Four Cornerstones To win the NCAA championship, each of the remaining teams will require a peak performance from its indispensable player

April 05, 2004

Never mind, or those increasingly popular (and
profane) Duke-baiting T-shirts. Hoopheads wishing to pinpoint
the moment when Duke hatred reached critical mass nationwide
can refer to 9:35 p.m. last Friday in Atlanta's Georgia Dome,
when insult-hurling fans of three heartland schools--literally
a critical mass--united to rain thunderous boos on the Blue
Devils as they took the court for warmups before their NCAA
regional semifinal against Illinois. All that was missing was a
suitably ominous Wagnerian soundtrack as Duke guard J.J. Redick
gathered his fellow Microsoft employees, er, teammates, and
issued a defiant war whoop: Nobody likes Duke!

For manifold reasons--sustained success, polish and smarts, more
TV time than Simon Cowell--Duke's staggering 10th Final Four
appearance in 19 years has pushed it into New York Yankees/Evil
Empire territory. So reviled are the Blue Devils that they'll no
doubt turn rampaging Connecticut into a cuddly fan favorite when
the two schools meet in a national semifinal at the Alamodome
this Saturday. Yet whether Duke wins a fourth NCAA title for
coach Mike Krzyzewski this week, or whether UConn, Georgia Tech
or Oklahoma State takes home the top prize, will depend less on
the inevitable inhospitables who show up in San Antonio and more
on its Indispensables, the four players whose contributions will
be the most vital to their teams' survival.

Indispensable isn't synonymous with best, though the way UConn
junior guard Ben Gordon has mushed the Huskies through the draw
(average victory margin: 17.5 points), he may soon assume both
mantles. UConn's national player of the year candidate, 6'10"
center Emeka Okafor, can take over a game defensively unlike any
college big man since David Robinson. But with Okafor slowed by
back and shoulder ailments, Gordon is finally shedding the
qualities that caused coach Jim Calhoun to label him Gentle Ben
as a freshman. "He needed to develop more of a you-can't-stop-me
mentality," Calhoun said after Gordon's 36 points (and four
three-pointers) helped sink Alabama 87-71 in the Phoenix Regional
final. "That's what you saw today, a guy who was confident that
he could get any shot he wanted."

Nor should you let his Sphinx-like mien fool you: Gordon does not
lack passion. He has been spotted in the off-season running
stadium steps at 6 a.m. while wearing a weighted vest, on his own
initiative. Police once chased him out of his high school gym in
Mount Vernon, N.Y., when they found him working on his jumper
after midnight, and he's a weight-room demon. Yet Gordon is
undeniably laid-back, and despite packing a 39-inch vertical leap
and all manner of moves, he is not especially flashy. Befitting
his funeral-director demeanor, he drives a 1988 Lincoln Mercury
that his teammates call the Hearse.

"I've never had an overly aggressive personality," Gordon says.
"I was more the kind to size things up kind of casually and then
make my move. Now I understand the importance of being aggressive
right from the start." Sure enough, Gordon drew fouls attempting
to throw down two early dunks against Alabama, causing the
ever-cranky Calhoun to turn to his assistants and crack a smile.
In UConn's semifinal against Duke, Gordon will need to bring the
same 'tude, which means shadowing the trey-flinging Redick on
defense--a must for any team hoping to short-circuit the Blue
Devils' perimeter-based attack--and continuing to shoulder the
Huskies' offensive load.

Despite Okafor's shot-blocking and rebounding hegemony, Gordon
has been UConn's bellwether, both in March and during the
Huskies' surprisingly inconsistent regular season. Gordon's slide
from preseason All-America to honorable-mention status can be
traced to his disappearing act in losses to Georgia Tech,
Providence, Syracuse and North Carolina (in which he averaged
only 10.8 points and 11.8 field goal attempts, well below his
season totals of 18.5 and 14.1). Yet as Duke knows, all but one
of those defeats came before February. "It's been an up-and-down
year for me," Gordon says. "But I've learned a lot. I know what's
expected of me, and I know this is no time to be shy."

