Tuesday March 25th, 2008

With his braided cornrows and thick Baltimore accent, Memphis senior forward Joey Dorsey looks and sounds a lot like a character from HBO's crime drama The Wire. But unlike Dorsey's favorite TV show, the NCAA tournament doesn't have to be a Greek tragedy, its actors doomed by the cruel Fates. And so, in the days before last week's games in North Little Rock, the notoriously downbeat Dorsey ignored the negatives -- his February swoon, the Tigers' two straight Elite Eight exits, his backfiring smack-talk toward Ohio State's Greg Oden in last year's tournament -- and at the behest of his coach, John Calipari, wrote his own fairy-tale script in the pages of a blue spiral notebook.

Needless to say, it had Memphis, the South's No. 1 seed, advancing to its first Final Four since 1985. "It relieved a lot of pressure," says Dorsey, the mercurial big man whom teammate Chris Douglas-Roberts calls the Tigers' most important player. "All my life I've been told, 'You can't do this.' But I could just sit down and write the story on my own."

That's the beauty of the NCAA tournament: Nothing is inevitable. The first step in achieving any goal is to imagine it, history and conventional wisdom be damned. It's a powerful idea, and the newly optimistic Dorsey -- Proposition Joey, if you will -- isn't the only figure aiming to reverse his checkered past this week and reach the Final Four in San Antonio.

To win The Chip -- Joakim Noah's felicitous phrase for the national title he claimed twice at Florida -- it helps to have a chip on your shoulder. And in a round of 16 that features only one player with a Chip on his résumé (North Carolina guard Quentin Thomas, a veteran of the Tar Heels' 2005 victory), the brackets are filled with up-and-down performers who have something extra to prove this week. Stanford's junior guard Mitch Johnson hopes to erase the perception that the Cardinal is nothing more than the 7-foot Lopez twins, Brook and Robin, and a bunch of perimeter stiffs. Xavier guard Drew Lavender and Wisconsin forward Brian Butch, two fifth-year seniors, want to show that patience has a place in an era of one-and-done college superstars. And it's hard to fathom that UCLA, Tennessee and Michigan State can make it to San Antone unless the Bruins' Josh Shipp, the Volunteers' Chris Lofton and the Spartans' Drew Neitzel find their long-range shooting strokes after an inconsistent Week 1.

Fair or unfair, the NCAA tournament defines a college career, and while cuddly upstarts like 10th-seeded Davidson and 12th-seeded Western Kentucky can celebrate remarkable seasons even if they lose this week, the favorites enjoy no margin for error. Few have as much at stake as Bill Self, the coach of Midwest No. 1 seed Kansas, who's seeking to shed the title of Best Coach Never to Have Reached the Final Four. The 45-year-old Self, now in his fifth season with the Jayhawks, has always been a golden boy: As a high school junior he predicted to his family that he'd be a Division I head coach by age 30, which is exactly what happened when he took over at Oral Roberts in 1993. His first season with the Golden Eagles, Self recruited a walk-on who was working behind a Subway restaurant counter, and ever since he has had success wherever he's gone, with a lifetime .716 winning percentage and Elite Eight runs at Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas (twice). Yet he's never landed on the sport's biggest stage.

If the Jayhawks can dispatch 12th-seeded Villanova on Friday, it would give Self the chance to finally break through . . . or become only the second coach (besides John Chaney) to make five Elite Eight appearances without a trip to the Final Four. Give some credit to Self for being honest, though, about his Week 2 Whammy. "If you get to that Elite Eight game, you probably had a pretty good season," he says. "But in order to have great seasons at a high-profile place like Kansas, you have to punch the ticket from time to time, and we have not done that."

While the Jayhawks are perhaps the nation's most balanced team, Stanford entered the tournament as its most top-heavy outfit, not least because its twin-tower front line produced more than half of its points. And though Brook Lopez did nothing to dispel the perception of Stanford as a two-man team, scoring 30 points and the last-second game-winner in an 82-81 second-round overtime win against Marquette, it was Johnson's school-record 16 assists, one turnover and calming halftime speech (after coach Trent Johnson had been ejected) that showed the Card's guard stigma may be undeserved. "We were rattled," said forward Taj Finger, "but Mitch is our vocal leader, and he was able to relax everybody."

The son of former NBA All-Star forward John Johnson, Mitch still bounces passes off his teammates' shins at times, but his junior-season stats are up from last year's in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.7 to 2.4) and three-point shooting (32.1% to 39.7%). This week, however, he'll face his greatest challenge yet. "The teams we play now, it's going to take more than two big guys to beat them," Johnson says, and a South Regional showdown with D.J. Augustin, Texas's All-America point guard, on Friday in Houston will prove whether the much-maligned Johnson has the chops to make a difference.

Then again, if the NCAA tournament has taught us anything over the years, it's that conventional wisdom is often a synonym for hooey. What was supposed to be the second straight Year of the Freshman came to a quick end as Michael Beasley of Kansas State, O.J. Mayo of USC and Eric Gordon of Indiana were all eliminated by last Saturday. Moving on instead were a pair of carbon-dated seniors who long ago were labeled busts. Xavier's 5' 7" Lavender and Wisconsin's 6' 11" Butch are so ancient, they both played in the 2003 McDonald's High School All-American Game alongside LeBron James, Chris Paul and Luol Deng. But five years later they're reigning over college basketball, happily scoffing at the snap judgments that rendered them failures when they struggled early in their college careers.

