Searching for the real Greg Oden

You know what's strange about Greg Oden's freshman season, considering everyone regards him as a franchise center and all? I've watched OSU 15-16 times this season and there wasn't a single game that left me saying, "Wow ... that guy's gonna be unnnnnnnn-beeeeee-leeeeeeeeevable." There were glimpses of greatness here and there, as well as a few dominant 10-minute stretches (like during the second half of the Memphis game) ... but for someone repeatedly advertised as "The Next Russell" or "The Next Ewing," we really didn't see it for four straight months.

What did we see? Excuses. Lots of them.

You know, like these ...

He spent half the season playing with one hand. … He's only 19. … He's just a serene guy by nature. … He's afraid to let loose because he doesn't want to hurt his wrist again. … He's further along than Alonzo Mourning, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal at the same age. … It's not his fault that the refs keep calling him for chintzy fouls.

On and on and on. Look, I'm in the pro-Oden camp. He didn't receive enough credit for playing one-handed during the first half of the season. I do subscribe to Bill Walton's theory that Oden has been holding back because he doesn't want to get injured again (especially on plays around the basket where he's jumping in traffic), which explains why his two "holy s---!!!!!!!" plays of the tournament (the block at the end of the Tennessee game and the near-facial of Jeff Green in the Georgetown game) happened at crucial moments when he said "screw it" and let loose. Everyone keeps criticizing Oden's demeanor, but as I've written before, the same approach worked for Robert Parish, who won three rings and made the Basketball Hall of Fame. And by all accounts, you need to watch Oden in person to fully appreciate him -- there's a force-of-nature quality about him that prejudices anyone who's watched him live.

(Quick tangent: I haven't seen Oden in person yet, but the last point makes total sense to me. Young Shaq resonated in a similar way, as did David Robinson and LeBron James right now. You could call this the Bo Jackson Corollary -- when watching an athlete live is a totally different experience than watching him on TV. Robinson was my favorite example because he'd glide onto the court for pregame warmups and you'd feel everyone staring at him and thinking the same thing: "Holy crap, that guy is a physical SPECIMEN." Then the game would start and he'd zoom around like a shooting guard in a 7-footer's body for 48 minutes. Just awesome to watch. If you were asked to build a center from scratch, you'd build David Robinson and call it a day. Sadly, the same thing that made him such a valuable superstar for NBA purposes also made him a bit of an underachiever: He was too nice a guy. But that's a whole other story.)

So given that we're conceding all these points, what's the case against Oden then? You could sum it up in one sentence: He hasn't earned that No. 1 spot yet.

Barring a monster effort against Florida, we could make it through the entire college hoops season without a definitive "Oden Game." On my Celtics message board, a poster named Rocco (a Durant backer) has been playing devil's advocate with Oden's "franchise center" tag all season, writing over and over again, "If he's really a franchise center, when are we actually gonna see it?" That's an irrefutable point. We haven't seen it. Not for an entire game, anyway. Saturday's victory over Georgetown was the quintessential Oden experience: Two cheap fouls in the first half, followed by the weird phenomenon of Oden's team playing better without him (a recurrent theme with OSU games this season ... EWING THEORY ALERT!!!!), and then Oden making just enough happen in the second half to keep the door open that he's a franchise center masquerading as a freshman who averages a 15-9, keeps getting into foul trouble and rarely takes over games.

Anyway, we have one last chance to watch him tonight against a Florida team that features the best collection of college big men in recent memory: Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Chris Richard (my favorite sleeper for the 2007 draft). If there was ever a time for Oden to kick ass in a big game, tonight would be the night. Still, I just can't shake the feeling that we're headed for another spotty performance, followed by the usual round of excuses, then six weeks of everyone wondering whether Oden will turn pro, or why we should care that much in the first place. Would I be more excited if Kevin Durant was playing tonight? Yes. Yes I would.

Some other scattered thoughts heading into tonight's NCAA title game:

1. Like everyone else, I was disappointed with the quality of the Final Four games but blame bad luck over anything else: It's far too easy for a big college game to get sidetracked by foul trouble, which is why I continue to push for a change to the rules -- nobody can foul out until his sixth foul, but if he's called for that sixth foul, he's disqualified and the opposing team gets two shots plus the ball (like with an intentional foul). Problem solved.

2. I hope Thad Matta pops that zit before tonight's game.

3. Roy Hibbert is looming as the most divisive lottery pick this June -- some believe his lack of athletic ability makes him a backup center at best, while others see him as a potential All-Star. I'm closer to the latter camp because he reminds me a little of Rik Smits, who was unequivocally one of the most underappreciated players of the past 20 years.

Maybe Reggie Miller received the most attention on those contending Indiana teams in the mid-'90s, but Smits was their most valuable player -- he gave them a low-post offense and always commanded a double team, which opened the floor for Reggie. In his prime (a four-year stretch from '95 to '98), Smits averaged 18 points and 7 rebounds a game, shot 52 percent from the field and 78 percent from the free-throw line and shined during the '95 playoffs (averaging a 20-7 over 17 games and outplaying Ewing). Unfortunately, he couldn't crack an All-Star team until the tail end of his prime ('98) because Mourning, Ewing and Dikembe Mutombo were always blocking the way. But that Pacers team made three runs at the title ('94, '95 and '98) with Smits providing the entire low-post offense.

