Two Paths to Center Stage


Gregg Oden (blue chip NBA Prospect) vs Roy Hibbert (under the radar)


Because the people around Roy Hibbert are so awed by what he has become, they're so willing to be brutally honest about what he once was .

"I remember playing against Roy in high school, and I thought he was probably the worst 7-footer I had seen in my life," Georgetown sophomore forward Patrick Ewing Jr. , the son of perhaps the best 7-footer in Hoyas history, said last week. "I didn't think he was going to be good at all... He's proven me, and a lot of other people, wrong."

Three years ago, Hibbert -- who was then, as he is now, 7-foot-2 -- was a junior center at Georgetown Prep in North Bethesda, Md. He was a "size prospect," a term synonymous with "project," who lacked agility or even the most rudimentary low-post moves. Of his offensive repertoire, he said, "I would just turn and shoot." Now Hibbert is a junior center at Georgetown University who averages 12.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. He is one of the primary reasons the Hoyas have reached their first Final Four since 1985, and makes up one side of Saturday's most-anticipated individual duel. The other is fellow 7-footer Greg Oden of Ohio State, who will likely be the No. 1 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft.

Somewhere between his prep days and the present -- mostly over the course of his past two seasons under the tutelage of coach John Thompson III -- Hibbert acquired the ability to run above sloth speed, hit a jump-hook, make impeccable decisions in the flow of the Princeton offense, be a force in the Big East, and basically, be the kind of center who should be able to hold his own against a future great like Oden. Against the backdrop of a chalk-heavy NCAA tournament, Hibbert's rise to stardom is a true upset tale.

Chicago Bulls forward Mike Sweetney , who was the Hoyas' low-post star from 2000-03, remembers Hibbert as a big, lumbering prep-schooler whose parents would drive him into the city for summer workouts against Georgetown varsity players. Hibbert had committed early to the Hoyas in a less-than-fierce recruiting battle, and knew he needed to hone his skills against something other than 6-foot 11th- and 12th-graders. "We had to start off from Square 1 with Roy," Sweetney said this week. "He was basically a guy who was just trying to get up and down the floor and get a few rebounds. He'd get the ball and wouldn't even try to score. All I can say is, he came a long way. His work ethic is unreal."

Sweetney talked his share of smack as he beat up on the youngster ("He'd always tell me, 'I'm killing you, Roy, I'm killing you,'" Hibbert said) but also assumed a pseudo-big brother role, and to this day, they keep in constant touch over e-mail and text messages. At the mention of Hibbert's gentle-giant demeanor -- in the Dinosaur Duel vs. Oden, Big Roy has been called the leaf-eating Brontosaurus -- Sweetney offered up a warning: "Don't let Roy fool you. He talks a lot of trash. I've gotten e-mails from him that make me want to fly back [to Washington] from Chicago just to play him. He sent me a text once, when he knew I was in Chicago, asking, 'Are you coming to the gym today?' I said, no, I'm in Chicago, and he wrote back, 'You went there because you were scared of what I was going to do to you.'"

Former Georgetown assistant Ronnie Thompson , John Thompson III's younger brother, and now the head coach at Ball State University, helped recruit Hibbert out of prep school, and remembers him as "a huge project who literally had trouble running."

"The beautiful thing about Roy, though," said Ronnie, "is that even at that point, he carried himself like a ballplayer. Even if he wasn't good yet, he thought he was."

It took until this season of college hoops for the quality of Hibbert's game to counterbalance his confidence. A tireless worker, he spent his early days at Georgetown's McDonough Gym doing simple running drills, hula-hooping to improve balance, and shooting thousands of 'Kareem hooks' until he was comfortable hitting them with either hand. Hibbert averaged 5.1 points and 3.5 rebounds as a frosh, and then 11.6 points and 6.9 boards as a sophomore. Now, as a junior, he's emerged as one of the nation's most efficient offensive players, scoring 12.9 points on an absurd 67 percent shooting.

The guy, who as a recruit was rated -- for good reason -- behind such esteemed centers as Longar Longar (Oklahoma), Greg Stiemsma (Wisconsin), C.J. Giles (ex-Kansas) and Kalen Grimes (Missouri) has recorded five straight double-doubles to get Georgetown to the Final Four, and emerged as a potential Lottery Pick in either '07 or '08. Hibbert took a slow road to reaching college basketball's elite; upon entering Georgetown, he was nicknamed the "Big Stiff" by iconic coach Big John Thompson Jr. , and only through a multi-year transformation did he earn a revision to the moniker: "Stiff-No-More." On Saturday, the former stiff awaits the biggest matchup of his life, a retro showdown against a former phenom who took a rapid route to prominence.

"Greg Oden has been a household name forever, since as far back as anybody can remember," Ronnie Thompson said. "No one knew who Roy Hibbert was in high school. He was just a kid from Adelphia who worked his tail off to get where he is."


Because everyone who saw Greg Oden was so awed, so early, by what he already was, it was difficult to expect anything less than him to immediately take Ohio State to the Final Four.

