For 4 teams, big men are very big deal

Down-low presences loom large for a change with Final Four squads

Different talents, but key roles

Gooden, Jeffries bring agility

Baxter, McGhee provide lots of muscle

Final Four

March 30, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - Look at Kansas' Drew Gooden, Indiana's Jared Jeffries, Maryland's Lonny Baxter and Oklahoma's Aaron McGhee, and realize that it's been awhile since big men have so determined the lineup for college basketball's final weekend.

Perhaps the last time each team in the national semifinals could claim such star power down low was when Georgetown's Patrick Ewing, St. John's Walter Berry, Villanova's Ed Pinckney and Memphis State's Keith Lee came to Lexington for the 1985 Final Four.

Since the three-point shot entered the college game for the 1986-87 season, teams advancing this far may have had competent, even good big men, but strong backcourt play has been more of a determinant. Kentucky's Antoine Walker may have been the last frontcourt player to help lead his team to a national title, six years ago.

But for this Final Four, tall is in.

The conversation begins with Gooden, 6 feet 10, who has the physical gifts of Baxter's teammate, Chris Wilcox, but with more polish and a motor that runs more consistently. Gooden has averaged 20.0 points and 11.5 rebounds this season and was a serious candidate for national Player of the Year.

It's not as if the junior from Northern California came out of nowhere, having averaged double digits in points and nearly eight rebounds per game during his first two years at Kansas. He's always been an agile player and a great shot blocker, and he keeps getting better.

But Jayhawks coach Roy Williams said he was somewhat flustered by his star forward's immaturity during those years - calling him "Hurricane Drew" for generally undisciplined play that would lead to benchings.

"I knew nothing about X's and O's, knew nothing about team defense and defensive principles," Gooden said. "My whole first year, I was trying to catch up - the mental part of the basketball game."

But Gooden now has the green light to take shots from the perimeter or to take opponents off the dribble - qualities that have him looking like a certain top-10 pick in this summer's NBA draft if he chooses to leave.

"He's just one of those players that gets rebounds, dribbles it out, makes the right pass, sets a screen if he has to ... goes out for a lob pass or maybe a 17-foot jump shot," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "So he's a problem trying to match up with him."

In terms of skills, the closest to Gooden is Jeffries, who has a lithe frame at 215 pounds and enough of an all-around game (like Mike Dunleavy of Duke or Luke Walton of Arizona) to make his grouping with Gooden, McGhee and Baxter a somewhat forced one.

If point guard Tom Coverdale is unable to play tonight, many of the ball-handling duties may fall to Jeffries, whose versatility could be found in a 21-point, eight-rebound, seven-assist, six-block outing against Michigan State in January.

But at 6-10 and with go-to-guy status, he fits in, averaging 15.4 points and 7.6 rebounds. Though he hits 38 percent of his three-point attempts, most of his field goals come after he's gotten the ball on the blocks or has slashed past a defender.

Jeffries also has been able to find sharpshooters Dane Fife and Kyle Hornsby on the perimeter when he's double-teamed. So he had only 10 points (to go with seven rebounds) in the regional final against Kent State, but everyone else combined to knock down 15 of 19 three-point attempts.

"The reason I set the offense the way I did was for Jared Jeffries to cause confusion and havoc," Indiana coach Mike Davis said. "We want teams to double-team us. That's our strength. He won't try to hold onto it, and that creates opportunities for other people."

No one in this group may have been more consistent than Baxter, who also may have come to his school with the least notice. As fellow Maryland star Juan Dixon was considered too small, Baxter was considered overweight.

"Juan and I used to hear people say, `Why did Maryland recruit them?' " Baxter said. "We used that as motivation. Determination is what got us here."

Maryland coach Gary Williams likes to say of his front-court bruiser, "Lonny's Lonny." Nothing ever changes. He's averaged 15.6 points in each season beginning with his sophomore year, and if he's not within a bucket or a couple of rebounds of a double double, something's wrong.

Baxter, 6-8, gets off the floor fast, but there's nothing else but pure will that explains performances like his 29-point effort against Connecticut in the East Regional final.

"He just plays hard and he plays hungry," Purdue coach Gene Keady said. "It just looks like he enjoys playing."

Last but not least is McGhee, 6-8, who is more versatile than Baxter, probably a better shooter than Gooden and more of a banger inside than Jeffries.

The senior from Aurora, Ill., has emerged as one of Kelvin Sampson's most prized players, though the coach may have thought he had fool's gold when McGhee first came to Norman.

Sampson used to joke with McGhee that while he looked like Godzilla, he played like a nun, even though he averaged 12.9 points and 4.8 rebounds in his first season after coming from Vincennes (Ind.) Junior College.

"I know how to play hard," McGhee told the Tulsa World in February. "Last year, I thought I was playing hard, but I wasn't. There were games that I took off. This year, I'm trying to play hard all the time."

This season, while averaging 15.8 points and 7.7 rebounds, McGhee has tried to take opportunities when they come to him. In the West semifinals against Arizona, he absorbed the double teams and was held to two points, then got 19 in the second half.

Hampered by foul trouble in the regional final, he scored eight points over the final five minutes, including a coup-de-grace three-pointer.

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