Archive for Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Final Four star power will be on sidelines

March 31, 2004

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Looking at Duke's roster, it's easy to find a number of good players, but only one household name.

That would be the coach, Mike Krzyzewski.

Over the past decade or so, college basketball has slowly turned into a showcase more for big-name coaches than superstar players. That reality will be seen clearly this year at the sport's biggest event, the Final Four.

With apologies to Chris Duhon, Emeka Okafor, B.J. Elder and the rest, the coaches will be more recognizable than most of the players this week when Duke (Krzyzewski) plays Connecticut (Jim Calhoun) and Oklahoma State (Eddie Sutton) plays Georgia Tech (Paul Hewitt, the only relative unknown).

"What people like seeing is the teams," Calhoun said. "The name on the front of the jersey is more important than the name on the back of the jersey. I think people still relate to that."

Good thing, because dwindling are the days of Bird vs. Magic, the Fab Five, and the great four-year college standouts like Patrick Ewing, Steve Alford, Christian Laettner and Mateen Cleaves.

There are many factors in play, although the prime reason for the shift is the large increase in players who leave school early to go pro. It forces coaches to adjust -- not only their Xs and Os, but the way they recruit, too.

"I'm a big believer in developing depth," Hewitt said.

Indeed, more and more coaches are trying to recruit solid players, guys who can contribute for three or four years.

Florida's Billy Donovan gets praised for routinely collecting top-five recruiting classes, but many of those recruits leave early and some, like Kwame Brown, never enroll. The Gators haven't made it out of the first weekend of the tournament in four years.

On the other hand, there are examples like Maryland's 2002 championship team. Two key players -- Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter -- were seniors. Neither was considered a big-time star at any point in their college careers.

"They developed depth, played eight, nine players, had a solid inside game and a very, very solid team," Hewitt said of the Terps.

That's not to say there aren't great players in college.

Just last season, Syracuse won a national championship, defeating Kansas University in the final, largely on the strength of freshman Carmelo Anthony. Orangemen coach Jim Boeheim knew Anthony might leave when he recruited him, but there were no regrets.

"I knew he would help us," Boeheim said last year. "I knew he'd be a special player. We were talking about him being the player of the year in college basketball. We weren't talking about being the freshman of the year. We thought he honestly had a chance to be the best player in college basketball."

Krzyzewski, meanwhile, has been a master of keeping players around for longer than many people expect. The last time Duke was at the Final Four, in 2001, the Blue Devils won it all largely on the shoulders of Shane Battier, who stayed for his senior year when he had the game to leave early.

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