Inside the College Game

Thu, 01/18/2007 - 4:48pm

By Adi Joseph

[img_assist|nid=4041|title=Kevin Durant - AP Photo: Brody Schmidt|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=250|height=369]Kevin Durant, welcome to manhood.

Durant made a statement in Tuesday’s triple-OT loss to Oklahoma State. While much of the nation seemed to be fawning over Durant’s God-given talent and athleticism, those of us who had seen Durant multiple times this season had to like something else we saw in the budding star.

He’s reached another level. He’s beginning to truly understand just how talented he is.

Durant was begging for the ball at times, and Texas had no issues giving him everything he wanted. After letting the game come to him for much of the early part of the season, the Longhorn freshman took the ball and the game into his own hands, and delivered. Let’s not forget that if Mario Boggan’s remarkable game winning three-pointer doesn’t fall, Durant is seen as a hero for his tremendous three-point play to give Texas the lead.

Boggan had a hell of a game, don’t get me wrong. He one-upped Durant at every opportunity, and put up a truly astounding performance. To put things into perspective, just remember this guy is a juco transfer. But watching Durant develop from boy to man in a single game was something special.

That game qualifies as one of the two or three best regular season games I have ever seen. It was two unique teams playing with a relentless passion and incredible skill. Both teams will undoubtedly be playing in the NCAA Tournament, and right now I have a hard time believing either will disappoint.

The game was a test of one of the most underappreciated aspects of basketball greatness: character. The greatest basketball players ever all had magnanimous personas. You could get a sense of who they were based on watching them play on the court, from Michael Jordan’s tongue-flailing competitive intensity to Karl Malone’’s blue-collar determination.

Watching those two players in the NBA Finals in back-to-back years left a huge impression on me, that greatness cannot be defined in terms of skill-sets and stat lines. Kevin Durant has matured over the course of this year, and I believe he is now understanding that. Tuesday, he begun to define his persona.

With that said, the focus of this week’s column is going to be persona - players with real heart and intensity.

Unseen, Unheard, Unheralded

Who’s Flying Under the Radar?

1. Stanford Cardinal (11-4, 3-2 Pac-10)

Who would have thought that the Cardinal would be a true tournament contender? After beating the Washington teams over the past week, the Cardinal have made their move to the top of the mid-level Pac-10 teams searching for tournament bids. The Lopez twins are exciting and talented, but the players that power this team are swingman Lawrence Hill and guard Anthony Goods, who were responsible for the game winning shots in the past three wins (at Virginia, Washington, and Washington State). The three games were won by a grand total of five points, a sign of a team that knows what it is doing late in the game.

2. Kelvin Sampson, Indiana Coach

Indiana is quietly in the process of firmly entrenching itself as the third best team in the Big-10, and Hoosiers fans can thank Coach Sampson for the rebound season. The players loved Mike Davis, but they work for Sampson. He has this team playing defense as well as anyone in the country, despite a relative lack of athleticism and length. He has D.J. White playing the post like an animal, and demonstrating some of the best footwork and mechanics in the nation. He has fixed a flawed and questionable rotation, and found his footing in the Big 10. Sampson should be in the running for coach of the year, and his team is one of the grittiest in the country.

3. David Padgett, Louisville Center

Padgett is a different sort of persona than we’d traditionally discuss. He’s not the in-your-face-intensity type. However, when Padgett is prowling the post for the Cardinals, the team is simply better. His minutes and talents have been severely hampered by injury all year, but the success of Louisville’s season rests on whether Padgett can emerge out of the pain and play. He doesn’’t need to put up big numbers or have the offense run through him, he just seems to calm his teammates and give them reliability with his steady play and 64.6 field goal percentage. If Padgett is healthy next season, and Terrence Williams continues to improve at a torrid pace, the Cardinals will be a future contender.

Personality Test

Players With Persona

Juan Dixon had it. So did Gerry McNamara. Shane Battier exemplified it, and Mateen Cleaves showed us just how far it can take a team.

Persona is a huge underlying intangible in basketball player. “It” is what separates the very good from the great. “It” launched Gilbert Arenas from second round pick to top 10 player. Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, Tiger Woods - they all have “it.”

I’m a believer in the philosophy that a team needs more than just outstanding talent and coaching to win a national championship. Persona is the most difficult element of a great team to measure.

