Size matters, in both matchups

ATLANTA - Turns out, along with being a good shot-blocker, rebounder, scorer and future millionaire, Greg Oden is a helluva hide-and-seek player.

Rumor had it Oden was at the center of a crush of tape recorders, cameras and media folk descending on the Ohio State locker room as soon as it opened yesterday during the pre-Final Four press availability, but, short of a passing glimpse of a bushy eyebrow, it was impossible to tell whether it was the Ohio State super freshman attracting all of the attention or Brooke Shields.

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Ohio State's Greg Oden practices free throws during yesterday's workout.

For some reason, instead of standing and looking over the crowd, the 7-foot, 280-pounder chose to sit on a stool, his frame folded in half flanked by his two usual bodyguards - a pair of student managers who, maybe in platform shoes, come up to his armpit.

Frankly, this weekend, there will be no hiding for Oden. As the college basketball season comes down to its three remaining games, this Final Four is all about the big men - who has them, who doesn't, and how it all matters.

Tonight's first national semifinal pits two 7-footers in Oden and Georgetown's Roy Hibbert, a novelty that hasn't been seen since Patrick Ewing squared off against Akeem Olajuwon in the 1984 national championship game (though John Thompson Jr., Georgetown's coach back then, was quick to remind everyone that Oden and Hibbert are "novices; they aren't Patrick and Olajuwon").

The second game offers a subtler version of things, with Florida's Joakim Noah and Al Horford offering up the X factor. If UCLA can't stop the Gators' two big men, the score might get as ugly as it did last year when the Bruins and Florida met in the national championship.

Oden thinks too much is being made of all of this big-man talk.

"It's a team game, five on five," he said, but there's no denying this Final Four offers a noticeable shift in the landscape of college basketball. Only a year ago, Villanova turned its four-guard novelty into an Elite Eight run, riding the wave of guard play that has dominated college hoops since the NBA started plucking anyone over 6-10 straight out of high school.

"All of the big guys went the way of the buffalo," said former Georgetown coach John Thompson (pops of current Georgetown coach JT3). "They all went out and started taking jump shots."

They are here now, ready to take their places in the blocks on the low post for different reasons. Oden is here because he has to be. The age restriction established last year by the NBA put off the money train for at least a year. (OK, a year. Oden won't bite on questions about next season, but does anyone really believe he's coming back?)

Hibbert also is here because he has to be, but because he needed 3 years to grow into himself. The elder Thompson once referred to Hibbert as "the big stiff."

Stifled twice by Villanova this season - he went 0-for-0 from the floor and scored two points in the first game and took only four shots and scored four points in the second - Hibbert didn't become the dominant force he's been during this tournament until after those games, when he recognized his passiveness was hurting his team.

"I never knew how rare this was until I started getting all the questions this week," Hibbert, surrounded by his own media crush outside the Georgetown locker room, said about his date with Oden. "I think it's going to be a fun matchup."

Oden's not so sure.

"I'd rather play against a guy that's smaller than me," he said with a smile.

For Florida, size really will matter. The Gators' pair of big men, Noah and Horford have UCLA center Lorenzo Mata by 2 inches.

And, well, there are two of them.

"When you say 'guys like that,' there just aren't guys like that," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "I mean, they're a rarefied duo. I can't think of another one in recent memory that has two lottery picks, because they are both NBA lottery picks when they decide to come out, either this year or a year from now."

Howland will have to rely on what has gotten the Bruins this far. UCLA's defense has been nothing shy of stifling, an all-out attack that Howland has made his trademark. The Bruins this season ranked 16th in the nation in scoring defense, holding opponents to 59.5 points per game.

Never will that matter more than tonight. A year ago, UCLA tried to run with Florida and promptly got run out of Indianapolis, blown out and humiliated in the national championship game.

The same could happen again if guards Nick Collison and Arron Afflalo don't do everything they can to make sure the ball never finds its way inside to Horford and Noah.

"Before the ball gets to the paint, size doesn't really make a difference," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "And they do a terrific job of dislodging you, pushing you off the block. A lot of times, size and throwing the ball inside is not the easiest thing to do."

Then again, no one ever thought it would be easy to hide a 7-footer in a locker room, either. *