But before a team can depart on the journey, it needs to have confidence in its ride. Is it the right make and model for the haul? Does it have what it takes under the hood? Can it handle any course-changing shortcuts—or u turns—along the way? For Ohio State, UCLA, Florida and Georgetown, the answers to these questions revealed themselves long before this spring's fling. And now that these schools are finally packing the trunk, they'll tell you that getting there was half the fun.
BY CHAD NIELSEN
MAKE AND MODEL
OSU's preferred driving style is slow and straight ahead: Greg Oden wrestles in the low post while deliberate swing passes loosen up the D. Then the seven-footer spins into a soft jump hook. But when Grandpa Greg takes a breather, his teammates hit the gas. "I like watching when they get up and down the court like that," he says. "I can't run that fast."
The small, hustling squad that went 6—1 while Oden recuped from wrist surgery in the fall still revs it up when the Oden-behind-the-wheel Sunday drive bogs down. "When Greg is in the game, the ball has to go through him," says guard Jamar Butler. "When he goes to the bench," he says with a smile, "we can push it a little more."
Oden isn't about to let his teammates head off on an endless joyride, though. The Buckeyes have fallen behind in consecutive games with their big man on the bench, leaving no doubt who's in the driver's seat. "We have to get back to what got us here," says point guard Mike Conley Jr., "and that's banging it down low to Greg."
UNDER THE HOOD
Three months before winning the Oden lottery, coach Thad Matta picked up a lucky ticket in Dayton. Recruiters knew Oden and Conley Jr., best friends and high school teammates, would be a package deal, but no one else realized that AAU teammate Daequan Cook was the guy calling the shots. So when he committed to OSU in March 2005, the Buckeyes had already cashed in. "That was huge," says assistant Alan Major. "The three have played together so long, they're joined at the hip."
Sure enough, the pair from Indy were among the first to hear Cook's news. "We didn't know Daequan was gonna commit that early," says Conley Jr. "When he did, we decided we had to figure something out soon, because we wanted to be with him." The Buckeyes have been cruising ever since.
During his first recruiting season in Columbus, Coach Matta got a faxed letter from a sophomore who was looking to transfer from Bowling Green. "I am embarrassed to say we didn't know who he was," Matta says. Then again, the coach had scholarship slots to fill, so … "We were like, if he can walk and chew gum, we'll take him." Turns out, Ron Lewis looked good enough on tape—a decent shooter and penetrator—to earn one of those slots. And three years later, he's making Matta look shrewd. In the round of 32, he nailed an NBA three to force OT with two ticks left. In the Sweet 16, his 25 points paced a 20-point comeback over the Vols.
THE ROAD AHEAD
The Next Big Buckeye is Kosta Koufos, a 7'1", 250-pounder from … wait for it … Canton, Ohio. Koufos' parents emigrated from Greece when they were kids, and the big man's game is Euro-inspired: He's at his best facing the hoop and has a wicked outside shot. If Oden sticks around, Koufos will slide into the forward spot that will be vacated by outgoing senior Ivan Harris, making matchups a nightmare for every team they play. If Oden takes off for the league, Koufos just might be able to fill his size 18s in the point.
BY JOHN GUSTAFSON
UNDER THE HOOD
How do you get a program with a high-flying tradition to embrace a grind-it-out style that can be excruciating to watch? Find a coach as fierce as Ben Howland. Howland stopped a recent press conference three times to complain about noise. When asked why he did so, he barked, "I just like it to be run in proper fashion. I like to have the smallest details, and that's the difference between winning and losing." Now, that's hard-nosed D. And on the court, where UCLA holds foes to 59.5 ppg, the players display that same single-mindedness. Says center Lorenzo Mata: "I feel like he wants to go in the game and play defense with us." UCLA will forever be John Wooden's program, but this is Ben Howland's team. And with backto-back Final Four trips, it's his success, too.
