Guards put on a rare show
© St. Petersburg Times
MADISON, Wis. -- At this rate, they might ruin gaudy's bad name.
They could do irreparable harm to trendy, and absolutely shatter the concept that image means everything.
What we have here is a pair of lost souls in a land of ego. Athletes who understand you make points by winning and not the other way around. Backcourt stars who prefer to pass first and answer ESPN's questions later.
In other words, basketball players. Not highlight show pretenders. Not playground posers. Not mere social climbers serving NBA internships.
Just a couple of point guards carrying teams on their spindly shoulders.
If you take nothing else away from Oregon's 72-70 victory against Texas in the Midwest Region semifinal Friday night, at least recognize that much.
Texas' T.J. Ford and Oregon's Luke Ridnour have shown the rest of the world how exciting a game can seem when passion and precision are invited along.
"Point guards don't come out of that mold anymore in this day," Oregon coach Ernie Kent said. "A guy who is a gym rat, a student of the game, a guy who likes to watch film. A guy who is attuned to running a team and has the ability to elevate a team to another level."
Now, understand, this is not about players lacking personality. Ridnour and Ford were easily the most dynamic performers on the Kohl Center court.
Just watch Ridnour make a behind-the-back pass while in transition. See Ford create a turnover and drive the length of the court.
The difference is their style emerges from the flow of the game. Their flair is contained within the context of a game plan.
"You're talking about two guys who are extremely unselfish," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "They'll do whatever it takes. Whatever it is the team needs. That's the kind of players they are."
They have work remaining, but their missions are essentially complete. They have taken schools with little basketball aura and managed to create a buzz.
Each was a star coming out of high school -- Ridnour in Blaine, Wash., and Ford in Houston -- and had their pick of big-time programs.
They could have been wined and dined by Rick Pitino and could have had Tubby Smith at their beck and call. Instead, they chose schools close to home. Programs with more to gain by their presence.
Ford was a legend in Houston before he was old enough to drive. He led Willowridge High to a 75-1 record and a pair of state championships his final two seasons. And, as Barnes likes to point out, his scoring average went down each year. The point being, Ford was content to be the band leader instead of the soloist.
He is 18 and leads the nation in assists. You want to know how rare that is? No freshman has ever led the NCAA in assists. In fact, Jason Kidd is the only sophomore to ever do it.
"The most impressive thing to me is the kind of person he is," Barnes said. "This is a kid who has been told his whole life he is a star, and yet you'd never know that when you're around him. He's the most unassuming person I've been around. He's just real secure in who he is and what he's about."
When the game came down to the final 2.8 seconds, with Oregon leading by two, the Longhorns set up a play for Ford to drive from beyond midcourt. He got within 10 feet of the basket, but his shot went off the rim.
"Ford might be the quickest player in the country," said Oregon guard Freddie Jones. "He took us by surprise by getting all the way to the paint in two seconds."
As good as Ford is, he still was the second-best guard on the court.
Ridnour, at times, appeared capable of dictating the action to his pleasure. He was held back not by the Texas defense, but by the offensive shortcomings of teammates.
He scored 20 points and each one seemed enormous in the context of the game. When Oregon tied it at 68, Ridnour calmly hit a jumper from the top of the key with 1:00 remaining.
"He's been like that all year," Jones said. "He's always in control."
Kent said he knew there was something special about Ridnour when the player stepped off the airplane for his official recruiting visit two years ago.
Ridnour was carrying a basketball.
"When other people are sleeping in on Saturdays," said Oregon guard Luke Jackson, "he's in the gym."
A year after Ridnour's arrival, the Ducks have reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in 42 years. Should they win Sunday, they will reach the Final Four for the first time since winning the NCAA title in 1939.
When it was over Friday night, Kent arrived for the postgame news conference with Jones and Jackson in tow.
The seat with Ridnour's name in front of it remained empty.
As usual, he would just as soon pass.
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