Final Four Buildup Centers on Big Men

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 29, 2007

Greg Oden towered over college basketball from the moment he stepped on a court this season, a prodigy in high tops who could dominate, literally, with one hand. He was named a first-team all-American in his freshman season, validating the cavalcade of hype that followed him to Ohio State.

When Roy Hibbert was a freshman, he played basketball the way Bambi walked on ice, a 290-pound package of long limbs and baby fat who couldn't do a single push-up. He can do more than 30 at once now, trimmed to an athletic 270 pounds. Hibbert has improved so much since his freshman season, "It's almost hard to describe," Georgetown Coach John Thompson III said.

The manner in which Oden and Hibbert became the players they are now hardly could be more divergent. But the quality they share -- the ability to harness their seven feet of height with each coordinated movement -- is why their matchup has become the most prominent story line of the Final Four.

Big men who rule games in the low post were thought to be extinct in college, all of them either in the NBA or wooed by the allure of shooting three-pointers. But the Oden-Hibbert showdown offers another throwback to the 1980s, when Georgetown's Patrick Ewing and Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon battled in the 1984 Final Four. The rarity of the meeting gives Hibbert and Oden a certain connection.

"We have a bond," Hibbert said. "That's special. We got to look out for each other."

The dearth of big men skilled in the low post will make Saturday's matchup unique for both players. Hibbert, who is 7 feet 2, said this season he enjoys playing against fellow 7-footers, but rarely receives the chance.

While Hibbert almost always hovers above his competition, the 7-foot Oden said he has never played against anyone bigger than him. For the first time in his life, Oden will walk on to a basketball court Saturday evening and not be the tallest player.

"I'll be playing someone like me," Oden said.

Of course, no college player whose team hasn't faced Ohio State has played against someone quite like Oden. Hibbert has never met or played against Oden at any level, but forward Vernon Macklin faced Oden on the AAU circuit. Patrick Ewing Jr. scrimmaged against Oden, who grew up in Indianapolis, when Ewing played at Indiana before transferring.

Hibbert, who often espouses his appreciation for Georgetown's lineage of centers, said his best preparation for playing Oden came from practicing against former Hoya standout Alonzo Mourning, currently with the Miami Heat, in summer workout sessions. ("I can't back him down right now," Hibbert said.)

Hibbert faced two 7-foot stars in the Big East this season, Aaron Gray of Pittsburgh and Hasheem Thabeet of Connecticut, and averaged 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds in four games against them. At 7-3, Thabeet has a wingspan that matches Oden's and has surprising athleticism for such a tall center, but he lacks strength. Gray is exceptionally strong, but he's far less agile than Oden.

"Hopefully, he'll be able to match those together and see what it's going to be like to guard Greg," Ewing Jr. said. "It's going to be hard for us to emulate Greg in a scouting report, because we don't have any 7-foot guys" other than Hibbert.

Oden drew comparisons to Patrick Ewing Sr. before and during the season. Like the elder Ewing, he imposes his will more on defense more than on offense. As freshmen, both Ewing Sr. and Oden intimidated with the mere specter of the shot block, but neither had developed an intricate offensive game.

"Greg is bigger than my dad was his freshman year," Ewing Jr. said. "He's definitely got that athletic ability and shot-blocking ability on defense. He has a soft touch with his jump shot."

With his deft passing and touch around the hoop, Hibbert probably is a more rounded offensive player, but that's not to say Oden isn't a willing passer. Both Oden and Hibbert are soft-spoken players who rarely demand the ball.

In high school at Lawrence North High, Oden's coach, Jack Keefer, needed to coax him into shooting. Keefer would draw a play in the huddle designed for Oden, only to watch his star center pass the ball to a teammate shooting a low percentage from outside.

"Greg, why'd you throw it out there?" Keefer would ask.

"Well, he hasn't shot, and he hasn't scored this game," Oden would reply. "I just wanted him to get a good feel."

Oden has learned to be more decisive, much like Hibbert has grown into his gangly frame. The maturation of both players -- one rapid, one prolonged -- will make for a rare opportunity Saturday, the chance to watch two big men who not only want to play like big men, but excel at it.

"I like it a lot," Hibbert said. "I can't wait to play against him."

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