For lowdown on Final Four, look at big show down low

April 05, 2004|By Mike Preston

SAN ANTONIO - The matchup between Connecticut's Emeka Okafor and Georgia Tech's Luke Schenscher has become as intriguing as tonight's NCAA championship game itself, because dominant big men have gone the way of eight-track tapes and records.

The inside game is out; the perimeter game is in. Centers have been put on the shelves for more quick, penetrating guards and versatile forwards who can play inside and outside.

Even historians and diehard basketball fans are having a hard time remembering when the Final Four had at least two true dominating centers. What's it been, five years, 10 years? Or maybe 15?

Try 20.

The last time was when Georgetown had Patrick Ewing, and Hakeem Olajuwon was at Houston. So when the two teams appeared in pre-game news conferences yesterday, all the buzz was about Okafor-Schenscher II.

"I think the college game has been more about guards over the years," Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. "Even the great big men have had a hard time winning the championships, other than, say, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] or Bill Walton.

"Over the years, I think the guards you talk about like David Thompson, even the Villanova game [in 1985 over Georgetown] was more about the guard play of Gary McLain. It's been guards and forwards. It's great to see these two young men battle."

Now, college basketball's biggest game can focus on the two biggest men. There's the 6-foot-9, 252-pound Okafor, the Huskies' junior stud, and the rapidly improving, 7-1, 255-pound Schenscher, another junior.

But let's be honest, we're not talking Chamberlain-Russell here. Okafor has a strong game. He can dominate a college game with his defense, much as Bill Russell could when he was with the Boston Celtics. Schenscher's goal isn't to stop Okafor, but to contain him.

Schenscher has to establish enough presence in the middle, forcing Okafor to honor his game and not allowing him to freelance to the point where he is a terror to all of the Yellow Jackets inside. Okafor is extremely aggressive and might get into early foul trouble, which he did Saturday night against Duke, committing two in the first four minutes.

"He's just an athlete," Schenscher said. "He's big. He's strong. He's got great footwork around the basket. He's got great timing, blocking shots."

Schenscher has played well this season, too, but he is more of a project. He does a lot of dirty work in the Yellow Jackets' offense like setting picks and getting rebounds. He is actually a second option with the guards getting the first look.

But against Oklahoma State on Saturday night, Schenscher was of 9-for-13 from the field with 19 points and 12 rebounds. In the second half, the Yellow Jackets went to a spread offense and then pounded the ball inside to him.

"He is a real long player," Okafor said of the thinly built Schenscher. "You know, he's been really playing well these past couple games. I know he's going to make things difficult for me, just the fact he's 7-1, 7-2, can move pretty well."

The two met earlier this season in the Preseason NIT. You couldn't call either one a winner, because that's the first game when Okafor missed time with what was later diagnosed as a stress fracture in his back. Okafor was 2-for-10 from the field with 13 rebounds in a 77-61 loss.

Schenscher was 1-for-5 from the field with three rebounds. Hewitt was outraged after the game, insinuating there was a double standard for Okafor and Schenscher. He got in another jab yesterday, setting a tone for tonight's game.

"I thought he was getting an unfair whistle," Hewitt said about the first game. "For about two weeks, I went on a rampage."

Okafor will get more of the breaks tonight. Now that Duke and Coach K are gone, he is the NCAA's biggest star. He runs the court better than any other big man in America. The arms and chest are thick, mainly because of the 350 pounds he can bench press. Even his head seems to have muscles.

According to several NBA scouts, Okafor could have been one of the top five players in last year's draft. Now, he has moved up to the top three. This season, he averaged 17.5 points, 11.4 rebounds and 32.2 minutes. He has 52 career double doubles.

Schenscher has so few double doubles that Hewitt can remember them all. He has a few moves with his back to the basket - the baby hooks and short turnarounds jumpers - but can't square up and take players off the dribble as Okafor can.

Schenscher can, however, surprise you by the way he runs the court, and though he is averaging just 9.2 points, he has played well in several big games this season - against Duke, Maryland and then Oklahoma State on Saturday night.

But if Georgia Tech plans on winning the NCAA title, he may have to play his best game ever against Okafor in the battle of the big men.

"There is no question we don't like to call them centers; we like to call them power players," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "It's kind of the upgraded word for center, which makes it softer, so you don't feel like you have your back to the basket. Both kids are right.

"It's one of the few games where you're going to have legitimate guys who can put 20 on the board, double-figure rebound and affect the other team's offense by being a defensive presence inside. It's great to see that type of situation, because either one of those kids can alter the game. Obviously, I'm betting on my guy."

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