MAKE AND MODEL
Those dogged defenders double the post, trap the ball, close out on the wings and get their hands on everything. "Each guy on this team does something special defensively," says Arron Afflalo. "Darren [Collison] does a great job pressuring the ball. Josh [Shipp] makes great help-side plays. Luc [Richard Mbah a Moute] and Lorenzo take charges and do things that don't go in the stat book."
Still, it always seems like opponents miss their fair share of easy shots. What's that all about? Watch closely—UCLA is a lot more physical than you think. So sure, you can get open looks; you just have to work extra hard to get them. And fatigue eventually affects focus. Kansas coach Bill Self said, "Their field goal percentage defense (42.5%) is good. It's not great." That was right after his team got just 55 points against the Bruins.
Shipp spent most of last year looking up, and not in a glass-half-full kind of way. A member of Howland's initial recruiting class, he wasn't the first to sign (Afflalo), nor the best (Jordan Farmar). But he was the most consistent as a frosh. Then he tore hip cartilage in a summer league game, which limited him to four painful outings before he chose to redshirt last season. On crutches for a month, he often sat in a chair beneath the basket to practice his shooting as a team manager shagged his rebounds. "I remember those times well," he says. "It's not a good memory."
So Shipp was on the bench for the Bruins' march to last season's title game. That's also a time he'd rather forget. "I felt healthy, like I could try and play," he says. "It was tough knowing I could have helped the guys." He's getting his chance now, though he's a different player since the injury. Shipp says all that chair shooting hurt his jumper (he hit just 21% of his threes in Pac-10 play), but he has found his stroke recently (3-for-6 against Pitt), to become the third scorer the Bruins desperately need. Former Bruin Rico Hines gave him a T-shirt that reads "Shipp Happens." It's a lesson his March opponents are learning. too.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Chances are slim that Afflalo will bow to those chants of "One more year." He was ready to jump last season until his second-round stock sent him back to Westwood. But the arrival of 6'10", 250-pound center Kevin Love, one of the toprated preps in the nation, will ease everyone's pain. Howland calls him the best passing big since Bill Walton. "He's skilled, tough, unselfish and he wants to be here," says assistant Kerry Keating. "Those are four key attributes of every kid on this team."
BY ELENA BERGERON
MAKE AND MODEL
Coach Billy Donovan has spent more time channeling Anthony Robbins than teaching fundamentals this season. "It's been maybe 20% strategic, 80% motivational," says one assistant. Donovan brought in guests like Bill Belichick and Jerry West to lecture his NBA-bound brood on focus and inspiration.
Their lessons have made recent Gators press conferences sound more like cult confabs. Joakim Noah's favorite mantra this March? "Only the next 40 minutes are promised to us." As they busted up challengers in the early rounds, Al Horford kept spouting: "Their emotion comes and goes, but our passion is forever." Every win has drawn "We have to live in the moment" from Corey Brewer.
But as it turns out, the inspirational words most critical to Florida's postseason success came from the give-and-take among the players themselves. After Noah slogged through a fourpoint, three-rebound performance in a loss to LSU in February, his roommates, Horford, Brewer and Taurean Green, delivered a pep talk to UF's chest-thumping motivator. "We just told him to go out and play his game," says Brewer, "because the only people who matter are his teammates, coaches and family."
Noah appreciates the intervention. "You have 15 to 20 people calling you, trying to explain what you need to do. But the only people who know what we're going through are the four of us." Call it group therapy.
UNDER THE HOOD
This was once a motley pack of Gators. Donovan called the lanky Brewer "a giraffe on skates" when he first arrived. The one thing that set Horford apart from other big men? "A boyish enthusiasm about wanting to get better," says Donovan. Not exactly endorsements for future NBA All-Stars. Unlike the early-exiting Florida teams that preceded them, the Gators juniors have made consecutive Final Fours because, until last season, going pro early was a pipe dream for each of them. Says Noah, "I was behind David Lee when I came in, with no hope to get on the court. I didn't have any other goal except to get better." And who would argue that he and his buddies haven't accomplished that?
