Friday, April 4, 2003
Point is simple: T.J.'s driven to win it all
By Bruce Feldman
ESPN The Magazine
NEW ORLEANS -- It made Oklahoma State star Victor Williams look lost. It made Oklahoma all-American Hollis Price look scared. And Saturday night, it will make Texas' T.J. Ford look like a superstar.
|T.J. Ford and Texas were all smiles as they worked their way to Final Four.|
The "it" is Syracuse's vaunted 2-3 zone. And it shapes up to be the perfect proving ground for the dynamic Longhorn point guard to show the country just what a special talent he is.
Ford is the kind of once-in-a-generation winner, the kind of player you can't measure with a box score. Only on the scoreboard. (Ford ended his prep career at Willowridge High on a 62-game winning streak.) He's also the main reason why the Horns are making their first Final Four appearance in 56 years.
"T.J.'s like Magic Johnson," UT reserve forward Chris Ogden said Friday. "T.J. doesn't have to score to control the game."
Yes, the comparison fits. Both played the point. Each led their teams to the Final Four as sophomore. And Ford, like Magic, has an incredible high basketball IQ.
"T.J.'s good pretty much against any defense," said Texas head coach Rick Barnes. "People ask me, obviously, all week about what he'll do. I can only tell you this, throughout the course of the game, I think at some point in time he'll figure out himself where he can be more effective.
"Whether we're going to have to move him around, bring him from different angles, and different areas. If you put him in one spot, they're going to lock into that. He has a great way at times of getting lost himself in terms of knowing where he wants to attack from. He's got a tremendous feel for the game."
The closest thing UT has seen to Syracuse's 2-3 zone was Temple's match-up zone two years ago in the NCAAs. That day, the Owls shot the lights out and Texas could never find its rhythm. The big difference in the Big Easy, though, is that game took place when the Longhorns' point guard was Ivan Wagner, a phenomenal athlete, but not the basketball player Ford is.
Ford will do just what he always does: find the soft spot and attack. Oklahoma State and Oklahoma never did find it against Syracuse. Auburn and Marquis Daniels eventually did, but it was too late -- the Tigers had dug too deep a hole for themselves.
Don't expect Texas to fall too far behind, if at all, Saturday night. The Big East has some very talented point guards, but none can drive and dish like Ford.
"In the zone, there is some type of weakness," Ford said. "You try and find one person who relaxes and you attack them, by driving or penetrating."
Ford said he's aware that the Cuse's pressure point will be directed at keeping him out of the lane.
"They're going to play their principles," he said. "They're a long team. I'm pretty sure they're going to try and keep me out of the paint. I'm going to do what I do best, which is get in the lane and create for my teammates.
"At times, you try to put in your head, no matter what the defense you're playing, you're not going to let them stop you from getting to the basket."
Syracuse will dare Ford to beat it with his jump shot, something he worked on all offseason. His jumper has shown some improvement -- he's hit on 26 percent of his 3s this year, up from 15 percent -- but let's not kid ourselves, his stroke is more like J.J. Walker than J.J. Redick.
But, like his teammates say, don't get fooled by the stats. In UT's six losses, Ford shot 35 percent from 3-point range and averaged almost 22 points. Ford's mid-range J (from 15-17 feet) is legit and that's something Price and the rest of the OU guys couldn't knock down in getting beat up by Syracuse last weekend.
Texas Tech coach Bob Knight says Ford is as difficult to prepare for as any kid he's ever watched on tape. Barnes says it's kind of "odd," but six or seven shots a game is usually what Ford wants to shoot. The kid believes that's how a winning point guard should play.
"He's just everything you could ever ask for in a point guard," said UT freshman Brad Buckman, a former McDonald's All-American. "Playing with him was a big reason why I came to UT."
Winning a national title is just a nice bonus.
Bruce Feldman is a writer at ESPN The Magazine.