Jewel of a Duel

Linked at the top of the scoring race and the AP poll, shooting stars Adam Morrison of Gonzaga and J.J. Redick of Duke can't both be the best in college basketball.  Or can they?  SI's panel of players answers this question and others
March 06, 2006

The midnight hourhad already passed by the time Duke's J.J. Redick got back to his off-campusapartment on Feb. 20, glanced at his cellphone and saw yet another text messagefrom the 509 area code. Adam again. Redick smiled. A few hours earlier he hadset Duke's career scoring record in a 92-71 win over Miami, and now Gonzaga'sAdam Morrison-his trans-continental brother-in-arms, national player of theyear rival and Xbox-obsessed Halo 2 partner-was checking in from the WestCoast: ¶ CONGRATS ON THE RECORED ¶ HIT ME UP LATR¶ Just as Hollywood hasgiven us TomKat and Brangelina, college hoops has produced RedMo, the sportspairing that fans can't stop talking about. While the two friends have becomethe story of this season, trading paint in the race atop the nation's scoringchart, they've still found time to blast a few online aliens and marvel at themedia whirlwind. "We've talked about how this whole thing between us hasbeen created," Redick says. "I'll be watching Adam's game, and DickVitale is calling me out and the fans are chanting, 'J.J. who?' Before we werejust two buddies playing Halo together, and now we're like, 'Do you think ourcalls are being monitored?' But it's cool. Anytime you have story lines, it'sgood for the sport."

Since Dec. 10, theday Redick, a 6'4" senior guard, torched Texas for 41 points and Morrison,a 6'8" junior forward, banked in a buzzer-beating three to sink OklahomaState, the player-of-the-year battle has been a two-man race. During a recent10-day stretch Morrison and Redick traded the scoring lead four times, and atweek's end Morrison held an edge (28.6 points per game to Redick's 28.0) asthin as his Fisher-Price My First Mustache. Just as remarkable, in leading Duke(27-1) to No. 1 and Gonzaga (24-3) to No. 5, respectively, Redick and Morrisonhad scored 40 or more points a combined eight times this season. "It'snothing short of what Bird and Magic did for college basketball [in 1979],"says Gonzaga coach Mark Few. "I know that's sacrilegious to say, but Ireally believe this is the 2006 version of that."

While Redick andMorrison will have to wait until the NCAA tournament for the chance to produceBird-Magic television ratings, their bicoastal pas de deux has already beenhistoric. Not in the modern era have two college basketball players been sosimultaneously proficient at the sport's bedrock objectives: scoring andwinning. Only once before in the 58-year history of the AP poll have thenation's top two scorers finished the regular season on top 10 teams-in1959-60, with Oscar Robertson of No. 1 Cincinnati (33.7 points per game) andTom Stith of No. 9 St. Bonaventure (31.5)-and never have they been on top 5teams, as Redick and Morrison were at week's end.

High-volumeindividual scoring and NCAA tournament success are almost always conflictingpursuits. One look at scoring champions of recent vintage-Centenary's RonnieMcCollum, Long Island's Charles Jones, Virginia Military Institute's JasonConley-reveals a motley crew of gunslingers. Consider: Only one scoring champhas played on a national championship team (Kansas's Clyde Lovellette, in1951-52), and even Pete Maravich, the NCAA's alltime leading scorer, had onlyone winning season at LSU.

Yet when it comesto field goal accuracy, Redick (50.8%) and Morrison (49.7%) have maintained aprecision this season that's staggering for perimeter players. "They areboth team players, which is clearly remarkable, and their shooting percentagesreflect that," says Washington State coach Dick Bennett, whose team gave up25 points to Morrison in a 67-53 loss on Dec. 8. "There are guys who willtake 30 shots to score 20 points, and that is clearly at the expense ofteammates. [Redick and Morrison] are so accurate that they don't need a lot ofshots to score a lot of points."

College basketballlacks a single award with the prestige of the Heisman Trophy, so it's a nearcertainty that either Redick or Morrison will become the fifth player to win ascoring title and at least one of the six leading national player of the yearawards in the same season, joining Robertson (1957-60), Maravich ('69-70),Bradley's Hersey Hawkins ('87-88) and Purdue's Glenn Robinson ('93-94). Butwhich of the two players is more deserving this season? Redick and Morrisonhave eerily similar statistics (chart), rendering a decision solely using thosecriteria impossible. Redick is generally acknowledged to be a slightly betterdefender than Morrison, but neither is considered outstanding. So let's take astep back-just as Redick and Morrison do before they drain their 27-footjumpers-and consider the arguments for each player.

In one cornerstands Redick, who has defied his limited athleticism-and ignored the verbalharassment of envious fans who've targeted him as the nation's most hatedplayer-to become the ACC's alltime leading scorer and the NCAA's leader incareer three-pointers (414) and free throw percentage (92.2). "You've got a6'4" white kid who's relatively unathletic, not superfast, just basicallytoying with teams and doing what he wants," says Duke teammate LeeMelchionni. "J.J. works hard at what he does, he's in unbelievable shape,and he just puts the ball in the hoop."

