He's an orange-haloed squawk box, a popinjay known for poppin' J's. But if Illinois guard Dee Brown needs a shooter's swing thought at this week's Final Four in St. Louis--where his 36--1 Illini will join Louisville, Michigan State and North Carolina--he can use his eyes, not his mouth, and behold the stainless-steel icon rising 630 feet from the Mississippi River basin. For what is the Gateway Arch, after all, but the flight path of a textbook jump shot writ large? ¬∂ In a tournament defined by serial upsets, epic comebacks and the excitement (and TV ratings) of the 1990s, the Illini's Braided One isn't the only deadeye gunner hoping to shoot his team to victory this week, joining storied marksmen like Glen Rice (Michigan 1989), Scotty Thurman (Arkansas '94) and Richard Hamilton (Connecticut '99). And if last week's heart-stopping finishes were a preview of what's ahead, such shooting heroics may again be required. Not in the tournament's 67-year history had three regional finals been settled in overtime, and never had two Final Four entrants staged such remarkable comebacks on the same day as Illinois (which erased a 15-point deficit with four minutes left against Arizona) and Louisville (which dug out of a 20-point hole against West Virginia).
"I didn't want to go down without a fight," said Illini guard Deron Williams after his four late three-pointers sealed a preposterous 90--89 overtime victory in Saturday's Chicago Regional final, a result that both Brown and coach Bruce Weber called "a miracle."
If you're looking for this week's shooting savior, all of the Final Four teams have at least one candidate, a player whose years of solitary work in sweat-soaked gyms and city parks could yield a national championship on Monday night. Louisville forward Francisco Garcia took 500 shots a day as a 16-year-old in a cracker box on 116th Street in New York City's Spanish Harlem. Michigan State forward Alan Anderson mixed free throws and jump shots during long solo workouts at DeLaSalle High in Minneapolis. North Carolina forward-guard Rashad McCants spent hundreds of hours on a neighborhood court in Asheville, N.C., launching J's from a crack in the concrete at the top of a spray-painted three-point line. By comparison Illinois's Brown is a sharpshooter arriviste, a once-ordinary shooter who has become a lethal outside threat.
"They say Chicago guys can't shoot because it's the Windy City and you play outside all the time," says Brown, a native of suburban Maywood, Ill., who grew up as a "thumb shooter"--so named because the thumb on his left (or guide) hand would apply additional force during his release. "A lot of thumb shooters are streaky because of the way the ball spins off your hand," he says, "but if I have the ball cleanly in my shooting hand, I feel like I can make it every time."
After correcting his all-thumbs style last summer, Brown has dramatically improved his shooting this season from the field (from 41.1% to 50.7%), the three-point line (34.6% to 45.0%) and the free throw line (67.1% to 76.6%). "Dee's just learning now that he can be a great shooter," says Ernie (the Shot Doctor) Hobbie, a Wilmington, N.C.--based shooting coach who worked with Brown at Weber's camp last June. "Watch his shooting hand and how he finishes high every time. And see how his nonshooting hand stays out of the way? I call that hand the Devil, which is why I say, 'Dee Brown has killed the Devil!'"
"Reaching into the cookie jar" is the image Brown uses to describe the goose-necked follow-through--sometimes exaggerated for full showboating effect--that helped him hit eight three-pointers in the Illini's wins over Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Arizona last week. And while Brown swears he's "not on the same level" as shooters like Arizona's Salim Stoudamire and Duke's J.J. Redick, the gap isn't as big as he claims. "Dee's had stretches when it seemed like he didn't miss for a week," says Illinois forward Jack Ingram, who adds ominously for his team's opponents, "When we make four or five shots in a row, we're like, Even if you guys play your best game, you have no chance tonight."
Much like Louisville, their semifinal foe this Saturday, the Illini rely heavily on their three perimeter stars (Brown, Williams and Luther Head), but the Cardinals use different means to obtain shots for their outside trio of Garcia, Taquan Dean and Larry O'Bannon. While Illinois can free up its shooters in transition and out of its motion offense, Weber says, "we don't get much out of kickouts because no one respects our big guys. I don't think anyone's doubled our post all year." Louisville, on the other hand, likes to set pro-style pick-and-rolls for Garcia, who at 6'7" could be a matchup nightmare for the Illini.
As a freshman playing alongside former Cardinals star Reece Gaines, Garcia mainly spotted up for three-pointers--he once hit eight against Cincinnati--but two years later he has developed an effective mid-range jumper to combat the increased attention from opposing defenses. And while Garcia first developed his stroke while playing with his uncle, also named Francisco, in their native Dominican Republic, he has modeled his shot after the picture-perfect form of his best friend, Dean. The two used to spend hours shooting in Louisville's practice gym, often packing sleeping bags and the pizza deliveryman's phone number to make a night of it. "Taquan just kind of flicked the ball," Garcia says. "It looked so easy for him, so I tried to do the same thing."
Like Brown, however, Garcia has struggled at times to deal with the Devil, a.k.a. his meddlesome guide hand. "From a textbook standpoint his left hand is way too forward on the ball, but he's adapted to that and perfected it to where his off-hand doesn't bother his shot," says Cards assistant Reggie Theus. "Whatever happens in the mechanics of the stroke, his release is flawless."
