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Originally published March 28, 2009 at 5:07 PM | Page modified March 29, 2009 at 12:07 AM

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Steve Kelley

Oklahoma's Blake Griffin meets North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough in classic matchup

In this weekend's marquee matchup, North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough, last season's college player of the year, will meet Blake Griffin from Oklahoma, the consensus choice to be this season's player of the year, in the South Regional final. Remember the Titans. "With these two guys, you have everything that's right about college basketball," Capel said at Saturday's media session. "Both are great ambassadors for the game, and they play the game the right way."

Seattle Times staff columnist

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Jeff Capel remembers an excitement similar to this in 1994. His Duke team, with Grant Hill, was playing in the Elite Eight against Glenn Robinson and Purdue.

The two best players in college basketball were competing for the right to go to the Final Four. It was the best of buzz.

"There was so much anticipation for that game," said Oklahoma coach Capel, who was a freshman point guard for Duke in '94. "That's how this game feels. I can understand the fans' excitement."

In this weekend's marquee matchup, North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough, last season's college player of the year, will meet Blake Griffin from Oklahoma, the consensus choice to be this season's player of the year, in the South Regional final.

Remember the titans.

"With these two guys, you have everything that's right about college basketball," Capel said at Saturday's media session. "Both are great ambassadors for the game, and they play the game the right way."

Who said the heavyweight division has been watered down? Who said the knockout punch is dead? That bigs are history? This afternoon inside Fed Ex Forum, there will be blood.

Oklahoma's magnificent Griffin will take the game into the paint against North Carolina's indefatigable Hansbrough in an old-school game of hard knocks.

They will remind us that, as beautiful as basketball can be, championships are won with elbows and elbow grease, with a willingness to sacrifice a nose, or a chin or a cheek to get one more rebound.

They will narrow the game into the 15-foot rectangle between the foul line and the baseline and they won't back away from each other for one second, for one possession. It won't always be pretty, but it will be serious fun.

"Blake is physically more gifted, more explosive," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "Tyler is just so focused on being the best player he's going to be. I don't think Tyler can take his game to another level, because that level doesn't exist."

In Oklahoma's Sweet 16 beatdown of Syracuse, 6-foot-10 sophomore Griffin scored 30 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. He dove on the floor like a base stealer to win loose balls, he punched rebounds like a volleyballer, igniting fastbreaks.

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"It is a unique set of skills," Williams said of Griffin. "The mixture of explosiveness, quickness and power. You don't find that very often. I can't imagine a player with a better package than Blake has."

And after Griffin's game, on the same floor, the 6-9 Hansbrough kept coming at Gonzaga's big men like some 21st-century Joe Frazier. He had 24 points and 10 rebounds in Carolina's 98-77 win. It was his 46th career double-double.

"It's his tenacity," Griffin said of Hansbrough. "The way he doesn't stop playing until he's made it or gotten to the foul line. It seems like he never gives up and he's always ready to go."

These aren't classic big men. They aren't seven footers, but they are big. Griffin weighs 255 pounds. Hansbrough is a mere 250. Griffin is all muscle and hops. Hansbrough is mania and mad.

This a matchup to die for, even if the two combatants don't look at it that way.

"It's not me going out there and trying to play one-on-one," Hansbrough said. "I'm not going to try to make it bigger than it is and be out there playing selfishly."

And Griffin said he had no beef with Hansbrough. "It's exciting, but I'm not going to try to break away from the team concept to try to beat him," he said. "I have a lot of respect for him, but the game is going to be Oklahoma and North Carolina."

Griffin is averaging 22.7 points and 14.4 rebounds a game. Only a concussion stopped him this season. He was hurt after playing 11 minutes against Texas. Oklahoma (30-5) lost that game and the following game against Kansas.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said last week that Oklahoma, a two seed, would have been a one seed and maybe the tournament's top seed, except for Griffin's concussion.

Meanwhile, in his 139 games at Carolina, Hansbrough has averaged 20.3 points and 8.6 rebounds.

"He has that ferocity," Williams said of his post man. "He has that determination. He has that tunnel vision. The cameras will be on both of them. They'll have the split screen and they'll be giving us comparisons on how both of them are doing, but [Hansbrough] will only be concerned with which team is winning."

Griffin could be the No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft, and just imagine how much our good friend and Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett would like the ping-pong balls to fall for him, the way they did in 2007, when the Sonics won the right to draft Kevin Durant.

Hansbrough probably will be a mid-first-round pick and will be more of a role player, a banger and shot of adrenaline coming off the bench.

But that's all part of the future, irrelevant to the epic we will watch today. The game's two best players are meeting to see whose team will go to the Final Four.

Isn't March beautiful?

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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