Seeking storybook ending

Texas-Syracuse: Carmelo Anthony wants to do what Juan Dixon did, but the Longhorns have other ideas.

Final Four

April 05, 2003|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - Look at Juan Dixon and Carmelo Anthony and what you'll see are polar opposites.

Dixon was a skinny over-achiever who spent four years in college, and he willed himself to stardom when the doubters were lining up to tell him he would never make it.

Anthony is gifted, lanky, 6-foot-8 star who oozes talent and makes the game look effortless. Most people figured he would skip college basketball entirely for the NBA after a standout high school career at Towson Catholic and Oak Hill Academy, and the closest he would get to the Final Four was watching it on television.

But Anthony couldn't help but feel a certain kinship with Dixon last year when he watched the current Washington Wizard lead Maryland to a national title. Look at Dixon, Anthony thought. A kid from Baltimore, cutting down the nets. Why can't that be me?

"When I was watching the game, I thought I was part of it," said Anthony, now a freshman forward for Syracuse. "I was just so into it. For him to actually be playing, it was just a funny feeling. And they won it, so hopefully I can get that feeling after Monday."

But if T.J. Ford has his way, Anthony won't even get the chance. Ford leads a gritty, aggressive Texas team that is equally hungry for a piece of history tonight when the two teams meet in the NCAA tournament's Final Four. Texas is making its first semifinal appearance in 56 years, while Syracuse played - and lost - in the championship game in both 1987 and 1996.

"I think everyone on this team is a winner," Ford said. "We know we're just two games away [from a championship]."

In fact, as far as appearances go, Ford seems to have more in common with Dixon than Anthony does. At 5-10, Ford is the shortest All-American in 32 years, but few players, if any, have been bigger for their teams this season. The winner of the Naismith Award, given to college basketball's top player, Ford makes up for his lack of stature with speed, court savvy and heart. He has had to fight his way to stardom, with plenty of people along the way telling him he didn't have the size to make it.

"That's how it is growing up, being the little guy," Ford said. "I had to find ways to be effective out there on the court. It just comes from being motivated and being so determined. Height doesn't mean a thing."

Apparently age doesn't mean much either, at least in this side of the bracket. While junior Dwyane Wade of Marquette will butt heads with Kansas seniors Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich in the other semifinal, Ford, a sophomore and Anthony, the nation's top freshman, are quietly scoffing at the conventional wisdom that says you need upper classmen to go far in the NCAA tournament. Freshman Gerry McNamara has played a big role for Syracuse this year, as has freshman Brad Buckman for Texas.

"When we lost our first game of the season, everybody was saying Syracuse was too young of a team to do anything this year," Anthony said. "For us to come and make it to the Final Four, to make that adjustment, it shows how we've matured over that time."

In all likelihood, the game will be decided by whether Texas can handle Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone defense. The Orangemen have given opponents fits in the tournament, including Texas' Big 12 rival, Oklahoma, which shot just 31 percent in a 63-47 loss in the regional finals.

"There are fewer teams playing zone today, which I think probably makes your zone defense a little bit more effective," Boeheim said. "A team might play 10 games in a row against a man-to-man, then when they see zone, it's going to be difficult."

Texas coach Rick Barnes, however, is no stranger to playing against Boeheim. The two coached against each other while Barnes was at Providence, and Barnes will be the first to tell you that it's tough to play zone when Ford is pushing the ball down your throat on every fast break.

"T.J.'s good against any defense," Barnes said. "People ask me obviously all week what he'll do [against the zone]. I can only tell you this, throughout the course of the game, I think at some point he'll figure out himself where he can be more effective."

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