In the othercorner there's Morrison, who has the country's most complete offensivegame-despite being a type 1 diabetic who sometimes has to inject insulin intohis abdomen during timeouts. "I've never seen a player who makes moreclosely guarded shots," says Few. "What you think would be a bad shotis a pretty good shot for us and for him because of his high release, hisconcentration and his toughness. He's made thousands of those in practices andgames."

In an SI survey 67players-one each from teams in the six traditional power conferences-wereasked, among other things, to pick the national player of the year. The reasoncited most often by those who voted for Redick was that he has played againsttougher competition within the ACC. (Poll results by conference begin on page66.) In fact, Duke ranks third in the nation in strength of schedule; Gonzaga,a member of the mid-major West Coast Conference, is 90th. "Redick has someof the best mental focus I've ever seen as far as dealing with the garbage thatpeople say about him, and he still brings his A game every night," says aPac-10 player, who like all voters in the SI poll was granted anonymity inexchange for his frankness. "You know that people are going to focus onhim, but he's still able to light teams up. And he doesn't have Morrison'sheight advantage."

Redick may havefaced tougher competition, but Morrison has been equally impressive againstranked teams, averaging 30.3 points per 40 minutes in five games to Redick's29.4 in eight games against Top 25 foes. Although Morrison has a solid insidecomplement in underrated forward J.P. Batista, most of the players who votedfor Morrison believed he has less support than Redick, whose teammates were alltop-tier recruits and include a likely All-America big man in Shelden Williams."I'd take Morrison," says one Big East voter, "because he playswith less-talented guys than Redick does. Plus Morrison can take you inside andout, which is rare for someone his size."

Ultimately, it'sworth noting that Redick's and Morrison's regular seasons have transcendedthose of any recent players of the year, and there's growing sentiment for notchoosing between them at all-simply to vote RedMo and leave it at that. "Ican't pick one. That wouldn't be fair," says another Big East voter."You've got to split the award this year because they both have hadphenomenal seasons."

In the SI poll,however, 56.1% of the voters chose Redick and 33.3% picked Morrison. (Sevenplayers, who presumably have been spending their downtime on Neptune, splittheir votes among four other candidates.) While voting for Redick and Morrisonwas a virtual dead heat in four of the six conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Tenand Pac-10), Redick built his margin of victory in the Big East and the SEC, inwhich he outpolled Morrison by a combined 18-5.

The votes ofplayers and the media for various awards are out of the control of Redick andMorrison, but the two have a direct influence on who wins the scoring crown.Though each one says he would rather win a national title-"If J.J. getsfirst and I get second [in the scoring race], then so be it," saysMorrison-Redick admits to keeping an eye out for Gonzaga results. "I'llcheck the box score online to see how many [points] Adam had," Redick says."Neither one of us probably wants to admit it, but we know what eachother's stats are."

Because Redick andMorrison communicate so often in their digital-driven friendship-by cellphone,text-messaging and their Halo 2 headsets-it's easy to forget they've met inperson only once, at the 2004 Michael Jordan summer camp. Off the court they'renot much alike. Once a hard partyer, Redick has reformed; he just finishedreading the evangelical Christian best seller The Purpose-Driven Life. Morrisonis a lefty contrarian who once responded to his coach's request that hisplayers attend church by writing religion is the opiate of the masses on thelocker room whiteboard. While Morrison says he'd "probably be in one ofthose student-activist groups" if he didn't play basketball, Redick staysout of the political fray. So why do these guys get along so well? "Thecommon denominator is that we both love basketball," Redick says. "Aslong as we have that, whether Adam likes Karl Marx isn't going to botherme."

For fellow hoopslovers, of course, there's only one ideal way to settle the player-of-the-yeardebate: on the court. What if Redick and Morrison's second meeting took place,say, at the regional final in Atlanta on March 25? "I think a lot of peoplewould like to see that game," says Redick. Both players envision the NCAAtournament committee's placing Duke (as a No. 1 seed) and Gonzaga (as a No. 2)in the same region.

For that matter,what if we recognized the arguments for what they are at this point-anentertaining way to pass the time until March Madness-and held off declaringthe player of the year until after the NCAA tournament? "It would benice," says Morrison, "because how you perform in the tournament should[factor into] the award." After all, the national championship is decidedon the court. RedMo's historic duel deserves the same fate.

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

By The Numbers
The race for national player of the year can't get much tighter

6'4" HEIGHT 6'8"
190 WEIGHT 205
49.7 FIELD GOAL PCT. 51.2
88.0 FREE THROW PCT. 78.0
22 20-POINT GAMES 22
13 30-POINT GAMES 12
27-1 TEAM RECORD 24-3
No. 1 AP RANKING No. 5

"Morrison plays with less-talented guys than Redickdoes," says a Big East voter. "He can take you INSIDE AND OUT, rare forsomeone his size."

"You know people will focus on Redick, but he stillLIGHTS TEAMS UP," says a Pac-10 player.

"And he doesn't have Morrison's heightadvantage."

"I'll check the box score to see how many [points]Adam had," Redick says. "Neither one of us probably wants to admit it,but we know what EACH OTHER'S STATS are."