Oden, Wisconsin and lots more
Feb. 27, 2007 | feedback
Caught a slew of college basketball games over the past three days (Indiana-Michigan State, Florida-LSU, Syracuse-Georgetown, Wisconsin-OSU and Kansas-Oklahoma) and toggled to catch pieces of 7-8 other games (like the Maryland-UNC ending). Some scattered thoughts
• I've watched eight OSU games and haven't seen a dominant Greg Oden performance yet. In their biggest game on Sunday (a No. 1 vs. No. 2 battle against Wisconsin), Oden submitted the following line: 35 minutes, 11 points, 5 rebounds and 4 blocks (three of them leading to fast-break baskets). Not a bad game but not even remotely dominant.
For the season, Oden's averaging 15.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game (very good stats, but not eye-opening or anything). He doesn't have any low-post moves other than an ugly-but-effective jump-hook. He's an OK passer but certainly not Walton-esque. He doesn't play with the same ferocious, intimidating fire that Alonzo Mourning displayed at Georgetown. He isn't a dominant, physical presence along the lines of Shaq at LSU, or an extraordinary athlete like Hakeem Olajuwon at Houston, or a gifted natural scorer like David Robinson at Navy. Everyone seems to think he's a mortal lock to evolve into a franchise center and I have to say, I haven't seen it yet. If OSU ever played Texas, there's no doubt in my mind that Kevin Durant would emerge as the alpha dog on the court.
We'll give Oden the benefit of the doubt for the following things:
1. He's playing with a broken right wrist that hasn't totally healed yet. This needs to be mentioned constantly -- he's even shooting left-handed free throws like Bo Kimble. So maybe Oden has more low-post moves and a 15-foot jumper in his arsenal, but the injured wrist is preventing him from showing off those things, so we've been watching a steady diet of jump-hooks, layups and dunks. Also, when I was chatting Bill Walton's right ear off in Vegas, Oden came up and Walton made a salient point that I haven't heard anywhere else: Walton believes that Oden's injured wrist prevents him from flying up and down the court, jumping over people for rebounds and leaping into crowds to block shots because he's constantly afraid of tripping, falling and re-injuring his wrist. When Walton told me this, he specifically said: "Watch Oden and watch how under-control he is at all times. You never see him let loose."
Well, he was right. Against Wisconsin, Oden seemed like he was driving a race car in third gear for the entire game. Anyway, Walton believes that we won't see the real Oden until next year, when he can finally let loose in the NBA with a healthy body. And you know what? He's probably right. On the other hand, what if he's not?
2. He's a freshman and he's only 18. True centers take longer to grow into their bodies, which explains some of Oden's clumsiness around the basket (at times, he almost reminds me of Nazr Mohammed and that's not a good thing). So when you watch him this season, you have to remember that this is the worst he will ever look during the next 15 years.
3. I know he's getting killed for his lack of passion/intensity during games, but maybe he's just a mellow, thoughtful, good-hearted guy, someone quirky enough that some people actually believe he'd pass up the draft and remain at OSU simply because he enjoys college life so much. The more I watch him, the more he reminds me of Robert Parish -- not just because he's mellow like the Chief, but also because he doesn't feel the need to PRETEND he's anything other than mellow. For instance, Patrick Ewing's fatal flaw was his misguided attempt to "evolve" into a passionate leader -- which basically consisted of his (A) making jumpers and screaming at the top of his lungs, or (B) running over to a teammate who just made a big shot and screaming at the top of his lungs. It always seemed disingenuous to me, like he was trying to portray a character or something ("I'm the vocal franchise center and I can lead this team!"). In the long run, it hurt his game to some degree -- Ewing didn't have a dominant personality, he wasn't an alpha dog, and above everything else that's why the Knicks never won a championship during his era.
Oden has a self-awareness than Ewing lacked (and still lacks, as evidenced by his surreal attempt to reinvent himself as a 7-foot Ed McMahon on Ahmad Rashad's remarkably bizarre NBA TV talk show), which is why Parish's personality is a perfect comparison for Oden. The Chief never cared about stats, or touches, or showing off or any of that crap. He just wanted to win. I think Oden could be described the same way, and if you don't believe me, watch the way he blocks shots -- just like Bill Russell and Walton, he doesn't block shots as much as he deflects them and keeps them in play (so they'll lead to a potential fast break). It's the single best thing about his game, an innate skill that can't be learned.
