Big Men Take Center Stage At Final Four

Thursday, March 29th 2007, 8:13 am
By: News On 6

UCLA boasts two of the best big men in the history of college basketball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. Georgetown has three of its own to brag about: Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo.

Any of them would fit right in at this year's Final Four.

With Ohio State's Greg Oden, Georgetown's Roy Hibbert and Florida's Joakim Noah and Al Horford convening in Atlanta this weekend, college basketball's signature event has become a showcase for the country's best big men.

It could result in more post action at the Final Four than anyone has seen since Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon shared the stage in 1984.

``I think it's going to get the game back to where it used to be in having that low-post threat,'' Ohio State coach Thad Matta said Wednesday. ``The size of the guys (in this Final Four) is truly amazing.''

The Bruins _ with 6-foot-8 forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute the team's top post player _ are considerably undersized compared to Oden, Hibbert, Noah and Horford.

``We are by far the smallest team in this Final Four,'' UCLA coach Ben Howland said. ``But I think it's great to see the big man in college basketball.''

He'll see two Saturday night.

Noah and Horford have given the Gators (33-5) a significant size advantage the last two seasons. They helped the defending national champions win 16 consecutive postseason games and advance to the Final Four, where they will face UCLA (30-5) in a rematch of last year's title game.

The Florida duo came up huge in the first meeting, finishing with a combined 30 points, 16 rebounds and eight blocks.

``Our whole team had a problem with Florida,'' Howland said. ``They thoroughly dominated us. I don't think there's any secret about that.''

Noah, a 6-11 forward and the son of tennis star Yannick Noah, was the catalyst for the team's title run in 2006, blocking a tournament-record 29 shots.

He probably could have been the No. 1 pick in last year's NBA draft, but decided to return in hopes Florida would become the first team since Duke in 1992 to repeat as national champions.

Horford came back, too. The 6-10 center and son of former NBA player Tito Horford has improved his game significantly, developing post moves and an outside jumper _ making himself Florida's No. 1 player to try to defend.

Ohio State's top threat also happens to be a center.

Oden, a 7-foot freshman sensation, propelled the Buckeyes (34-3) into Saturday's semifinal match against Georgetown (30-6).

He blocked the final shot against Tennessee in the regional semifinals to secure a one-point victory, then had 17 points and nine rebounds in only 24 minutes against Memphis to lift Ohio State to a spot in the Final Four.

Oden might have turned pro out of high school, but ended up at Ohio State because of a new NBA rule requiring players to be at least one year removed from high school before they enter the draft.

Oden has proven he's ready for the next level and even said last week that ``everything is easy about college.'' He's averaging 15.4 points and 9.5 rebounds, shooting 61 percent from the field and has 100 blocked shots.

Not bad for someone who missed the first seven games while recovering from wrist surgery, then had to wear a brace on his right wrist and shoot free throws left-handed.

``The thing I enjoy about him is he gets better every day,'' Matta said. ``The seven months that his hand was immobilized obviously set him back. When he came back, the hand didn't work. We disguised it; we didn't tell anybody that his right hand couldn't move. But I think that he's really made a lot of progress. It just keeps getting a little bit stronger every day.''

Hibbert could provide a strong challenge for Oden.

The 7-2 junior has played well in the tournament, averaging 13 points and 11.5 rebounds. He also has 11 blocked shots, nine assists and just four turnovers.

``I think we'll see Saturday how they match up,'' Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. ``I think they're both very good players and something that people are talking about because it's not too often you have two low-post centers going against each other, particularly this late in the tournament.''

It's even more rare to have four post players in the same Final Four.

``A lot of times kids are going right to the pros and not sticking around,'' Thompson said. ``A lot of times it's because of influences of so many quality players in the NBA, a lot of big guys now are shying away from the post.

``But we have guys here that like the fact that they're low-post players.''