Though Garcia's shot may not be 9944/100% pure, the Tar Heels' McCants certainly has the Ivory seal of approval. We know this because everyone says so, whether it's North Carolina coach Roy Williams ("It's the perfect form because it's so simple"), our man the Shot Doctor ("He reminds me a lot of Glen Rice") or McCants himself. "I have to be a little cocky about this one, but I think my form is pretty perfect," he said with a sheepish grin after going 3 for 6 from the arc and scoring 21 points in Carolina's 88--82 win over Wisconsin in Syracuse on Sunday. "The only person whose form is a little bit better is J.J. Redick. He is literally, unbelievably perfect, and mine is right behind his."
Ask McCants about the keys to his shooting success, and he'll tell you about honing his stroke during his prep days at New Hampton (N.H.) School and watching videos of Larry Bird to see how he used his teammates' screens. But opposing coaches will note that McCants's facility at posting up and beating his defender off the dribble earns him the sort of respect that gives him breathing room on the perimeter. "If you play him, you have to close out cautiously because you know he can put it on the floor and go left or right," says Wisconsin associate head coach Rob Jeter. "But if you close out low, then he just shoots it over you."
Roy Williams's signal achievement this season has been convincing McCants that a decline in his scoring average (to 16.0 points per game from 20.0 last season) would be beneficial to the team. Sure enough, McCants set career highs in assists (2.7 per game) and steals (1.32), and he hardly begrudges the success of forward Sean May, who poured in a team-high 29 points against the Badgers in the lone nonovertime regional final. As McCants says, "I've done my share of scoring. This year I'm passing a lot more, and it seems like my teammates love the sacrifices I've made."
When North Carolina meets Michigan State in Saturday's second semifinal, it won't be as easy for the Spartans to bang the 207-pound McCants with waves of defenders, as they did to shut down the 190-pound Redick (4-for-14 shooting) in their 78--68 Austin Regional semifinal win over top-seeded Duke last week. As for the Tar Heels' defensive strategy, they'd be wise to avoid putting Michigan State on the charity stripe. For while coach Tom Izzo's crew lacks the game-breaking outside shooters of the other Final Four entrants, it entered the tournament as the third-best free-throw-shooting outfit in the field of 65, at 77.5%.
At no point was that accuracy more valuable than on Sunday, when senior Alan Anderson sank all four of his free throws in the final 12 seconds to ice the Spartans' wild 94--88 double-OT victory over Kentucky. It shouldn't have been surprising that Anderson, the Big Ten's top free throw shooter (87.7%), would come through, and yet he had clanged a crucial pair at crunch time of a loss to Iowa in the Big Ten tournament two weeks earlier. "I knew I was going to get another chance," said Anderson, who had studied the tapes of those missed free throws against the Hawkeyes like the Zapruder film.
Nor was it the first time he'd examined his shooting form that way. Last summer the Michigan State coaching staff had Anderson watch tapes that showed the difference between his technique on the free throw line and on field goal attempts, noting that he released the ball much lower--from his forehead--and with more success from the line. "So I changed the release on my jumper," says Anderson, who has raised his field goal percentage from 46.7% as a junior to a sterling 56.4% this season.
Of course you never know what might happen to a shooter's touch in the Final Four. Perhaps the pressure will be too much to bear, or the eerie lack of background in the Edward Jones Dome could throw off marksmen accustomed to smaller venues. Or perhaps not. What we do know is this: Like-minded teams will face each other in the semifinals. Both North Carolina and Michigan State prefer up-tempo attacks and pounding the ball inside, while Illinois and Louisville lean on their perimeter studs. The Tar Heels and the Illini simply do a slightly better job with their respective styles, reason enough to cast our lot with the favorites on Saturday.
While revisiting our pretournament pick of Illinois and North Carolina in the final, it's worth noting that only a last-second three-pointer by Ohio State's Matt Sylvester in the regular-season finale kept the Stylin' Illini from arriving in St. Louis as the first undefeated team at a Final Four since UNLV in 1991. Of all the memorable comebacks last week the one spearheaded by Illinois's Williams most stirred the soul, giving rise to the belief that the Illini have a date with destiny in St. Louis. Or as the inimitable Brown put it to the rest of the field, if the pass-first Williams is hitting big shots, "y'all in trouble."
Take it from us: There's no comeback for that.
THEIR BEST SHOTS
If you were choosing up sides, which of the Final Four's top guns--Alan Anderson (Michigan State), Dee Brown (Illinois), Francisco Garcia (Louisville) or Rashad McCants (North Carolina)--would be your first pick? It might depend on what you wanted, as the six key offensive statistics below reveal.
STEALTH FACTOR: "Jawad Williams. When a role player like him is hot, then they're really clicking. Try to guard against his getting good looks on his threes."
HOW TO BEAT MICHIGAN STATE
WHEN THE SPARTANS HAVE THE BALL: "They don't run anything tremendously complicated and they're not great shooters, but they'll get two or three shots a possession if you don't put a body on them. Double-team Paul Davis in the post and see if they're hitting their jumpers that day."
ATTACKING THE SPARTANS: "They're great position defenders, so be ready to shoot the pull-up or you'll get some charging fouls. Push the ball at every opportunity because if they set up their half-court defense, they'll grind you down."
X FACTOR: "The referee's whistle. Do not put them in the bonus early in the half because they'll kill you from the free throw line. If they go to the line more than 20 times, they will be very hard to beat."
STEALTH FACTOR:"Maurice Ager is a stick of dynamite. He's the kind of athlete who can get them easy baskets with highlight dunks on the break. Make him a half-court player or he could be a real problem."