Game Breakers

March 22, 2004
March 22, 2004

Table of Contents
March 22, 2004

Photo Credits: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Game Breakers

They may be stars or sixth men, but when everything's on the line in the NCAAs, they lift their teams with streak shooting, a key steal, a timely swat. Who'll they be this year?

As the second youngest of nine children, Luol Deng was seldom
called upon to take charge. Though his family fled its native
Sudan when he was five years old to escape the country's civil
war, Deng has always been a good soldier, deferential to
authority, eager to carry out instructions. "One of the first
things you notice about him and his siblings is the complete
respect they have for their elders," says Duke coach Mike
Krzyzewski. As admirable as that sense of obedience is, the Blue
Devils' fortunes in the NCAA tournament may hinge on how willing
the 6'8" freshman forward is to upstage his elders--and break
down defenses. If the tournament is indeed a big dance, chances
are good that at some point Duke will need Deng to step out on
the floor and bust a move all on his own.

This is an article from the March 22, 2004 issue Original Layout

That's because Deng, like a handful of other players preparing for this month's annual
madness, has the ability to become perhaps the most precious
tournament commodity--the game-breaker, the type of player who
can carry a team through a game or, in rare instances, through
an entire tournament, with a burst of talent, creativity and
mental toughness. Think Danny Manning of Kansas in 1988 or Jack
(Goose) Givens of Kentucky in 1978. If those seem like ancient
history, just rewind one year to Syracuse freshman Carmelo
Anthony's transcendence in leading the Orangemen to the
national championship. While there's much to be said for strong
backcourts, low-post scoring threats, balanced attacks and
tournament experience, the game-breaker is the ultimate ace in
the hole, the weapon that can make the difference when the
matchup zones and motion offenses, the scouting reports and
coaching strategies cancel one another out.

A game-breaker can enable a championship contender to close the
deal, as Maryland's Juan Dixon did in 2002 and Arizona's Miles
Simon did in 1997. To the foe, "heartbreaker" may actually be a
more appropriate term, because a game-breaker can do as much
damage to an opponent's psyche as he does in the box score. When
an opposing team does everything right, a true game-breaker steps
forward to deny his enemy its rightful reward. He is the
jitterbug who, after the opponents have played 30 seconds of
lockdown defense, demoralizes them by improvising for a
one-on-one bucket to beat the shot clock. (Senior point guard
Jameer Nelson of Saint Joseph's, anyone?) He is the marksman who
drops in three-pointers even with a defender's fingers
practically massaging his corneas. (Gonzaga's 6'4" senior point
guard, Blake Stepp, comes to mind.) Occasionally a game-breaker
can emerge at the other end of the floor. Emeka Okafor,
Connecticut's 6'10" shot-swatting junior center, can control a
game simply by slapping away potential layups.

The teams that last deep into the tournament are likely to boast
a game-breaker who, when called on, just takes command. "I
wouldn't say that you absolutely have to have that kind of guy to
win the tournament," says Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton, even
though he has two potential game-breakers in his backcourt in
5'11" junior point guard John Lucas III and 6'4" senior marksman
Tony Allen. "But having someone who can take over and carry the
team for a stretch is a tremendous advantage."

The consensus is that the tournament field isn't as heavily
populated with potential game-breakers this year as it was last
season, when Anthony, point guard T.J. Ford of Texas and
Marquette shooting guard Dwyane Wade carried their teams to the
Final Four. Says Texas coach Rick Barnes, "I'm not sure guys like
that are out there this year." We beg to differ. The
game-breakers are out there; we're just not sure who they are
yet. Last year at this time, after all, Anthony was considered a
sublimely gifted freshman but perhaps too callow to take his team
to a championship. Wade, a junior, had had a spectacular season,
but his gifts were fully appreciated only by hoopheads. By the
time this year's champion snips down the nets in San Antonio on
April 5, power players like Mississippi State's 6'9" junior
forward-center Lawrence Roberts or Providence's 6'7" junior
forward Ryan Gomes may have emerged as this year's Anthony. Or a
fluid, multiskilled player like Stanford's 6'7" junior forward
Josh Childress or an explosive one like Pittsburgh's 6'2"
sophomore guard Carl Krauser, might be anointed the successor to

Game-breakers come in as many varieties as a Starbucks latte, but
they generally fall into one of the following categories.