Shy is the most accurate way to describe the personality of
Duke's Indispensable, sophomore center Shelden Williams. When his
teammates rushed the court to celebrate the Blue Devils' 66-63
Atlanta Regional triumph over Xavier on Sunday, Stoic Shelden was
the last to join in. "I've never seen him get fired up about
anything off the court," says his classmate, forward Shavlik
Randolph. Yet when the 6'9", 245-pound Williams demands the ball
in the post, clear-cuts the lane for a rebound or runs the length
of the court to block a shot, as he did to stuff Musketeers guard
Dedrick Finn last week, you can see the burn-off from an inner
fire, if not the flame itself.

No Blue Devil will be more important against UConn than Williams.
The team's thin seven-man rotation is suspect in only one spot:
inside, where Williams the oak tree has only the reedy Randolph
as a reliable backup. Matched up against Okafor, Williams will
face the Herculean task of keeping him at bay--and of warding off
Okafor's precocious freshman sidemen, Josh Boone and Charlie
Villanueva--without accumulating a raft of fouls. "It's going to
be key," Duke guard Chris Duhon says of the Williams-Okafor tilt.
"You've got two big guys who can rebound and block shots. We need
Shelden to know that his value to us is to stay on the floor and
to not get in foul trouble."

Indeed, as the laconic Williams admits, it still pains him that
he fouled out against Maryland in the ACC tournament final,
forcing him to watch from the bench as the Terrapins pulled off a
95-87 upset. "The only time I feel pressure is if I have three
fouls and can't help my team," he says. But if Williams shows the
restraint that enabled him to remain a factor against Xavier
despite earning his third foul early in the second half--he
finished with 13 rebounds and five blocks, both game highs--then
Duke's chances will skyrocket in a game that should have been
saved for Monday night.

The other semifinal reminds us that this is the Year of the
Indispensable Point Guard. Look around. From Michigan State to
Missouri, from Florida to Texas, the lack of an elite PG spelled
doom. By contrast, the rise of sophomore Jarrett Jack has brought
unanticipated success to Georgia Tech, never more so than during
Sunday's 79-71 St. Louis Regional final win over Kansas. Assuming
the scoring burden for guard B.J. Elder, who was hobbled by a
severely sprained right ankle, Jack had a career-high 29 points
to go with nine rebounds, six assists, four steals and countless
comparisons with his Tech predecessors at the point: Mark Price,
Kenny Anderson, Travis Best and Stephon Marbury. "You never know
where that Big Mo is going to come from," Jack said afterward,
and that's especially true for the nine-deep Yellow Jackets.

A Fort Washington, Md., native who bears an eerie resemblance to
Cuba Gooding Jr., Jack is a one-man roundball information center.
"Well-connected is not the word," says Tech assistant Cliff
Warren, noting Jack's ever-present pager, cellphone and flip-top
Sidekick. "I think he can call up any player in the country." But
there's also an on-court application for the data in Jack's wired
world. After a disappointing freshman season, he performed a
detailed video autopsy with Warren last summer. "I watched every
single game, win or loss," Jack says. "Some of them were painful.
He would ask me my thought process on every play: Who I was
trying to get the ball to, the time on the clock, the score,
every little thing I could correct."

The devil is in the details for Jack, a connoisseur of throwback
jerseys--Oscar Robertson, Tiny Archibald and Julius Erving are
represented in his collection--who actually bothers to learn the
history behind the threads. By Sunday night he had used his
encyclopedic hoops knowledge to wow reporters with his alltime
NCAA tournament team, his treatise on the history of Tech point
guards ("It goes back to Roger Kaiser ...") and a detailed
instant scouting report of this Saturday's semifinal foe,
Oklahoma State. "We have to do a good job of keeping them off the
boards, and they have great scorers in the backcourt in Tony
Allen and John Lucas [III]," he explained. Whether Elder's gimpy
wheel would heal by Saturday wasn't clear, but you got the sense
that Jack would be working every angle in the interim. "Me and
Lucas were on the same AAU team when we were 13," Jack said with
a wink. "We'll probably talk tonight."