So here's my scouting report on Oden through the third week of February: I just don't know yet. The wrist throws EVERYTHING off. There's a legitimate chance we're seeing only about 60 percent of what he could have inflicted with a healthy body and once we get closer to the draft, any NBA team picking first will work themselves into a lather that (A) Oden's wrist hindered him more than anyone realized, and (B) if that's true, then they don't want to be the idiots who passed on Oden someday. Which means there's no way in hell that Oden will go second in the 2007 NBA draft, rendering every "Oden or Durant?" discussion meaningless unless Durant blows everyone out of the water next month like Melo did in 2003. Anything less and Oden goes first. Nobody will have the balls to pass him up. Remember, it's the No Balls Association.
• Lost in OSU's nail-biting win on Sunday: A terrific road effort by the Badgers, who survived a bad shooting day (35 percent overall, 5-for-15 from Alando Tucker) and hung around for most of the game because of their defense, then made a run in the final 10 minutes when freshman guard Jason Bohannon made some 3-pointers to get them going. From everything I've seen this season, Wisconsin and Texas A&M are the two blowout-proof top-20 teams -- in other words, they're too balanced and smart and well-coached to get blown out of a game. That's a great quality for March, right? If I had to pick a Final Four right now, I'd go with Kansas, Wisconsin, Texas A&M and a Dark Horse To Be Named Later (for instance, I want to see what Durant and the Longhorns do against the Aggies on Wednesday night).
• Speaking of dark horses, I've been enjoying the hell out of MSU lately because of Drew Neitzel, their leading scorer (18.4 per game) and, more importantly, one of those galvanizing, Adam Morrison-like presences who gets everyone going just by nailing a couple 3s. There's a lot to love: He looks like he's recovering from five months of chemo (woefully skinny, crew cut, the whole thing); he shoots every 3 at an impossible angle (usually after he comes off a pick, with his body leaning at a 20-degree angle); his fist-pumping theatrics after every big shot are almost unparalleled (he makes some of Adam Morrison's work at Gonzaga look Oden-esque); and if that's not enough, his mom looks exactly like him, if you threw a wig on him and gave him some glasses.
Anyway, I know MSU nearly blew its season with a four-game losing streak around the Super Bowl, but two of those losses were to OSU and the other two came on the road (at Purdue and Illinois). Let's see what happens in its next two road games (tonight at Michigan, Saturday at Wisconsin). I'm mildly intrigued.
(All right, fine -- the Spartans have no chance whatsoever of making any noise next month. You're right. Except for Wisconsin and OSU, the Big Ten stinks. But can you let me enjoy the Neitzel era for a few more weeks, please? Thanks.)
• In case you missed it, the Syracuse fans charged the court after toppling Georgetown on Monday night. The NCAA needs to pass a new rule: Students are only allowed to charge the court if their team (A) just won a tournament, (B) upset the No. 1 team in the nation, (C) advanced to the Final Four, or (D) beat Duke and made Coach K nearly cry during the game to the point that he looked like a quivering ninny. Under no other scenario is court-charging acceptable -- if it happens under any other circumstance, you forfeit the game. Case closed.
• Can you remember two freshman point guards coming in at the same time who were as good as D.J. Augustin and Mike Conley Jr.? I can't believe I'm about to praise Billy Packer, but he made a great point near the end of the OSU-Wisconsin game -- Conley was deferring to his teammates and ignoring the fact that he's their best creator, so Packer pointed out, "Look, Conley's the guy that needs to win this game for them" about two minutes before Conley's game-winning drive in the final few seconds. That's one of the dynamics that makes next month so hard to figure out -- both Conley AND Augustin are still learning on the job. What if everything comes together for one of them within the next few weeks? That would make each of their teams nearly unbeatable, right?
• Speaking of Conley, do yourself a favor and check out this YouTube clip of his father (the Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump) lighting it up in a celebrity slam dunk contest -- not just for Conley's dunks (which were ridiculous, especially the last one) but the Junior Griffey/Deion Sanders dunks. Can't ESPN Classic bump the 24-hour nonstop poker reruns and air the tape of this entire contest? Would that be too much to ask?
• During the Kansas-Oklahoma game, Julian Wright submitted the single best half I've seen from a college player this season -- the first half, when Kansas rolled to a 33-19 lead on the road because Wright was destroying the Sooners in every possible way. If you haven't seen him yet, he's a 6-foot-8 forward who plays the way we always wanted Tim Thomas and Billy Owens to play. In other words, he's a truly gifted passer, breaks a sweat on defense, makes 18-footers, crashes the boards, busts his butt filling the wing on fast breaks and actually seems to give a crap.