First-Option Game-breakers. These are the undisputed stars, the
clear go-to guys in times of crisis. Everyone from the chancellor
to the student manager knows that when the shot clock is running
down, a team will hand the ball to this player and clear out.
They come in a variety of packages--small, like the 5'11" Nelson;
medium-sized, like Gomes, Texas Tech's 6'5" senior guard Andre
Emmett or Wisconsin's 6'3" junior point guard Devin Harris; and
large, like Okafor, Gonzaga's 6'10" junior forward Ronny Turiaf
or 6'9", 255-pound junior forward Wayne Simien of Kansas. Not all
the big dogs are big names, at least not yet. One of the
tournament's charms is the stage it provides for high-caliber
players from low-profile schools who lead their teams on unlikely
tournament runs, a feat that could be duplicated this year by
someone such as 6'2" Manhattan senior shooting guard Luis Flores.

Though the sizes and styles of these players may differ, their
mentalities do not. True game-breakers thrive on the knowledge
that their teammates will turn to them when the game--or
season--hangs in the balance. "If I'm in a close game with time
running out, I want the ball," says Krauser. "I always want the
chance to win the game for my team."

In their tournament planning, Krzyzewski and his staff endeavored
to instill that healthy cockiness in Deng. In the latter stages
of the regular season the Duke coaches encouraged him--in
practice, meetings and film sessions--to take over a game. "We
even changed our offense over the last couple of weeks to
incorporate more of what he does," Krzyzewski says. "The last
freshman I did that for was Johnny Dawkins." The results haven't
been uniformly positive; Deng shot 1 for 14 in a 76-68 home loss
to Georgia Tech on March 3. But three days later at Cameron
Indoor Stadium, he was everything Krzyzewski had dreamed of and
more, using his long arms and swooping moves to score a game-high
25 points (on 12-for-16 shooting) in Duke's 70-65 win over North

Any Given Game-breakers. For 20 minutes in last season's
championship game against Kansas, Syracuse guard Gerry McNamara
was an All-America, drilling six first-half three-pointers to
help propel the Orangemen to the title. It was the one shining
moment for McNamara, a good player who temporarily became a great
one, thus fitting perfectly into the mold of the Any Given

The 6'2" McNamara, now a sophomore, could very well reprise his
role this year, although there are several similar players ready
and able to step into his sneakers. Any Given Game-breakers are
often catch-and-shoot specialists like McNamara, Stanford's 6'4"
senior guard Matt Lottich and Duke's 6'4" sophomore guard, J.J.
Redick. Their skills aren't sufficiently varied to make them
their teams' usual first option, but they can break a game open
under the right circumstances. Lottich is such an accomplished
clutch shooter that his teammates sometimes call him Dagger. The
category also has room for players like Arizona's 6'1" junior
shooting guard, Salim Stoudamire, and North Carolina's 6'4"
sophomore forward-guard, Rashad McCants, gifted (if streaky)
players who can beat defenders off the dribble as well as with
the jumper.

Unexpected Game-breakers. These are the players who emerge as
major threats mainly when opposing defenses concentrate on
containing their higher-scoring teammates. In January, when
Childress returned following a stress reaction in his left foot,
the scouting report on Stanford no doubt emphasized taking away
his best moves and keeping a hand in Lottich's face around the
three-point arc. That's when 6'2" sophomore point guard Chris
Hernandez transformed himself from a pure playmaker into a
scorer. On Jan. 31, Oregon discovered how quickly Hernandez could
make that transition when he scored 22 second-half points to help
the Cardinal erase a 19-point deficit in an 83-80 win.

It's not surprising that the teams deep enough to have such
complementary players are the ones expected to last past the
first weekend of the tournament. Besides Deng and Redick, Duke
has two other players who have career highs of 25 points or more,
6'3" junior guard Daniel Ewing and 6'9" sophomore center Shelden
Williams. Saint Joseph's is no one-man band, not when Nelson is
joined by underrated 6'4" junior guard Delonte West and 6'5"
junior swingman Pat Carroll.

Don't worry about looking for this year's game-breakers. They
will find you. Some may flash into view for the entire
tournament, others for a weekend, a game or maybe just one
crucial moment, but they will be impossible to miss. The
game-breaker will be the player who suddenly seems to have a
spotlight on him, who can do nothing wrong. He will be in a zone,
as if he has been touched by genius, or maybe, since this is
March, madness.