Big match in middle

The Baltimore Sun

Atlanta -- In order for Ohio State freshman Greg Oden to prepare for his matchup against Georgetown junior Roy Hibbert - a classic yet rare battle between 7-foot centers on college basketball's grandest stage - the Buckeyes' assistant coaches had to somehow grow a few inches. Quickly.

They improvised by extending their arms above their heads while clutching various dummy pads to imitate Hibbert's 7-foot-2 frame and crash into Oden.

"I have to be able to be stronger and not let him get good position on the block, basically stuff I like to do," Oden said. "It's going to be a lot similar to how I would play myself."

Georgetown (30-6) eliminated Ohio State (34-3) from last year's NCAA tournament in the second round, but Hibbert and Oden have never spoken, never played against each other. When they meet at 6:07 tonight in an NCAA tournament semifinal, it will mark the first time two 7-foot players have faced off in the Final Four since Oklahoma State's Bryant Reeves and UCLA's George Zidek in the 1995 semifinals.

"I think they're both very good players," said Georgetown coach John Thompson III. "It's something that people are talking about. It's not too often we have two low-post centers going against each other, particularly this late in the tournament."

Georgetown's last big-man battle pitted Patrick Ewing (whose son is a reserve forward on this year's roster) against St. John's Bill Wennington in the 1985 semifinal game. There was also the 1984 final that featured Ewing and Houston's Akeem Olajuwon.

Hibbert, who enters today's game with five straight double doubles and team-leading averages of 6.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks, said he didn't realize how rare his assignment today was until he started to face a barrage of questions about it.

"I've gone against other 7-footers before and it's been good," he said with a smile, "but I think this one will go down in the history books - hopefully."

Oden, who leads his team with an average of 15.4 points and 9.5 rebounds, has a different take on it.

"I still don't think it's that historical," he said. "It hasn't happened yet. We can say it's historical after it's over with."

Regardless of its place in history, it's still unusual. Why? Thompson said it's hard to find old-school players who relish their role in the low post, and even harder to keep them away from the NBA.

"Obviously a lot of times kids are going right to the pros, not sticking around," he said. "I think also a lot of times it's because of the influences of so many quality players in the NBA. A lot of big guys now are shying away from the post, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but we have two guys here that like the fact that they're low-post players."

The question is, can they stay out of foul trouble? Ohio State enters the game with the fewest personal fouls per game at 13.6. Oden has fouled out only once this season - against Xavier in the second round of the tournament. Hibbert was disqualified twice, against Notre Dame and Vanderbilt.

Ohio State coach Thad Matta said that his players need to play hard, and that fouling "at times can be a sign of weakness."

"I think that at times you have to look and say, this is how the game is going to be called," Matta said of the officiating. "We won't know until the game starts. But you hope that all the different situations that we've been in, all the different offenses that we've had to guard, we'll have a pretty good understanding of not fouling.

"We do not want to foul," he said. "I think that that is, as I always tell our guys, it is a sign."

With all of the attention on Hibbert and Oden, some of the others on the respective rosters are feeling a bit left out.

"I'm looking forward to it, but at the same time I think both teams are thinking we have other players on the team who are just as good," said Ohio State freshman guard Mike Conley Jr. "It's going to be an ultimate team game."

If Oden had it his way, he'd be matched up instead with a guy more the likes of the 6-1 Conley.

"If you have a chance to play against a 6-foot guy or a 7-foot-2 guy," Oden said, "which one would you pick if you were my size?"

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