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One pair of big men, still on campus

WashPost: Greg Oden, the public introvert, and Joachim Noah, the unabashed extrovert, share a common philosophy about what Noah calls "living in the moment." Both will be high NBA draft picks whenever they turn professional, but neither has shown a rush to leave the college game behind.
NCAA Final Four Ohio State Basketball
Greg Oden has never warmed to the public attention, but says he enjoys the college experience.Charlie Neibergall / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

In last year's national championship game, Florida's Joakim Noah thumped his chest, yelled to the crowd and blew a kiss at a cheerleader. The always stoic Greg Oden of Ohio State does not expect to display that type of emotion in Monday's national title game, saying that his mother would never tolerate it.

But Oden, the public introvert, and Noah, the unabashed extrovert, share a common philosophy about what Noah calls "living in the moment." Both will be high NBA draft picks whenever they turn professional, but neither has shown a rush to leave the college game behind.

Their mere desire to attend college has helped create a championship game collision between two transcendent big men that would have been almost inconceivable as little as five years ago.

Instead of looking forward, they have been soaking in the college experience, at least for this season. In an age where elite players often look for the quickest route out of college, both Oden and Noah said they have grown through campus experiences both in basketball and life.

"I love college," Noah said.

"I enjoy my classes," Oden said.

Until Noah returned for his junior season, no player this decade who had been named the Final Four's most outstanding player returned to school the following season. And before the NBA imposed a minimum age requirement, any center of Oden's stature and reputation likely would have made the jump from high school to the NBA.

With a tennis legend as a father, Noah didn't need the immediate financial boost and chose to try to "make history with friends" and become the first repeat national champion in 15 years. Long before the NBA implemented its age rule, Oden repeatedly said he wanted to attend college in part because he didn't feel he was ready to play professionally.

Whether Oden would have attended college if the age restriction were not in place remains a subject of debate, but ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said the rule has "set up the possibility for the first time in two decades of seeing great college big men on the floor at the Final Four. It's like watching dinosaurs in that movie years ago, 'Jurassic Park,' the behemoths."

The on-court duel between the 7-foot Oden and the 6-11 Noah could go a long way in determining which team wins the national championship. And it matches diverse individuals who have enjoyed the school year, even as many outsiders speculated on their draft status.

Oden said he has an appreciation for Noah for returning to school because "you have guys willing to stay for the [experience] of school and education, rather than go for the quick bucks they know they can make."

Noah shares a respect for Oden because of how he has handled the attention and scrutiny he attracted long before he got to Columbus.

"It was crazy," Noah said of Oden. "He had not even played a college basketball game, and you guys were comparing him to the greats of the game. And he is. He is a great player. I respect more of what he has done. He doesn't like none of this, none of this attention. And it must be tough."

Both players held court during lengthy news conferences Sunday, where they joked with reporters at times and shared candid stories about their journeys, in both life and basketball, over the past few years.

Throughout high school, Noah was not a celebrated prospect; he was best known as the son of tennis legend Yannick Noah. Oden, on the other hand, was viewed as the game's next great big man, a new generation's Tim Duncan or Bill Russell, not long after he graduated middle school.

The attention was not sought by Oden, who was polite but somewhat reluctant when engaging reporters during high-profile summer basketball events. After a year of college, Oden has shown signs of a more engaging public persona.

"He is getting more self-assured as he gets older," said Jack Keefer, Oden's high school coach. "But he is still going to be a tender and thoughtful person."

The 19-year-old still relishes being a teenager. Oden talked about how much he enjoys going to a place called GameWorks, which has go-karts and various arcade games. "Great place for a date," he said.

He talked about the burden of needing to read five books in 10 weeks for a history class, and about how much he enjoyed Biology 101, in which 600 students attend the lecture. "Four hundred girls," Oden added.

Doesn't Oden have a girlfriend?

"I do," he said. "It's good to just watch."

Noah also had his favorites this school year. He talked about the African studies class, which he found invaluable even though he did not earn a particularly good grade.

"The grade doesn't always matter," Noah said before adding, "That doesn't sound good."

Noah's world has been a whirlwind since winning last year's national championship. He has become the target of what he sees as excessive attention and scrutiny. Because of that, he said the season has not always been fun, but the experience has been priceless.

In theory, Noah and Oden have a chance to reunite next season in the Final Four and further enjoy college life. But the two unique individuals are expected to again take the same route. When asked about the two returning, Fraschilla shook his head and said, "I don't think that is going to happen."