Lucas could send his pal this text message: Georgia Tech may not
have anyone who can stop Allen, the Cowboys' relentless 6'4"
senior slasher who attacks the basket on drives, post-ups and
isolation plays. Lucas, a Baylor transfer whose game-winning
three-pointer beat Saint Joseph's 64-62 in last week's East
Rutherford Regional final, has grabbed the headlines this season.
But Allen is Oklahoma State's Mr. Indispensable--or, as Doug
Gottlieb, the former Cowboys guard and current broadcaster, calls
him, "the most important player on the team. Tony will always
find ways to score points. Lucas is tough, but he grew up with
his dad [former NBA player John Lucas Jr.] as a millionaire. Tony
is street tough."

That was part of the problem after Allen, a West Chicago native,
transferred to OSU from Wabash Valley (Ill.) C.C. two years ago.
Before he had played a game in Stillwater, Allen was arrested in
August 2002 and charged with assault, obstruction and resisting
an officer after a fracas at a fast-food restaurant. Though the
charges were dropped, coach Eddie Sutton punished the entire team
by making them run an epic two-hour series of wind sprints. "That
was a wake-up call," says Allen, who set about changing his life.
Once lax about his studies, Allen now carries a 3.0 GPA and
stands six hours short of a degree in education, and last
September he was baptized at the Eagle Heights Baptist Church in
Stillwater. "I got tears in my eyes when I went under the water,"
he says.

"He's not the same Tony that I knew," says Allen's mother, Ella,
nor is he the same player who joined coach Eddie Sutton's program
with little fanfare, having toiled in the shadows of more
publicized teammates at Chicago's Crane Tech High (Georgia Tech's
Will Bynum) and in junior college (Kentucky's Antwain Barbour).
One of seven transfers on this year's Cowboys team, Allen spent
last season adapting to Sutton's hothouse practices and defensive
demands. "Coach would scream in my right ear, and it would make
the left side of my head feel numb," he says. Now the Cowboys'
stopper (he had two steals and a game-high three blocks against
St. Joe's), Allen has only one major weakness--his 28.8% shooting
this season from beyond the three-point arc--which he offsets
with his timely forays into the lane. What's more, says associate
head coach Sean Sutton, "Tony's at his best in the last eight
minutes, when it counts."

As much as Allen was looking forward to seeing his high school
chum Bynum in San Antonio, he issued a playful challenge as well:
"If he sticks me, we're going straight downstairs to the block."
Translation: If Bynum, who's 6 feet, tries to cover Allen, he's
going to get eaten up in the post. It's that kind of
bravado--combined with Elder's ailing ankle--that gives the edge
to the Cowboys on Saturday, when the 68-year-old Sutton squares
off against Georgia Tech's 40-year-old coach, Paul Hewitt. In the
other semifinal, a rematch of UConn's 1999 title-game stunner,
the Huskies' superior talent (especially Gordon, who's seizing
his moment) and Duke's lack of depth inside will be enough to
send the Blue Devils packing.

That leaves a Monday-night matchup between Oklahoma State and
UConn--and not a shred of doubt about who'll be the sentimental
choice, as Sutton aims for his long-awaited first title three
years after a plane crash killed 10 members of the Cowboys'
program. So far, however, the Huskies have been ruthlessly
unsentimental while dominating this tournament as few teams have
in the past decade. As UConn, SI's preseason pick, cuts down the
nets in the Alamodome, keep in mind: In the rough justice of the
brackets, only one team can be truly indispensable.

Final Four reports from Seth Davis, Stewart Mandel, John
O'Keefe, B.J. Schecter and Phil Taylor, at

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH FLASH GORDON Duke will have to contain the suddenly fiery Gordon, whose drives have opened up the perimeter for the red-hot Huskies. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER (OKAFOR) PIVOTAL Duke's best chance to neutralize UConn's Okafor rests on the ability of Williams (23) to stay out of foul trouble. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO (2) OKAFOR COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO (2) REDICK COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (SCHENSCHER) THE INSIDER All but unguardable when he drives, Allen plans to attack Tech with post-ups and nifty forays to the hoop. COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN (2) SCHENSCHER COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN (2) GRAHAM COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (JACK, BYNUM) TECH SAVVY The wired Jack has used his networking skills to rev up his game and get the skinny on the Cowboys. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER (ANDERSON) TWO COLOR PHOTOS: MANNY MILLAN (BOBIK, EWING) COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (JACK, BYNUM)

SI asked four assistant coaches who had prepared a game plan
recently against a Final Four team to share their scouting
reports and insights. They were guaranteed anonymity in exchange
for their candor.


