Institutions of Taller Learning

By Mike Wise
Thursday, March 29, 2007

For all the retro references and nostalgia Georgetown's NCAA tournament run has produced, the Final Four has one underlying old-school message:

College makes big men better.

Three of the four universities playing this weekend in Atlanta start bona fide low post men who quantifiably improved their games by remaining in school. They also developed an appreciation for the pivot almost nonexistent for young players at the next level. College, not the NBA, made Florida's Joakim Noah and Al Horford, Georgetown's Roy Hibbert and Ohio State's Greg Oden the rarest of centers: big men who actually play like big men, who want to be big men.

You can eventually learn footwork and when to shoot a baby hook at the next level; you can't learn how to be an ogre, how to be a beast underneath, how to physically dominate the competition.

How much Kobe Bryant or LeBron James would have gotten out of college from strictly a basketball perspective is debatable; their games translated almost immediately. But there's no question Kwame Brown and Eddy Curry would have learned something -- for instance, how to play their position.

Oden didn't have a choice about going to college because of the NBA's age-limit rule, but there's no question he has benefited as a player. He is big and menacing standing next to his Big Ten peers. If he had gone straight to the NBA, the kid could have been mistaken for another power forward. Size-wise, he would be matching up with players of his height and heft most nights. Unable to dunk on everyone, at some point he would have probably had to work on his dribble drive or 19-foot jump shot to initiate his offense. And as big and strong as he is, the intimidation skills used against Wisconsin and Purdue just wouldn't work on Erick Dampier right now.

Shaquille O'Neal once told me that he learned how to correctly play the center position in the NBA, but college is where "I learned I was supposed to be a big man."

"When you got three little dudes hanging on you and you're still dunking on their mugs, it makes you feel like a superior being," O'Neal said. "You think that's happening, bro, if I went straight from high school?"

O'Neal is essentially saying that to become Shaq in the NBA he had to first be Shrek at LSU.

Count us among the hoopheads dying for Oden and Hibbert to jump center Saturday night. I don't know if Oden can get up high enough to reject Hibbert's rolling hook. I don't know if Hibbert can feint to the middle and spin baseline and dunk on the most dominant defender in the tournament. But I'm dying to see it. It's high drama at the Georgia Dome, all that immovable object vs. irresistible force stuff.

Their matchup is being likened to Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing in the 1984 title game. (Ewing, perhaps, makes the best argument of all for staying in school. He came in as a defensive menace, all scowls and swatted shots. But at the end of his senior season at Georgetown, you began to see a guy who grew into one of the great jump-shooting centers in the history of the game. That doesn't happen if he leaves before his senior year.)

Comparing what are basically two kids to two future Hall of Famers voted among the NBA's top 50 players ever might be strong. But it's indicative of the college game's dearth of great big men for more than 20 years. Three dominant centers at one Final Four has all the purists drooling this week.

"To see a Final Four dominated by so many great big men is reminiscent of the '80s, when you had Ewing, Olajuwon and Sampson," Bill Walton said by telephone last night. "David Robinson joined them to define a golden era of centers in the NBA, which disappeared when Shaq came along and scared everybody away."

Walton's argument for big men staying in college focuses on the fewer number of games played versus the NBA's 82-game grind.

"You rarely practice with that many games and often the practices are haphazard," he said. "Player development is almost nonexistent. Few teams really develop players anymore, especially big men. You don't get the teachers at that level that you do in college."

Hibbert has begun to develop an assertiveness for the Hoyas he never could have at the end of an NBA bench, an aggressiveness around the rim we were just starting to see a year ago. There were times against North Carolina in the second half when Hibbert literally shoved Tyler Hansbrough and Brandan Wright out of the way to ensure he caught the ball in the post.

Noah's draft status slipped from a year ago and it indeed may have cost him money in the short term. But his decision to stay in school made him a better basketball player. He's another big kid in college who would not be able to push people around in the NBA. He needed a better offensive tool kit. He's learned to defend the post and perimeter much better at Florida than he would have on a bad NBA team playing from behind every night.

Oden could be great. Bill Russell great? We'll reserve judgment until he plays at least one NBA game. But few big men in the past three decades have come along who live to block shots more than dunk. I'd love to see him stay in college another season for the mere fact I was glad Ewing and Olajuwon stayed; I wanted to watch them dominate players their own age. Why shouldn't he be allowed to develop a sweet up-and-under move at this level before the NBA forces him to be the next Shaq?

It's too early to forecast Noah, Hibbert and Oden as the next great era of American-born centers. Even as great as Ewing, Olajuwon and Robinson were, the depth of their era still pales to the late 1960s and early '70s when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Wes Unseld, Nate Thurmond, Jerry Lucas, Elvin Hayes and Walt Bellamy went up against each other every night en route to the Hall of Fame.

Regardless of whether they are future Hall of Famers or just good players getting better, this much is very clear: College basketball makes little guards more famous, but it makes big men better players.

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