinished business since Dec. 7, when he scored only seven
points in an 84-78 loss to Oregon. Afterward, Jayhawks coach Roy
Williams tried to take the blame, but Collison cut him off. "You
and I both know if I'd have played better, we would have won," he
said. "I promise you, I'll never let that happen again."
Anthony's contributions to the Syracuse box score usually betray
a playing style that matches that of his team: slow starter,
strong finisher. Just as the 28-5 Orangemen have won 10 games
after trailing at the half this season, their 6'8" freshman
failed to make a field goal in the first 20 minutes of Syracuse's
tournament defeats of Oklahoma State and Auburn. But then Anthony
joins five other precocious underclassmen in the Orangemen's
eight-man rotation, and, as they proved in their 63-47
dismantling of top-seeded Oklahoma in the East Regional final,
they possess enough talent to make up for the inconsistency of
youth. Sometimes the game comes so easily to Anthony (who scored
20 points and had 10 rebounds against the Sooners) that he'll
settle for a pull-up jumper when he could back in a defender for
a higher-percentage shot. "There are times I know I could have
been selfish and scored 40, but that's not what's best for the
team," Anthony says.
Ford shot an unimpressive 7 for 27 over the South Regional's two
games, but that's not the part of the box score that best
testifies to his value. Instead, it's his 38 assists versus 10
turnovers for the tournament. Myopic as the 5'10" Ford may appear
while laughing, when he lets fly, the ball nearly always finds
its way from his hands into those of teammates, usually in a spot
where they can do something with it. As Ford said after the
Longhorns' 85-76 regional-final victory over Michigan State (in
which he had 10 assists), "My teammates always say to me, 'As
long as you put it on the rim, we'll go get it.'"
By this time of year we're all Magoos. Nonetheless, here's a
scenario that this prognosticator can at least vaguely envision.
In the Syracuse-Texas semifinal, the Orangemen's 2-3 zone will
complicate the basis of Ford's game, which is to take an
individual defender off the dribble. Thus flummoxed, Ford won't
easily find shooters Brian Boddicker, Sydmill Harris and Brandon
Mouton for good looks on the perimeter. Meanwhile Anthony, Hakim
Warrick, 7-footer Craig Forth and ingenue shot blocker Jeremy
McNeil will match the Longhorns' frontcourt in the paint and on
the boards--and Syracuse will advance.
In the other semifinal Kansas, which runs the best secondary
break in the land, will give Marquette's transition defense and
small guards all they can handle. It's that ability to push the
ball, plus the tempering process of having been the lone team to
advance to the Final Four without playing at a virtual home site,
that will get the Jayhawks through to the championship game.
In all the years since Syracuse began using its dowdy but
maddeningly effective 2-3 zone, no team has played it better than
the 1995-96 Orangemen. They reached the NCAA final only to run
into Kentucky and forward Antoine Walker, who spent the night
flashing into the high post and either turning and popping, or
drawing and dishing, to lead the Wildcats to the title. As adept
as this Syracuse team has become at the 2-3, it's still a young
group. In Collison, Kansas has Walker reincarnate: an experienced
high-post passer and reliable medium-range shooter who can put
the ball on the floor. In short, just the player to solve a 2-3
from the inside out.
The Jayhawks have had better teams. But haven't we known all
along that, when Roy Williams's moment finally arrived, it would
come when we least expected it?
SI asked four assistant coaches who prepared game plans against
the Final Four teams to offer their insights. They were
guaranteed anonymity in return for their candor
HOW TO BEAT MARQUETTE
"You've got to contain whoever has the ball, usually [point
guard] Travis Diener, and you've got to stop him with one guy,
because they have so many people who can spot up and shoot if you
double. Then you've got to match up on [guard] Dwyane Wade, and
that's a tough deal. You can't send a second guy at him for the
same reason you can't send a second guy at Diener: too many
shooters. They don't have a lot of depth inside, but [forward]
Robert Jackson is a tough guy. On offense he sits down on the
baseline, which is unusual, but he did it all season. This
creates a lot of extra space in the lane, so he waits for Wade or
Diener to find him.
"Defensively, they are a little weak, and the guy you want to go
after is [forward Steve] Novak. Against Kentucky, Marquette could
keep him in the game on Keith Bogans, because Bogans had no
mobility with the ankle injury. If you had a quick guy who could
put it on the deck, you could give Novak trouble. The best thing
you can do on offense is control the tempo, because that way you
control their transition game. You need to do that, because
they're very good in transition."
HOW TO BEAT KANSAS
"You have to get back in transition, especially after you score,
because [forward] Nick Collison will take the ball out of the net
and go. They don't tolerate the ball hitting the floor, but you
can slow them down if you find [point guard] Aaron Miles and make
him go back to get the outlet pass instead of cutting upcourt for
it. Collison is as clever a post guy as I've ever seen. He's what
I call a 'slice' post player, always trying to get angles and
seal you. If you have to choose, let [guard] Kirk Hinrich beat
you, not Collison. Hinrich is their only solid three-point
shooter, so you can't give him open looks. But Hinrich and Miles
also love to get into the lane, draw help and kick it out.
"People say they have depth issues, but I don't see it as a
severe problem as long as [forward] Jeff Graves and Collison stay
out of foul trouble. Their bench guys, [guard] Michael Lee and
[forward] Bryant Nash, have had a pretty good tournament, and
this time of year everyone only plays seven or eight guys anyway.
Graves had the game of his life against Arizona [13 points and 15
rebounds], and if he continues playing like that, they won't get
HOW TO BEAT TEXAS
"There are five keys to beating them: transition defense,
defending their ball screens, containing the penetration of their
guards, controlling the defensive glass and attacking on offense.
Over the last three weeks they haven't been as sharp, especially
on the defensive end. [Point guard] T.J. Ford has a strong
tendency to go right in transition, so you want to make him try
to go left. They're a great offensive rebounding team, but
they're even better when they're in transition.
"They set more ball screens than any other team in the country,
both in set plays and at random. They don't shoot it behind the
ball screen very often, except for [guard] Brandon Mouton. Ford
is not a great jump shooter or pull-up shooter, but he finishes
very well around the rim and he's great at drawing fouls inside.
His penetration not only leads to open shots for their wing
players, but it also creates a lot of offensive rebounding
"[Forward] Brian Boddicker is their only inside player who is a
three-point threat. [Forward] Brad Buckman likes to post up off
his left shoulder. [Center] James Thomas is a warrior on the
offensive glass. When he's looking to score, he likes to go to
the middle. [Guard] Sydmill Harris is their three-point
specialist; 80 percent of his shots are for threes."
HOW TO BEAT SYRACUSE
"You have to find a way to get easy baskets, because they are
going to get theirs off putbacks and in transition. Their 2-3
zone can really cause problems, and their length allows them to
get their hands on a lot of your three-point shots. You can hurt
their zone out around the foul line if you have a player who can
either make that shot or attack the middle and make plays.
Playmakers who can get into the middle can hurt them, because
sometimes [centers] Craig Forth and Jeremy McNeil get lazy.
"They turn the ball over a lot, so you could try to press them,
but all their guards can handle the ball, and with their height
they can pass over a press. [Forward] Carmelo Anthony can score
as soon as he walks into the arena. He isn't great at anything,
but he's good at everything: threes, pull-up jumpers, post-ups;
and he's especially tough on the offensive glass. Sometimes the
other guys stand around and wait for him to do something. With
the exception of [guard] Gerry McNamara, they might be a little
vulnerable if a team forces them to shoot from the outside."