This Bulldog soars like a Bird

He's a throwback in nearly every sense of the word.

He draws inspiration from 1960s political revolutionary Che Guevara. He has a mustache right out of Starsky & Hutch and the 1970s. And his game, not always pretty but always effective, has been compared with legend Larry Bird, winner of three NBA championships with the Boston Celtics in the 1980s.

Adam Morrison, the gangly 6-ft., 8-in. junior forward from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., is the unlikeliest of college basketball superstars. He came out of high school ranked 298th among prospects nationwide. Now he leads the NCAA in scoring. If he decides to turn pro at the end of the season, he should be drafted in the Top 5 - possibly even No. 1.

Thanks to "The 'Stache," as Mr. Morrison with his upper-lip wisp is known, Gonzaga heads into next week's NCAA basketball tournament on everyone's radar. A decade ago, the Bulldogs were considered a Cinderella story; now they are closer to the neighborhood inhabited by such basketball blue-bloods as Connecticut and Duke.

Morrison has scored nearly 29 points a game this year, a shade ahead of Blue Devils senior guard J.J. Redick. This season-long battle between the friendly rivals has captivated fans and media alike, making them practically a nightly fixture on ESPN.

"Because of the scoring title and how that makes perfect 'SportsCenter' material, I think [fans are most interested in] Morrison and Redick," says Jay Bilas, an ESPN college basketball analyst. "And Morrison is as fun to watch as anybody in the country. He answers the bell every game."

Flip a coin

Indeed, Morrison and Redick graced the March 6 Sports Illustrated cover under the headline, "Who's the Best?" The consensus? Flip a coin. While Redick faces tougher competition in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference, Morrison plays for a team with a much smaller athletic budget - and a school lacking the pedigree to pick and choose from the nation's elite prep players in the recruiting wars.

"A lot of people are making it a scoring run between the two of us," Morrison told the New York Daily News recently. "It's not a scoring run. He's doing what he needs for his team, and I'm doing what my team needs."

Mr. Bilas and other experts compare Morrison with a trio of basketball Hall of Famers, spanning Bird to "Pistol" Pete Maravich, a legendary scorer with the Atlanta Hawks and New Orleans Jazz, to yet another standout Celtics star, sixth-man nonpareil John Havlicek.

"People want to compare him to Bird because Bird was his idol, and you can make the comparison with shooting," says Bilas, "but [Morrison] is not the defender, the passer, or rebounder that Bird was."

That's no insult as few players in the history of college or pro basketball can compare with Larry Legend. But there is no argument over Morrison's charisma and fan appeal. For Gonzaga's recent road trip to Pepperdine, NBA star Kobe Bryant and actor David Duchovny showed up, seeking a glimpse of Morrison on the court. Most recently, a bandage he used during a game was scooped up by an opportunistic fan and put up for sale on eBay, where bids reached $60 before the school requested the auction be halted.

Even as Morrison dazzles with his 30-foot jump shots and slashing drives through the lane, observers say he is anything but a showboat. "Guys like Adam let the game come to them," says Dave Telep, national basketball recruiting director at Scouts.com, a popular basketball Web site. "They pick their spots and take over when they have to. He's been quite a humble superstar."

Seven straight tournament appearances

In that sense, Morrison mirrors his school, which is best known for producing John Stockton, the NBA's all-time assist leader, during the early-1980s. Not until 1995, the school's 37th season as a Division I basketball program, did Gonzaga reach the NCAA tournament.

Since then, the university has become a power among the so-called mid-major basketball programs. Gonzaga has appeared in seven straight NCAA tournaments, including runs to the Elite Eight (1999) and Sweet Sixteen (2000 and 2001).

With Morrison leading the way, fans hope that the school can, at last, crash the Final Four party.

"They're in a weird position," Bilas says of the Zags. "They've won a bunch, so it's no longer interesting for some people to see them go to the tournament and advance to the second round.... If they lose before the Elite Eight, people are going to say they underachieved. It's ridiculous, but that's how people look at these things."

Top college prospects in this year's NBA draft

LaMarcus Aldridge
Texas
6', 10"; power forward

He can score (15.6 points per game), rebound (9 per game), and has the size to bang with the NBA big boys.

Rodney Carney
Memphis
6', 7"; small forward

Has excellent speed and athleticism, and as a senior is one of the more seasoned prospects.

Rudy Gay
Connecticut
6', 9"; small forward

The best player on the country's No. 1 team. A hard worker who has been compared with former Bulls' great Scottie Pippen.

Adam Morrison
Gonzaga
6', 8"; small forward

Leads the country in scoring. Has great range and can create plays for himself.

Tyrus Thomas
LSU
6', 9"; power forward

As a freshman he's still learning the game, but has big potential.
- David S. Hauck

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