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FINAL FOURSOME
Alexander Wolff
April 07, 2003
A quartet of the nation's best players—including a dynamic freshman—delivered their teams to the brink of a national title
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April 07, 2003

Final Foursome

A quartet of the nation's best players—including a dynamic freshman—delivered their teams to the brink of a national title

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Just as Texas coach Rick Barnes sometimes calls T.J. Ford Mr. Magoo for the way the point guard's eyes disappear when his face crinkles with laughter, we too can be compared to the myopic cartoon character for our failure to foresee how this NCAA tournament would play out. We assumed that Texas was the least deserving of the No. 1 seeds, but the Longhorns would turn out to be the only top seed to reach the Final Four. We cheered as the CBS tag team of Jim Nantz and Billy Packer body-slammed tournament selection committee chairman Jim Livengood for sticking Arizona and Kentucky on the same side of the bracket and depriving us of our rightful title game—only to watch both breeds of top-seeded Wild-Cat fail to make it to New Orleans, Worst, we (SI included) handed out our player of the year awards before the tournament offered the ultimate test.

As we head for the Big Easy, a double-adjective city, we'll need a gris-gris bag full of additional modifiers to do justice to the men who carried their teams there. The semifinals on Saturday pair Ford with Syracuse forward Carmelo Anthony, and Kansas forward Nick Collison with Marquette guard Dwyane Wade (the winning teams advance to Monday night's final) in a player of the year playoff, even if two of the five major official awards have already been handed out. (Ford, SI's choice, has won the Naismith, and forward David West of Xavier has taken the Oscar Robertson Trophy.)

Until Wade (page 44) dropped this line on Kentucky—29 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, four blocked shots, several exhausted statisticians—Collison's 33 points and 19 rebounds in the Jayhawks' 69-65 West Regional semifinal elimination of Duke seemed to be an untouchable standard. Collison has been tending to unfinished business since Dec. 7, when he scored only seven points in an 84-78 loss to Oregon. Afterward, Jayhawks coach Roy Williams tried to take the blame, but Collison cut him off. "You and I both know if I'd have played better, we would have won," he said. "I promise you, I'll never let that happen again."

Anthony's contributions to the Syracuse box score usually betray a playing style that matches that of his team: slow starter, strong finisher. Just as the 28-5 Orangemen have won 10 games after trailing at the half this season, their 6'8" freshman failed to make a field goal in the first 20 minutes of Syracuse's tournament defeats of Oklahoma State and Auburn. But then Anthony joins five other precocious underclassmen in the Orangemen's eight-man rotation, and, as they proved in their 63-47 dismantling of top-seeded Oklahoma in the East Regional final, they possess enough talent to make up for the inconsistency of youth. Sometimes the game comes so easily to Anthony (who scored 20 points and had 10 rebounds against the Sooners) that he'll settle for a pull-up jumper when he could back in a defender for a higher-percentage shot. "There are times I know I could have been selfish and scored 40, but that's not what's best for the team," Anthony says.

Ford shot an unimpressive 7 for 27 over the South Regional's two games, but that's not the part of the box score that best testifies to his value. Instead, it's his 38 assists versus 10 turnovers for the tournament. Myopic as the 5'10" Ford may appear while laughing, when he lets fly, the ball nearly always finds its way from his hands into those of teammates, usually in a spot where they can do something with it. As Ford said after the Longhorns' 85-76 regional-final victory over Michigan State (in which he had 10 assists), "My teammates always say to me, 'As long as you put it on the rim, we'll go get it.' "

By this time of year we're all Magoos. Nonetheless, here's a scenario that this prognosticator can at least vaguely envision. In the Syracuse-Texas semifinal, the Orangemen's 2-3 zone will complicate the basis of Ford's game, which is to take an individual defender off the dribble. Thus flummoxed, Ford won't easily find shooters Brian Boddicker, Sydmill Harris and Brandon Mouton for good looks on the perimeter. Meanwhile Anthony, Hakim Warrick, 7-footer Craig Forth and ingenue shot blocker Jeremy McNeil will match the Longhorns' frontcourt in the paint and on the boards—and Syracuse will advance.

In the other semifinal Kansas, which runs the best secondary break in the land, will give Marquette's transition defense and small guards all they can handle. It's that ability to push the ball, plus the tempering process of having been the lone team to advance to the Final Four without playing at a virtual home site, that will get the Jay-hawks through to the championship game.

In all the years since Syracuse began using its dowdy but maddeningly effective 2-3 zone, no team has played it better than the 1995-96 Orangemen. They reached the NCAA final only to run into Kentucky and forward Antoine Walker, who spent the night flashing into the high post and either turning and popping, or drawing and dishing, to lead the Wildcats to the title. As adept as this Syracuse team has become at the 2-3, it's still a young group. In Collison, Kansas has Walker reincarnate: an experienced high-post passer and reliable medium-range shooter who can put the ball on the floor. In short, just the player to solve a 2-3 from the inside out.

The Jayhawks have had better teams. But haven't we known all along that, when Roy Williams's moment finally arrived, it would come when we least expected it?

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