THERE ARE playerswho are simply too weak to be recruited. They have skills. They have passion.They have the pedigree required of a major college basketball player. But therecomes a moment when a coach like Villanova's Jay Wright closes his eyes andimagines the teenager thrust among the powerful athletes who populate the gameand finds him lacking in a primal way. "There are some kids you lookat," says Wright, "and you just can't see them surviving the physicalpounding." And just like that, the page is turned; a bigger young man ischosen. And through natural selection, the game evolves.¬∂ Last Saturday nightin Boston, Villanova advanced to its first NCAA Final Four since RollieMassimino and his eighth-seeded Wildcats famously upset Georgetown 24 years agoin Lexington, Ky. This time, third-seeded Villanova won the East Regional inBoston when junior guard Scottie Reynolds converted a driving score with half asecond to play, eliminating Big East rival Pittsburgh 78--76 and instantlyseizing a place in college basketball history alongside epic buzzer-beatersDanny Ainge, Tyus Edney, Christian Laettner and Bryce Drew. Yet even as the TDBanknorth Garden shivered in delirium in the aftermath, a broader message wasevident: The game belongs to the strong.
This is an article from the April 6, 2009 issue
The winning playbegan when Villanova junior guard Reggie Redding pushed a tentative inboundspass toward 6'8" senior forward Dante Cunningham, 35 feet away in themiddle of the floor. As the pass neared, Pittsburgh forward Sam Young thoughthe could deflect it away. "But I got sealed off by his body," saidYoung. "I couldn't get to the ball." Cunningham snatched the ball andshoveled it in midair to Reynolds, who was rushing up the side of thefloor.
Reynolds, astocky 6'2" and 195 pounds, angled to the middle of the court and piercedthe lane. Eight feet from the rim, he jumped into Pittsburgh's 6'6",200-pound Gilbert Brown, banging their bodies together. "I leaned into him,and the contact bounced me backward like a rubber band," said Reynolds."That gave me a little space." He released the winning shot just aninstant before his feet landed back on the floor.
Two movements,executed on the court with millions watching but conceived in a weight roomlong before and in solitude. "We train 12 months a year," says Wright."And I don't even look at it like we're the bullies. We look for guys whocan compete. And then we do the rest of it to keep up with everybody else."Faced with elimination, Cunningham and Reynolds made strength plays in thefinal seconds. And in that sequence was a microcosm of today's collegegame.
After the roarhad subsided, Villanova players stripped off their uniforms in a locker room atthe end of a long corridor. Piles grew at the center of the floor: one forjerseys, another for shorts and another for pads. Hip pads, rib and back pads,elbow pads. It looked like football gear, and in a sense, it was.
I think they'repermitting the game to become a little too physical today.... There's been alot of blood here and there. I think permitting the game to become too physicaltakes away a little bit of the beauty.
—FORMER UCLA COACH JOHN WOODEN NPR, March 2007
THE FINAL FOURcommences Saturday at Ford Field in Detroit, with Villanova meeting NorthCarolina and Connecticut facing Michigan State. They represent threeconferences at the political power center of the game and each has provedthrough four tournament victories that it possesses far more strengths thanweaknesses. Villanova comprises interchangeable parts, all fearless and readyto reprise the school's upstart role a quarter century later; North Carolinaseems nearly restored to the greatness predicted for it in November.Connecticut is gifted yet shadowed by controversy, and Michigan State is anemotional favorite, playing in its battered home state.
Yet the teamsalso arrive in Detroit as survivors of a brutal elimination event as collegebasketball becomes ever more physical by the year and less connected to itsgraceful, freewheeling past. "[Because of] the bodies and theathletes," said Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon before his team was knockedoff, "it's become a very, very physical game."
Postgame tableauxplay out like an episode of CSI: NCAA. In the aftermath of Connecticut's 82--75victory over Missouri in the West Regional final in Glendale, Ariz., lastSaturday, UConn trainer James Doran worked the locker room in his businesssuit, celebratory Final Four hat and blue latex gloves. Doran moved fromHasheem Thabeet to Stanley Robinson to Jeff Adrien, cleaning cuts with cottonswabs. With seven minutes remaining in the game, Robinson had suffered afive-inch gash on his shoulder. He was treated on the bench with a coagulantthat burned so fiercely that the team's trainer had to grasp Robinson's arm tokeep him from pulling away. Later, Robinson would also get a six-inch sliceacross his right biceps, just below a tattoo of the 23rd Psalm.
An hour or solater in Boston, hulking Pittsburgh center DeJuan Blair's shorts were sprayedin blood before the end of the first half, source unknown. Panthers freshmanguard Jermaine Dixon was helped gingerly off the floor after getting hit in thegroin in the opening minute of the second half. Less than seven minutes intoNorth Carolina's 72--60 victory over Oklahoma in Memphis on Sunday, Tar Heelssenior All-America Tyler Hansbrough was flipped over the shoulder of Soonerscenter Blake Griffin. Surely Wooden was cringing somewhere, witnessing thecarnage.
(The enduringimage of the regular season remains Blair flinging the 7'3" Thabeet overhis shoulder in Pitt's victory at Connecticut on Feb. 16. "He had to let meflip him," Blair said and then added a grisly alternative. "If he hadhung on, he probably would have wound up with a broken arm.")