His passing separates him from everyone else. During one play last night, he was isolated on the right side, waved one of his post players (I forget which one) over to the same side, then threw him a perfect entry bounce pass that enabled the guy to immediately spin around for an easy layup. I'm putting this sentence in caps to emphasize the significance here: COLLEGE PLAYERS DO NOT NORMALLY MAKE PLAYS LIKE THIS. Assuming he enters the NBA next season (nobody knows if he's coming out), he'd join Boris Diaw, LeBron and Tim Duncan as one of the best passing forwards in the league. He has a real chance to become a significant pro. Anyway, if the Celtics finish last and guarantee themselves a top-four pick, obviously it would be catastrophic to lose out on Oden or Durant but Joakim Noah and Julian Wright are clearly 3A and 3B in this draft, which means the Celtics would be getting a blue-chipper at any of the top four spots. Small consolation, but still.
(As for Brandan Wright, he bricked the game-tying free throws at Maryland in the final three seconds and looked terrified the entire time. These are the things I will remember when I'm ranking my top 10 draft prospects in four months. And yes, I have him ranked a distant fifth right now behind Durant, Oden, Noah and Wright.)
• One more thing on Kansas: The Jayhawks have the highest ceiling of any college team (including Florida). They go eight-deep with four legitimate blue-chippers (Wright, Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush and Darrell Arthur, who played only six minutes last night), they have guards who can handle the ball and run fast breaks, they have 3-point shooters, they have low-post guys and if that's not enough, they enjoy playing with one another.
Meanwhile, Florida seems burned out to me; there's a been-there-done-that dynamic with them that none of the other teams have. Playing on the road against LSU on Saturday, the Gators submitted one of the all-time mail-ins and prompted Billy Donovan to say after the game, "They looked like a team that just won a championship, and competing maybe wasn't the most important thing on their mind here today."
Ummmmmm that's not a good quote for a coach to be saying about his team in late-February. I know they struggled at a similar time last season and turned the jets on and ran away with the title, but the current talent level in college hoops obliterates the crapfest we collectively endured last March. Just look at last year's Final Four: Florida, George Mason, UCLA and LSU. Could those last three teams have beaten any of the top 10 teams this season? No way. (Note: I think this year's UCLA team is better than last year's UCLA team.) Hell, just look at the draft prospects from last March to this March -- Oden, Durant, Noah, the Wrights and even Al Horford are more highly regarded than anyone from last year's draft. Thanks to the historic influx of quality freshman and some of the guys who stuck around, we're looking at the deepest pool of good college players in 10 years, since the '96-'97 stretch that featured Duncan, Keith Van Horn, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Mike Bibby, Marcus Camby, Stephon Marbury, Kerry Kittles, all the Kentucky/Syracuse guys, Steve Nash, Brevin Knight and everyone else. You can't coast for a couple of weeks, then turn it on in the tournament. Not this season.
• Games I'll definitely be watching/TiVo-ing this week: MSU-Michigan (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN); Florida-Tennessee (Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN); Maryland-Duke and Texas A&M-Texas (Wednesday, 9 p.m. on ESPN and ESPN2 -- toggle alert!); Nevada-Utah State (Thursday, 9 p.m., Comcast West); MSU-Wisconsin (Saturday, noon, ESPN); Duke-North Carolina (Sunday, 4 p.m., CBS); and as many of the weekend conference tournament finals as possible. Now I just need to break the news to the Sports Gal without risking a divorce.
• Three announcer comments and then I'm done:
1. When ESPN builds the ErinMobile next year to make sure Erin Andrews works every relevant ESPN telecast as the sideline reporter, they need to give Dan Shulman a bedroom on the bus so he can work all the games as well. He's my favorite basketball announcer who doesn't have the first name "Marv."
2. Congrats to Gus Johnson for starting the "Jo Noah" trend. I like it.
3. ESPN keeps trying a three-man booth with Sean McDonough, Jay Bilas and Bill Raftery. Since when did we decide we needed three guys to announce a two-hour college basketball game? After actually attempting to provide color for two games (we're running that column Wednesday on Page 2), I can't even fathom what it would have been like with a third guy in there. What's the point? I like Bilas on his own, and Raftery remains one of my favorite color guys ever (in any sport). Why team them together? So they can accidentally interrupt each other for two hours? These are the things I don't get.