Final Four regains some luster with NBA-quality stars

Anthony, Ford, and Wade bring talent to Saturday's tournament arguably not seen for a decade.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For a few brief hours on Saturday afternoon, college basketball's Final Four will turn television sets into time machines.

The teams will not be wearing throwback jerseys. Nor will they pull on shorts only slightly larger than Speedos. Instead, in the pale light of the Louisiana Superdome, they will give America a glimpse of what college basketball might have been had its "lost generation" not abandoned the pomp and circumstance of college for the dollars and cents of the NBA.

Gone are the days when the greats made their names in the Final Four. For almost a decade, most of the top young basketball players have either skipped college or left early, culling the best talent from college basketball's showcase event.

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Time will determine whether Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and T.J. Ford become legends. But, today, they are three of the best young players in America - and, for once, they're all at the Final Four.

Don't expect this to become a common occurrence: The economic enticements that have pillaged the college ranks are still at work. Yet a mixture of rare talent and good fortune has - for at least one year - assembled arguably the top three college players for the sport's final weekend.

"It's unusual to have this kind of ability in the Final Four," says Mike DeCourcy, who writes about college basketball for The Sporting News. "It's been a while since we've had that."

Think back to the 1979 final, when Larry Bird's Indiana State and Earvin "Magic" Johnson's Michigan State played the most-watched college basketball game in history. Or even the early 1990s, when Chris Webber took Michigan's "Fab Four" to two consecutive Final Fours.

According to DeCourcy and others analysts, the Final Four hasn't seen such talent since then - until this year. Even by the standards of those good old days, they say, this trio could be exceptional.

Sophomore Ford is part hardwood architect, part down-home Texas dervish.He is a blur of energy that whirls through the paint in dizzying pirouettes. His passes are a geometric marvel - plumb-line straight through groping arms.

Wade is the emerging revelation, a junior whose skills had lacked a sufficient stage at Marquette, this season's Cinderella. Now on the biggest stage of all, he leads the tournament in scoring, and against Kentucky, the No. 1 team, he put up double figures in points, rebounds, and assists - only the third triple-double in tournament history.

Anthony, meanwhile, is the most coveted of all. As a high school senior last season, he reportedly humbled LeBron James. He likely could have been taken in the first round of the NBA draft. And now, if he leaves after his freshman season at Syracuse, most believe he would go in the top five.

Indeed, Anthony's single season at Syracuse carries a symbolic value well beyond his stats. More than any other player in college basketball today, he is perhaps the closest the game has come to seeing what it would have been like if James, Kobe Bryant, or Kevin Garnett had come to college - even for one year.

It speaks to how much the game has changed - how the top young players in the NBA today never cut down the nets at the Final Four. Particularly since 1995, when the NBA guaranteed that every first-round pick would get at least $1.5 million a year, record numbers of high schoolers and underclassmen have chosen tax brackets over tournament brackets.

The obvious result is that quality has slowly ebbed. This year's favorite, Kansas, is considered the most experienced team in the Final Four - with two seniors. It has followed the formula for success laid out by the past three national champions: Don't go for the best talent; go for the best talent that will stay the longest.

"The best players are not correlated with the best teams anymore," says Stewart Mandel of SI.com, Sports Illustrated's website. "Senior leadership has become more important than pure talent."

Yet such practicality has deprived the Final Four of some of its inspiration, and there is the hope that, this year, Anthony, Ford, and Wade can turn back the clock.

"It's mind-boggling some of the things [Wade] can do," says DeCourcy. All these players, he adds, "bring the potential for more spectacular plays."

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