"You have a chance if you can play an aggressive zone, sagging on
Emeka Okafor but still getting out to their shooters. You have to
make them beat you from the outside and block out like crazy
because they're tough on the offensive glass. Ben Gordon and
Rashad Anderson are the only guys who scare you with the jump
shot, and they're both streaky. Gordon looks like he has come a
long way in terms of his mental approach, but he used to stop
playing defense if he wasn't having a good game at the other end.

"It sounds crazy with the best shot blocker in the country
standing in the paint, but you have to pound the ball inside.
Okafor's going to get his blocks, but their other big men,
Charlie Villanueva and Josh Boone, are not great low-post
defenders. A smart post-up player can turn them into jumping
jacks and get to the foul line. On the perimeter you have to
attack Anderson, who's out there because of his offense, not his
defense. You also need great shot selection because you're
probably going to get only one attempt. And if you don't stop
their transition game, they'll run you out of the


"They run a very simple offense--they only have a couple of set
plays--but that's all they need because they have such great
players. If they find a play that works, they'll run it until you
stop it. Shelden Williams is a load--he's a very difficult
matchup for any team. He's their x factor. If you don't deny
Shavlik Randolph and Luol Deng on the wings, they can hit the
jumpers. But if you deny too much, they'll throw it to Williams
in the post, and he can score down there. That's why they're hard
to beat. J.J. Redick is a great shooter, so your defenders need
to stay down on his shot fakes and stop his penetration.

"They overplay on defense, so you can score on them if you take
care of the ball and can get into your offense. You can also run
on them because they turn the ball over, aren't real strong on
the glass and like to play up-tempo. You have to play a perfect
game to beat them, but that's hard to do because they've been to
the Final Four before and they've been making big plays in
pressure situations all year."


"Their strength is on the perimeter. They have a lot of good
guards, and if one doesn't have a good night, they have several
guys who can step up. You have to contain point guard Jarrett
Jack, who is extremely quick, and Will Bynum, who is very
dangerous going to the basket.

"If [center] Luke Schenscher catches the ball with one foot in
the lane, he's tough to stop. If you can push him outside the
lane, he has trouble. Tech is most dangerous in transition. If
you force these guys into a half-court offense, they are less
effective ... providing you play really good one-on-one defense.
The problem is, you need three or four really good one-on-one
defenders, and most teams only have one or two. They set a ton of
ball screens: sideline ball screens in transition and high ball
screens in the half-court. The man being picked on ball screens
has to step out and hedge hard to slow their penetration.

"Defensively, they are quick and athletic and are really
well-coached. You have to be prepared for their pressure--they
come at you with a variety of presses, a little zone, a little
man. You have to take care of the ball."


"This is a balanced team and John Lucas, Tony Allen and Joey
Graham can all go for big nights. Allen is a clutch player, but
Lucas wants the big shots and usually ends up taking them. Allen
is a scorer, but he's also a good passer who creates a lot of
shots for teammates after he breaks down his man. You look at
their relatively small front line, with 6'7" Graham and 6'8" Ivan
McFarlin, and think you'll be able to beat them up inside, but
those guys play big and are always in the right position. This is
really two different teams: One is athletic and likes to get up
and down, and one is scrappy and aggressively pursues second
shots. When a shot goes up, four guys are going to the boards and
clawing for the ball.

"On defense they want to get you out of your offense by denying
the passing lanes so you have to cut hard to get open. You can
beat them by attacking and kicking it out for open threes.

"Although they are a running team, they are susceptible to
pressure. Other than Lucas they don't have many ball handlers and
they can get sloppy on the perimeter. This isn't a great
three-point shooting team--they want to beat you with interior
passing and by going to the rim, so you want to make them shoot
over you."

These guys take and make the shots that can cut a team's heart

Rashad Anderson
Choked off Vanderbilt comeback with a trey; fired in six against

Daniel Bobik
Three well-timed treys sparked an important regular-season win at

Will Bynum
Twisting layup late sank Nevada; trey in OT gave Jackets the lead
against Kansas.

Daniel Ewing
Three-pointer with 12:18 left tied game and keyed comeback win
over Xavier.