- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2007

It was a creature thought to be extinct — or at least wiped out in an area where it once thrived.

There would be sightings from time to time, almost always fleeting glimpses, although the rare extended look provided a glimmer of hope a revival would one day arrive.

But after a long absence, the true big man is back on college basketball’s biggest stage.

When Ohio State’s Greg Oden and Georgetown’s Roy Hibbert meet Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, it will be the first time two 7-footers started on opposite sides in a Final Four game since Oklahoma State’s Bryant Reeves and UCLA’s George Zidek in the 1995 semifinals.

The last one before then? Try the 1985 semifinal matchup of St. John’s Bill Wennington and Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing.

Toss in Florida’s Al Horford and Joakim Noah — essentially a pair of power forwards but imposing presences nevertheless — and the possibility exists for the biggest Final Four post party since Ewing, Houston’s Akeem Olajuwon, Kentucky’s Sam Bowie and Virginia’s Olden Polynice played in the 1984 semifinals.

It’s tempting to blame the NBA for this historical dearth, and it is true many of the best high school giants skipped college in the last decade for professional riches. Indeed, there’s a good chance the encounter of Oden’s Buckeyes (34-3) and Hibbert’s Hoyas (30-6) would not have occurred if the NBA had not instituted an age minimum before last year’s draft.

But that would ignore two obvious realities, both connected with supply and demand. There isn’t a large pool of 7-footers at any level of basketball, and the paucity of semifinal slots each year weeds out nearly all of the big fellas before the NCAA tournament’s final weekend.

In fact, this meeting only happened after Georgetown barely survived Vanderbilt and North Carolina at the East regional and Ohio State erased significant holes in victories over Xavier and Tennessee.

“Not only do you have to have a 7-footer, but you have to have a 7-footer and get to the Final Four,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “Since there’s not many of them in the game in the first place and given how difficult it is to navigate to the Final Four, it’s not surprising that not many have met.”

Of course, all big men aren’t identical. The 7-foot-2 Hibbert and the 7-foot Oden are reflections of the style in which their respective coaches have rapidly constructed their programs.

Hibbert is a solid passer who has improved in three seasons at Georgetown. He fits perfectly into the Hoyas’ precise offensive system and has made a habit of finishing the opportunities funneled to him all year while averaging 12.7 points and 6.9 rebounds.

He is also, like most 7-footers, a defensive obstacle who discourages interlopers in the paint. North Carolina found out as Hibbert rolled up 11 rebounds and six blocks in Sunday’s regional final, which in part prompted the Tar Heels to settle for a flurry of outside shots in the game’s latter stages.

“Defensively, he bothers your inside game and makes it difficult for you to get those shots that you can normally make,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “Then offensively, he’s probably surprised some people with his agility and the way he can put the ball in the floor. … From what I know about him, he hasn’t been playing a long time, but I think he’s going to play a heck of a long time from here on out.”

The same is true of Oden. The Buckeyes freshman is a more traditional back-to-the-basket center — in the mold and quality of the great big men most NBA champions are built around — and his ability to run the floor reflects Ohio State’s willingness to push the pace at times.

Although he missed the Buckeyes’ first seven games, Oden was named a first-team All-American yesterday on the merit of averaging 15.4 points and 9.5 rebounds.

Both are team highs, and there is little doubt Oden will be a priority for the Hoyas.

“He’s a force down low, and we’re going to have to contain him and keep him off the boards,” Hibbert said of his impending matchup.

It could be the last encounter of 7-footers for some time, but there are ways for both Hibbert and Oden to thrive if they play to their respective strengths. One wild card that affected both bigs this weekend is foul trouble, and neither team can afford to lose its center for long stretches.

“Style of play is going to be an issue,” Bilas said. “Georgetown is so good at controlling the tempo and making you guard them. Ohio State is a good a 3-point shooting team — Georgetown’s good, too, but Ohio State is probably better and shoots more of them. It’s a formidable challenge for each to match the other.”

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