IMAGINE A collegehoops star so young, so hip, so cutting-edge cool that he regards 21-year-oldCarmelo Anthony as a dust-covered historical artifact. Three years ago thisweek, at his uncle's house in Baton Rouge, a high school junior named TyrusThomas watched in awe as Anthony, a Syracuse freshman, carried the Orange to anational title. Times (and cities) may change--consider New Orleans, whichhosted that season's Final Four--but the youthful 'Melo spirit endures."Once you get on the court, you have no [freshman] classification,"says Thomas, now a spring-loaded first-year forward for LSU. "You're just aballplayer. I learned that from Carmelo that night: You've got to be aman."
This year's NCAAchampionship may well be determined by one of several man-children like Thomaswho have emerged during the tournament. After a regular season defined by twotranscendent upperclassmen (Duke's J.J. Redick and Gonzaga's Adam Morrison),this week's Final Four in Indianapolis--where LSU will join Florida, GeorgeMason and UCLA--features an entirely different flavor, one reminiscent of 2003,when Anthony trumped his elders and ruled the brackets.
Aside from theCinderella Patriots, the Final Four teams all have at least one such precociousperformer, whether it's Florida's emotional spark, Joakim Noah; UCLA'sCameroonian prince, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute; or LSU's Thomas, whose freakishhops and rise from anonymity this season defy belief. "People thought I wasnothing," says Thomas, who grew an inch and a half (to 6'9") and gained30 pounds (to 215) while redshirting last season. "After his growth spurt,he started springin'," says teammate Glen (Big Baby) Davis of Thomas, whooverwhelmed Duke and Texas in consecutive upsets last week, piling up acombined 30 points, 26 rebounds and more than a dozen spectacular dunks andblocks. "I've always been confident, but this season has made me realizethe things I can accomplish," Thomas says. "Now it's like I'm seeingthe light."
UCLA's fabulousfreshman, Mbah a Moute, began playing basketball only five years ago, when hisbrother Jean Emmanuel Bidias introduced him to the game. "You should haveseen me when I started," says the 6'7", 215-pound freshman forward, whocame to the U.S. in 2002 to attend high school in Florida. "He would passme the ball, and I would start running with it until he taught me you had todribble." Now look at him: Mbah a Moute, the Pac-10 freshman of the year,leads the Bruins in rebounding (8.1 per game) and dropped 14 points and 10boards on Gonzaga in the regional semis. Though Mbah a Moute is considered aprince in his native village of Bia Messe--his father, Camille Moute a Bidias,is a chieftain there--"Luc acts more like a blue-collar guy," saysBruins guard Arron Afflalo. "Look at all the dirty work he does for us,battling for rebounds and diving for loose balls."
Like Mbah a Moute,Florida's Noah has roots in Cameroon: His father, tennis Hall of Famer YannickNoah, was discovered there by Arthur Ashe. A year ago the 6'11", 227-poundsophomore forward was so distraught after not playing in Florida's first-roundNCAA tournament win over Ohio that he broke down crying during a visit to coachBilly Donovan's hotel room after the game. "It was tough," says Noah,Florida's most emotional player, "but my teammates kept saying, 'Your timeis going to come.'" Sure enough, Noah has dominated during the youngGators' Final Four run, filling the stat sheet with 17.3 points, 10.0 reboundsand 4.8 blocks a game. "He has been a daily vitamin pill in terms ofimprovement," says Florida assistant coach Larry Shyatt. "Seldom doesyour tallest player have the passion and the energy and the work ethic everyday. With him it has been contagious."
Likewise, the wordthese days on Thomas, Mbah a Moute and Noah is spreading like an uncheckedvirus. In a Final Four that brings back memories of Carmelo's Run, the youngand the fearless hope to create some history of their own.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
STRETCHRUN - Noah was a nonfactor in last year's NCAA tournament, but he has beendominant for the Gators in 2006.