Villanovaassistant coach Doug West, who played for the Wildcats from 1985 to '89 andthen for 12 years in the NBA, says, "The college game is more physical thanthe NBA right now. You can't hand-check a guy in the NBA like you can incollege. You can't bump a guy making a cut in the NBA like you can in college.The NBA has legislated a lot of physicality out of the game. But thephysicality is still there in college."
Duke assistantChris Collins, whose team was crushed by Villanova 77--54 in the Sweet 16,says, "It's the first thing our NBA guys say when they come back to campus,that our game is rougher than the pro game." The progression is notentirely linear. There are players and coaches who will argue that the game wasmore physical before the implementation of the three-point line in 1986. Andfor two weeks the star of last year's NCAA tournament was wispy guard StephenCurry of Davidson. But he's an exception. "The game has definitelychanged," says Ray Ganong, strength-and-conditioning coach at Louisvillefor the last 23 years. "Kids come in bigger and stronger. There's a wholedifferent paradigm than there was 15 years ago."
There is no moretelling development than the use of protective padding. When Villanova'sCunningham strips off his uniform, his torso is covered in a tight, padded baselayer and his hips, thighs and tailbone in heavily padded compression shorts.Connecticut's 6'7", 243-pound Adrien, a block of marble with a head, addsto his imposing presence with a long, padded sleeve on his left arm. EvenBlair, whose 6'7", 265-pound body would seem to provide ample cushion,wears rib and lower-body pads. By comparison, many NFL players wear only ahelmet and shoulder pads, with no protection for their ribs, hips and thighs.Basketball's padding craze began in 2004, when McDavid Sports Medicine Productsprovided padded gear to NBA players. "They tell us it makes them feel likethey can attack the basket harder," says cofounder and president BobMcDavid. Nike jumped into the market this spring with its Pro Combat line.
THE SURVIVINGfour teams are predictably comfortable in the battles that define the evolutionof the game. North Carolina's Hansbrough has been a contact magnet throughouthis career, most memorably as the recipient of a shot from Duke's GeraldHenderson in March 2007 that left Hansbrough with a broken nose. "Tyler hastaken a worse beating this year than in any other in his college career,"says Tar Heels senior guard Bobby Frasor. "He gets scratched, hacked, hiscontact lenses get poked out, but he keeps coming at you. He gives us aphysical presence, which is the key to everything we do."
As Hansbrough satin the North Carolina locker room after the Tar Heels' 98--77 Sweet 16 victoryover Gonzaga, his white jersey was dotted with blood, the result of a cut onthe back of his right hand. "It seems like every time I've gotten fouledthis year, it's been a hard foul," said Hansbrough. "People play mephysical. I guess that's in the scouting report on me. But that just adds fuelto my fire. I don't mind a little contact."
Villanova, theTar Heels' semifinal opponent, turns the concept inside out. Its most punishingathletes are its guards: Reynolds, Redding (6'5", 205 pounds), sophomoreCorey Fisher (6'1", 185) and swingman Dwayne Anderson (6'6", 215), whowill guard every opposing position. It was Reynolds who crushed UCLA seniorDarren Collison with a hard foul early in their second-round matchup, settingthe game's agenda. On the day before the East Regional final, Jamie Dixonwatched film of Villanova, observing how the Wildcats guards repeatedlyattacked overmatched Duke in transition and in the half-court. "Villanovadoesn't run a lot of offensive sets," says Dixon, clicking throughpossessions. "They like to get their guards in one-on-one situations andtake you that way. They're experienced and they're strong."
Michigan State isthe home of the notorious war drill, a fierce rebounding session. "Youstart five guys inside and five guys outside the three," says 6'10"senior center Goran Suton. "The ball goes up, and the guys inside try tobox the other guys out. The guys on the three-point line try to get anoffensive rebound." Coach Tom Izzo made it famous during the 2000 seasonwhen he had his players run through it in football gear—and subsequently wonthe national championship. They haven't broken out the pads this season, butthe war drill remains. "It gets rough," says Suton. "But it works.We've done it every day, every practice since I've been at MichiganState."
The Spartans alsostart every practice with a layup drill in which players are expected to finishwhile getting battered by coaches swinging pads at them. During scrimmages Izzotells the scout team to foul relentlessly. "We're used to the bruises,"says sophomore guard Durrell Summers. "At the beginning of the year youmight feel it a little, but after a while you get used to being bangedup."
Connecticutsurvived 18 games in the Big East, long regarded as the most physicalconference in the country. The Huskies' feistiness originates with coach JimCalhoun, who will continue to be queried in Detroit about recent allegations ofmajor NCAA recruiting violations. The team's personality is best defined by thebruising Adrien (who says of modern college basketball, in spectacularunderstatement, "It's a difficult game to referee"), the imposing7'3" Thabeet and the muscular point guard A.J. Price, who challenges thelane as often as Villanova's guards but shoots more effectively fromoutside.
It is a FinalFour that will resist easy form. Emotional issues are in play for every team,along with the far more pedestrian matter of three-point shooting, on whichgames can swing wildly. Some players will rise and others will shrink from thestage. Other predictions are more certain: bodies on the floor, fouls on thescoreboard, blood in the air.