In the winter of 2004, when Oden was just a junior at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis, he was already on the sure-fire No. 1 pick list, right after LeBron James and Dwight Howard . Oden appeared in his first Sports Illustrated feature that December, with Tim Layden calling him "the brightest blip on the radar screens of talent hunters across the basketball spectrum in America." An NBA exec said of Oden in that story, "He's fabulous. He's the next great, difference-making big man from the United States. When he ends up in the NBA, whatever team gets him will become a contender."

In contrast to Hibbert, who quietly committed to Georgetown before his junior season and was only known in the D.C. area, Oden was the biggest name in all of high-school basketball. The hype machine around Oden was in full gear after he dominated the ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J., and then won the Las Vegas Big-Time tournament playing with current Buckeye teammates Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook on the Spiece Indy Heat squad.

"Greg left that summer being proclaimed as the guy," said Sonny Vaccaro , the former director of ABCD. "Big men don't dominate in a way that you remember as much as Kobe or LeBron did, but Greg was just so good. We'd have pro coaches come in for workouts, and they said the same thing about him they had said about Dwight Howard -- that they already knew he was going to be one of the greats."

Oden's commitment to Ohio State in the summer before his senior season (along with that of Conley, Cook and Cleveland star David Lighty ) sent seismic waves through the college hoops world. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta was anointed as a star recruiter, and OSU was immediately thrown into national-title conversations for '07. Then-Indiana coach Mike Davis , who had hunted Oden and was widely criticized for letting the nation's No. 1 center and his sidekick, Conley, escape from the Hoosier State, was forced out of his job near the end of the '05-06 season.

A right wrist injury that required preseason surgery limited Oden's immediate impact in Columbus; he missed the Buckeyes' first seven games and was still shooting (or as he said, "shot-putting") free-throws left-handed in February. Because the hoops world expected so much from Oden and didn't get double-doubles from him in every Big Ten game -- it was only every other one, as he averaged 15.9 points and 9.5 rebounds -- the debate raged over whether he really should be the No. 1 pick in '07 draft ahead of Texas phenom Kevin Durant . Oden's hard-to-believe, humble refrain of, "We have much better players than me on this team," started to gain some traction, as Conley emerged as the Buckeyes' leader while the bearded big man sometimes struggled to get his share of touches in the paint.

The impact that Oden's presence has had on this NCAA tournament, however, has been immense. In OSU's past two victories, his standard stats haven't been overwhelming (nine points, three boards while in foul trouble against Tennessee; 17 points, nine boards vs. Memphis) but his plus-minus rating has been off the charts. The Buckeyes won those two games by a combined margin of 13 points; when Oden was on the floor, they were plus-40 . Said one NBA scout this week, "All the talk about taking [Kevin] Durant at No. 1 is ridiculous. If it was possible for Oden to have helped himself in that debate, he did."




In almost any other year, a game like the Florida-UCLA rematch would have unquestionable top billing at the Final Four. It could only be trumped by something as rare as what Hibbert-vs.-Oden offers: a classic, low-post duel that's been extinct from 21st-century college basketball. The reason for that, as Thompson III said last week, is because so many big men -- from Kwame Brown , to Howard, to Eddy Curry , to Andrew Bynum -- "just jumped straight from high school to the draft." The league's new age-minimum rule, by which Oden's class was the first to be affected, made Saturday night's showdown possible, and got the Buckeyes to the Final Four. Hibbert, meanwhile, made his way to the Georgia Dome under a different set of circumstances; he was never a threat to declare for the draft out of Georgetown Prep, and until recently, wasn't a threat to be taken in the draft lottery, either. Over the past three years, the gap between Hibbert -- the kid from Adelphi, Md., who always carried himself like a player, but wasn't always a player -- and Oden -- the kid from Indy who described himself in laughably humble terms but was clearly a superstar -- shrank enough to make this a fair fight.

The hoops nation as a whole, so enthralled over the return of the dinosaurs to March Madness, is perhaps more excited for the battle than are its participants. Both reserved giants, Hibbert and Oden tend to speak about it in more calculating terms:

Hibbert, when first asked about Oden after last Sunday's comeback win over North Carolina, said: "He's a great player, and I'm going to have to limit his touches. I've faced Aaron Gray [Pitt's 7-footer], but Greg is more athletic, so I'm going to have my hands full."

Oden, meanwhile, said this week: "It's going to be going against someone like myself. It's going to be a hard challenge for me. I'm not going to be able to just go over him with his long arms and ability to block shots. I'm going to have to play strong and use my legs a lot."

If it's a hard challenge for Oden, it's the ultimate challenge for Hibbert, who worked over North Carolina's Brandan Wright -- a 6-foot-9 forward who's projected to be the No. 3 pick in the '07 Draft -- in the East Region Final, but has yet to face a big man with Oden's defensive abilities. Hibbert's Georgetown mentor, Sweetney, will be keeping tabs on the matchup with keen interest; he's flying in to Atlanta late Saturday night with the rest of Bulls, who face the Hawks on Sunday, but won't arrive in time to attend the game. Big Roy's big brother does, however, plan on sending a pre-game text message devoid of trash-talk. It will be something, Sweetney said, along the lines of, "Play your heart out. Leave it all on the line. And DON'T get in foul trouble!"

It's a warning that we pray will be heeded. On a Saturday night when the nation will be looking up at a 14-foot, 2-inch clash of collegiate titans, whistles are the only things that could ruin it.