Everyone talks about how this Florida team is as good as it gets. Size, talent, heart—they have it all. Want to hear something scary? They could have been better. Sunshine State native Darius Washington Jr. broke Donovan's heart when he chose Memphis in 2004, and last year the Gators got a summer shock when 6'5" penetrator Doneal Mack's ACT scores couldn't get him into Florida. He ended up in Memphis, picking up the slack after Washington Jr. left early.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Next year could have been this year for freshman forwards Dan Werner and Marreese Speights. If Florida's title-winning stars had opted for the NBA, it would have been this duo starting alongside Lee Humphrey, Walter Hodge and Chris Richard today. But unlike most top preps, they were lured to Gainesville with the promise of a tutorial, not playing time. Werner, a 6'7" inside-outside threat, says, "I knew I would be playing with four or five pros here who know what it takes to win." Speights, an ambidextrous, 6'10" banger, credits a call from Horford last summer for his willingness to ride the bench now: "Practicing against them has taught me I can be gifted in a lot of things."
BY CHRIS BROUSSARD
UNDER THE HOOD
When John Thompson III recruited Jonathan Wallace for Princeton, the coach saw him as the perfect Ivy point—smart, solid, loaded with intangibles. When JT III got his dream job at Georgetown, he figured that same skill set would flourish in the Big East. "You win with good people,'' Thompson says. "The kind of person he is—that's why I wanted him around our program."
Now Wallace is a junior and doing what A.I., Charles Smith and Kevin Braswell couldn't do: leading the Hoyas in their first Final Four since 1985. "Jon is one of the most underrated points in the country,'' says 'mate Jeff Green. "He runs this team." Green saw firsthand what Wallace is made of when he visited the family ranch in Harvest, Ala., in the summer of 2005: Jonathan was up at dawn to feed the cows and till the garden.
The trip also gave the rest of the team—many of whom are DC or Baltimore natives—locker room fodder. "They tease me every day,'' Wallace says of his big-city teammates. But nothing rattles the guy who steers the Hoyas' precision Princeton O. And that's exactly why Thompson wanted him.
MAKE AND MODEL
At Georgetown, everyone knows that hoops royalty flows in the blood. Thing is, it also runs down to their toes. When the Hoyas entered the locker room at halftime when they were down 32-24 to Vandy in the regional semi, Green slipped out of the team's spanking-new, gray Air Jordan XXIIs and into the comfy, old, white Jordans he'd worn before. Not a word was said, but then Wallace changed too, then Jessie Sapp, Patrick Ewing Jr., and finally Hibbert.
"It was symbolic,'' Sapp says. "We had on new shoes, and we played like a new team in that first half. We wanted to go back to the old Georgetown team we'd been all year.''
The result was a perfect fit.
At Georgetown Prep, Roy Hibbert dreamed of wearing the same uniform as Patrick, 'Zo and Dikembe, to one day place his mug on Georgetown's Mount Rushmore of centers. But that was a mighty tall order for a guy scouts described as "awkward" and "goofy."
And that wasn't just what the scouts said. "I thought he was the worst seven-footer I'd ever seen,'' says Ewing Jr. "He couldn't run up and down the court." But you know what they say about coaching height. Anyway, the thenunder-the-radar Hoyas could take a chance on a 7'2" guy, however uncoordinated.
The kid jumped rope to fix his footwork, hit the weight room and went to "summer school,'' G-town style. And when the Hoyas greats returned to campus for workouts, Hibbert got a crash course in bigness—'Zo covered Hook Shot 101, Dikembe schooled him in the art of rejections and Patrick got in his head about rebounding.
Hibbert knew the work was paying off last summer when he blocked one of Dikembe's shots. "He blocked mine plenty of times too,'' the junior says. "I still have a long way to go."
But he's already come far enough to convince one former skeptic. "Now" says Ewing Jr., "I think he's great."
THE ROAD AHEAD
If you think the Hoyas have regained their 1980s swagger, just wait. Not only could they be the defending national champs next season, they could have everyone back. Juniors Green and Hibbert are sure first-round NBA picks, but neither is certain to depart. "Georgetown is my home,'' Hibbert says. "I'm not in any rush to go right now.''
Could be the beginning of another smooth ride.