— There are some things to look forward to Friday in Memphis. How will Oklahoma handle Syracuse’ 2-3 zone? Can North Carolina guard Gonzaga?
But I can’t help it. I have to jump ahead, just for a moment, to Sunday’s looming matchup: North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough vs. Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin.
These guys could fix their cold stares on a spoon and make it move. Their motors could power the space shuttle. I’m sure of it.
They get hammered in the post and hammer back. Hansbrough gets his nose smashed, his arms bruised; Griffin leaves a trail of blood after games. Yet they both walk away from the elbows and headhunters without retaliation, as if they have been trained by the same Zen master.
Griffin will be the No. 1 overall pick in June's NBA draft. Hansbrough is going to squeeze into the first round. That’s another reason to watch; Hansbrough could make the NBA think twice when he goes face-to-face with Griffin. College basketball doesn't provide many big-man showdowns these days that doesn't involve freshmen. Relish the chance.
But first, their teams have to reach the regional finals. We have to wait ... and hope.
North Carolina first has to deal with Gonzaga, which has been stuck behind the hump for 10 years now and hasn’t managed to get over it.
Oklahoma, meanwhile, plays Syracuse and its 2-3 zone that can fold down on Griffin, make him hard to find, and entice way too many three-point attempts by the other Sooners.
So here is what has to happen for us to see the big men battle:
Get Griffin the ball
The Sooners have to force feed Griffin. Oklahoma can't settle for perimeter shots and ignore its big guy. That's what Syracuse wants. Even if he passes the ball out of double teams, the Sooners should look for him again, and again.
Syracuse wants the other guys to shoot. If Griffin shoots 10 times, OU loses, easy. The Orange could also double the post, using two big men on Griffin at any time. He has scored almost 40 percent of Oklahoma's points in the tournament. The Orange want to stop that.
It’s hard. Big East teams are comfortable against Syracuse's 2-3 zone; teams outside the Big East look like they are trying to get gum out of their hair.
Griffin is going to have to flash to the high post, make one man guard him, and hit a mid-range jumper, or pass opposite to a guard who can penetrate and kick. He can't get bogged down in the zone defense. He did just fine against Michigan's 1-3-1 last week, going for 33 points and 17 rebounds, but the Wolverines don't have any size.
Syracuse, on the other hand, goes 6-foot-9 (Rick Jackson) and 6-foot-9 (Arinze Onuaku). Griffin will be forced to catch the ball on the foul line and shoot it from there, not camp on the baseline.
The magic number is 3
An NCAA tournament champion is supposed to have a minimum of three NBA guys. Gonzaga has at least two, forwards Josh Heytvelt and Austin Daye, and maybe four, if you throw in guard Jeremy Pargo and small forward Micah Downs, who are no better than late second-round guys.
The Zags score 79 points a game. Four players average double figures; two more average nine points an outing. Maybe if you combine Pargo and Downs you get the required three NBA dudes.
Point is, the Zags are not just the cute mid-major. They have the skill, big league talent.
The question is whether they have the courage. When it played a worthy opponent in February — that would be Memphis — Gonzaga was sacked and left at the curb as trash, losing 68-50.
Understand, Memphis is more athletic than North Carolina. The ball will not be deflected as much; the loose balls won’t be scooped up as quickly by the Heels.
What can’t happen is for Gonzaga to get whacked on the boards like it did against Memphis (37-21). That is where Heytvelt and Daye and their NBA ambitions come in. Can they compete with Hansbrough and Deon Thompson and the fabulous freshman Ed Davis on the glass?
I was at the regional in Charlotte last March when Washington State showed up with a nice team and the Tar Heels blew them away. Gonzaga, the next nice team from Washington state, is on deck and won’t get blown up as long as it competes on the boards.
Syracuse’ zone is a factor, and so is the season-long test the Orange faced in the Big East, which looks like the best conference, hands down. I like Oklahoma, 70-67, because Griffin is a rare player, but after what the Big East is doing in this tournament I could change my mind by the tip. Gonzaga’s skill is a consideration, but I like Carolina, 86-80, because Hansbrough has a fortitude that burns 40 minutes and much more help.
If I’m right, the willpower on display Sunday will light up an arena.