The Spurs took Tim Duncan’s serious and calculated mentality. The Lakers took the cockiness of Kobe and blended it with the light-heartedly intense enigma of Shaq Daddy. The Heat, last year’s NBA Champs, simply refused to lose - thanks largely to the relentless Dwyane Wade.

Many college teams take the persona of their coaches. However, having a player who can carry the character of a team has proven infinitely valuable as well. It doesn’t have to be a big name player - for instance, Taliek Brown gave Connecticut’’s 2004 Championship team its personality, in my opinion. For this week’’s feature, I’m going to discuss several players that have “it.”

1. Joakim Noah, Florida Center
Alright, it was an easy choice. But it had to be said. Noah’s emotion carried the Gators to the Championship last season, and could very well carry them back this time around. He loves the game and his teammates truly feed off of his energy. Hustle and team mentality have defined Noah, and backed a skill-set that would be completely unimpressive on an apathetic player.

2. John Oates, Boston College Forward
Statistically, Oates is rather unimpressive. He has been a role player for the Eagles this season, and doesn’t seem to do anything particularly well. However, the intensity he brings to the court his a huge momentum booster for Al Skinner’s club. When Oates is on, the Eagles soar - he was missing for late December losses to Kansas and Duquesne. With Sean Williams and Akida McClain dismissed from the team, Oates will be asked to take on a significantly bigger role.

3. Alando Tucker, Wisconsin Forward
The fifth year senior and currently popular choice for Player of the Year awards has developed himself into a star over the past two seasons. However, Tucker is more than just a great player, he is a great leader on a team that he makes great. The Badgers rely on Tucker to carry them when they struggle and he has had some of his biggest games against top competition. Tucker represents everything people talk about when they say “senior leadership.”

4. Byron Eaton, Oklahoma State Guard
This guy is the ultimate hard-nosed player in the NCAA. His stocky frame was built for playing running back, and his relentless attacks through the lane remind me more of Barry Sanders than Michael Jordan. Eaton was an option-quarterback in high school, and he shows the same toughness and leadership on the hardwood as is expected on the gridiron. He makes the most out of his abilities and can take the Cowboys on his back at times, despite not being their most talented player.

5. D.J. Strawberry, Maryland Guard
The typical Maryland game has at least one moment where this happens: the Terps are in a cold spell shooting and letting the lead slip away, when Strawberry steals the ball, pushes it up court, throws down a big dunk to fire up the crowd, punches his chest, and reinvigorates his team. Strawberry has improved by leaps and bounds this season, and his move back to the wing has allowed him more comfort and seen him emerge as a true senior leader under Gary Williams.

Game Notes:
Unless Memphis loses in the league tournament, it is tough to imagine Conference USA getting an at-large bid. Since the Big East robbed it blind, CUSA has had a tough time getting back on the track to being a top mid-major conference… Virginia Tech’’s defeats of Duke and North Carolina are huge, but still not enough to allow the Hokies to relax. A poor non-conference season means Tech will need a couple more big wins to solidify their spot in the Big Dance… Below Pitt, the Big East is a mess. It is nearly impossible to sort out which teams will make the NCAA Tournament, although you can probably count on seven bids minimum for the league… If Nevada can run through conference play without a loss, you’’re going to have a tough time telling me they don’t deserve at least a two seed… One thing I haven’t seen brought up much is that Butler came into this year with no hype within their own conference. Many experts picked them to finish in the range of fifth to seventh in the Horizon league, now they are looking at a potential five seed in the NCAA Tournament… Washington’s 1-5 conference record is horrendous. Lorenzo Romar had better rally his troops soon, or they’ll be NIT bound… I’ve narrowed my search for the worst team in the BCS conferences to three: Colorado, Arizona State, and Minnesota. You’ll hear back when I’ve made my decision, The Buffaloes had been on top until beating Iowa State Wednesday… The Missouri Valley may have the most intense regular season in college basketball, as every game means so much to a conference that probably will only get four bids max. Southern Illinois’s loss to Evansville (mid-tier MVC) moves them out of the conference driver’s seat, a much bigger deal than Virginia Tech’s (mid-tier ACC) win over North Carolina (conference elite)… It’s been a good week. Keep watching and keep reading.

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