And if that's not enough, he had a great nickname (The Dunking Dutchman), he kept the middle-part hairdo going for about eight years after it became taboo, he made one of the most underrated playoff game-winners ever (a buzzer-beater in the '95 playoffs against Orlando in a game in which the lead changed hands four times in the last 15 seconds), and he delighted NBA fans to no end when he shaved his head during the '98 playoffs (became the all-time answer to the trivia question, "Which NBA player looked the worst with a shaved head?").

Needless to say, I enjoyed the Smits Era and he's the center on my All-Underrated Team from the past 20 years, along with Tom Chambers, Detlef Schrempf, Nick Anderson and Mark Price, as well as Ricky Pierce and Eddie Johnson coming off the bench. (Note: Big Shot Brob would have been the starting power forward as recently as three years ago, but everyone appreciates him now so he's fairly rated.) Hibbert won't be as good offensively unless he can develop Smits' deadly 17-footer, but he's a better shotblocker and rebounder, as well as someone who could take advantage down low against smaller players in the pros. He's also a legitimate 7-foot-2, which gives him something in common with only 5-6 players in the NBA right now. I like him. He's a top-eight pick in my mind. Unquestionably.

4. As for teammate Jeff Green, I had him pencilled into my top six until Saturday's ghastly performance against OSU, when he reverted back to pre-February "maybe I'll let the game come to me instead of taking it over" mode. Bad move. Was he nervous? Was he intimidated by OSU's big guys? Impossible to say. But when somebody's major draft-day gimmick is, "I come through when it matters," and then he disappears in a Final Four game ... well, that's not good.

5. Did we ever figure out how Dick Vitale can endorse Pizza Hut and DiGiorno's at the same time? Isn't that like doing ads for Pepsi and Diet Coke?

6. We're officially adding Mike Conley Jr. to the list of college studs who should be mailed the tape of Shaun Livingston's gruesome knee injury. I remember the specific moment of the season when he turned the corner -- the tail end of the home Wisconsin game on Feb. 25, about two minutes after Billy Packer said something along the lines of "Conley needs to realize that he's the guy on this team who takes over at the end of games," and then he did just that (and made the game-winner in the final 10 seconds).

Here's the thing I love about Conley, other than his athletic ability (off the charts), his decision-making (nearly flawless) and his ridiculous 2.76 assist/turnover ratio (as a freshman!): Just like Isiah Thomas and John Stockton back in the day, Conley spends the first 90 percent of the game running the show and getting everyone else involved and making his teammates happy, then easily switches gears and takes over games if they need his offense down the stretch. Juggling that delicate balance between "facilitator" and "playmaker" is the single hardest challenge for any young point guard; even someone as great as Isiah didn't figure out how to pull it off until his sixth NBA season. Conley already knows how to juggle that balance ... and he's only 19 years old.

Does he need another year in college to improve his 3-point shooting (only 30 percent this season) and hone the finer points of his game? Yeah, probably. But who's to say those refinements couldn't happen at the pro level? Right now, he's a top-10 pick and the best point guard in a loaded draft. Sounds good to me. As Shaun Livingston would tell you, carpe diem.

7. I was trapped in the car during the first few minutes of the OSU-Georgetown game and heard something crazy: Westwood One's radio announcers were Kevin Harlan, Bill Raftery ... and John Thompson.

Forget about the fact that 100 people out of 100 would rather listen to this team than CBS's TV team ... how could John Thompson possibly announce a game being coached by his own son? Even if you removed the obvious red flags about his objectivity, just from the standpoint of the father-son thing, how could any caring father shut the Dad Switch off for two hours like that? What father wouldn't want to just watch the game and root for his kid? Wouldn't you abstain from doing the game just for that reason alone? I mean, he raised his son, taught him everything he knew, made him into a man, hired him as an assistant, handed over all his knowledge to him and, eventually, his son returned to his father's old school and rejuvenated the failing basketball program. Now, that same kid brought Georgetown to the Final Four and Thompson the Dad was like, "Boy, this is great, I can't wait to call this game objectively for Westwood One!" I just think that's bizarre.

8. One final note: I thought Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer were superb in Saturday's dominating win over UCLA ... although it's becoming increasingly clear this entire Florida team was playing with an on/off switch over the course of the season. (Hey, they'll fit right in with everyone in the NBA!) Brewer's stifling defense, dead-eye 3-point shooting and freakish, jawdrop athleticism (sorry Chad!) this month catapulted him into the top 10 of the draft, and he should climb even higher once teams start working him out. Meanwhile, Noah rebounded from some dicey February performances and embraced the qualities that made him great: hustle, energy, competitiveness, leadership, rebounding and shotblocking. He's a rich man's Anderson Varejao.

Now, some people disagree with the logic that a rich man's Varejao should be the No. 3 pick in such a stacked draft. And I agree, it's a little weird on paper. At the same time, I'm watching the Celtics improbably blow top-two ping-pong pole position (while everyone else is in Full Tank Mode, no less) and resigning myself to a life without Oden or Durant. You know what? Noah wouldn't be a bad consolation prize. The Celtics need shotblocking, rebounding and energy. They need another good teammate to go along with a team of good teammates. They need somebody with a winning pedigree, someone who expects to win every game and hates losing. Noah solves all of these problems. So when Florida is beating OSU tonight (and I think they will), I'll be rooting for them because of future Celtic Joakim Noah. We're not getting Durant, we're not getting Oden, and that's just the way it is.

(I will now break a champagne bottle over my own head.)