The operative word is career, and the lesson is that it's still possible to have a long and decorated one in the college ranks. (If you measure a college player solely by his pro potential, then you're probably better off skipping March Madness altogether.) No little man may leave a bigger footprint this week than Lavender, who watches tape of the Charlotte Bobcats' 5' 5" Earl Boykins for inspiration and regularly hears taunts referring to him as Webster or Gary Coleman from opposing fans. "It makes me laugh. I know I'm short and everything, but I've been getting it since the first day of college," says Lavender, whose family members all came to last week's Xavier games at Washington, D.C.'s Verizon Center wearing T-shirts silk-screened with the SI tournament-preview cover featuring his likeness.

Lavender played for two seasons at Oklahoma, but he transferred to Xavier in 2005 and took his hard-partying reputation with him -- at least until Musketeers coach Sean Miller arranged an intervention of sorts in the spring of '06 that included Lavender's mother, Shirlene Howard. "It was really emotional," Xavier assistant James Whitford says. Lavender choked up while revealing his grief over the death of Bruce Howard, his AAU and high school coach in Columbus, Ohio. The coach died from liver failure in '03, which deeply affected Drew, who says Howard "was everything to me."

Lavender rededicated himself to hoops, and he's no longer a fixture on the party scene. "When he's playing at his very best, we can beat anyone in the country," says Miller, whose Muskies will need a top performance from their point guard against West Virginia on Thursday in Phoenix (and even more in a potential West Regional final against top-seeded UCLA).

Like Lavender, Butch suffered the emotional strain of a loved one's illness -- his mother, Nancy, battled breast cancer, now in remission -- a year after he shocked the Badgers faithful by deciding to redshirt his freshman season to gain strength for the rough-and-tumble Big Ten. The result: Butch didn't earn a starring role until his fifth year in Madison. "The development I've had is what [college basketball] is all about," he says. "[Redshirting] definitely paid off in the end. I would have been able to help the team [as a true freshman], but not as much as I'm helping now." Underrated all season, the Big Ten champion Badgers can return to their first Final Four since 2000 with wins this week over Davidson and either 12th-seeded Villanova or, more likely, top-seeded Kansas, one of the few teams that can match Wisconsin's size.

As Butch and Lavender know, for seniors in the NCAA tournament the phrase time running down on the clock takes on a whole new dimension. That's especially true this week for three up-and-down senior sharpshooters whose teams' fates may wobble on their (not always squared-up) shoulders. But who's to say they can't make like Memphis's Dorsey and write their own happy ending?

Tennessee's Lofton was a preseason All-America and has made more three-pointers (429) than all but two players in NCAA history, but his yo-yoing senior season continued in wins over American and Butler last week when he shot a combined 4 for 18 (and 3 for 12 from beyond the arc). Sophomore forward Tyler Smith has taken over as the Vols' go-to guy, but Lofton will have to stretch defenses with his outside shot this week for Tennessee to have any chance of beating Louisville and potentially the East's top seed, North Carolina (whose star forward Tyler Hansbrough is seeking his first Final Four -- the last, indisputable argument for his player-of-the-year worthiness). "I've had two bad games," Lofton said on Sunday, "but we still survived and advanced, and that's what this tournament is about. I'm going to get some rest and then get back in the gym. That's all I can do."

Even colder is UCLA's Shipp, who admits "it would be hard" for the Bruins to win a national title if he can't shake the worst shooting slump of his career. Shipp scored 18 points in last year's Final Four loss to Florida, but he ended the '07-08 regular season on an 8-for-47 bender from three-point range. In UCLA's 51-49 second-round win over Texas A&M, Shipp missed all four of his field goal attempts, passed up several open shots and finished with zero points. The Bruins may be able to beat 12th-seeded Western Kentucky without a third credible scorer behind Kevin Love and Darren Collison, but "that won't work" in a potential regional final against Xavier or West Virginia, Love says, and he's right.

Michigan State's Neitzel is just as important to the Spartans' fortunes. If it seems as if Neitzel was born to play college basketball, that's not a stretch: His father, Craig, a high school coach, stuck a tiny goal and foam ball in his crib, and Drew learned to eat and brush his teeth with both hands, one reason he's an ambidextrous shooter. But Neitzel sometimes struggled to score with either hand this season -- after winning the Big Ten player of the year award as a junior, his production slipped from 18.1 points a game to 14.1 -- and his team failed to win a Big Ten championship for the fourth straight year. "It seemed like those dreams started falling away," says Spartans coach Tom Izzo. "I told him, 'You've quit dreaming! You have to keep dreaming!' "

And so, on the eve of Friday's South Regional semi against Memphis, Neitzel is thinking big again. "Going to the Final Four would be huge," he said after ending his scoring skid (just five points on 2-for-11 shooting in Round 1 against Temple) with 21 points in a gut-check 65-54 second-round win over Pittsburgh. "I want to leave it all on the floor because every game could be my last."

One of Neitzel's best friends in college hoops happens to be Memphis's Dorsey, his teammate on last year's U.S. Pan American Games team, who says he likes to call Neitzel "L'il Vin Diesel." When their teams meet on Friday in Houston, the result may well hinge on Dorsey's fragile psyche. "If he shows up we're a great team. If he doesn't. . . ," Douglas-Roberts says, shrugging his shoulders like a weary parent. Indeed, Dorsey is an inscrutable presence among the Tigers. During last week's first media session, he lay on the locker room floor with a towel over his head and refused to speak with reporters, claiming he was catching up on his sleep.

It was just another of his infamous mood swings. "Joey's one of those guys, when it's really going good, that's when he's at his worst -- that's when he reverts and goes [to nightclubs]," says Calipari, who still shakes his head recalling Dorsey's actions at a Memphis club last fall, when he sparked a brawl that ended with the arrests of teammates Jeff Robinson and Shawn Taggart. "Joey likes to go out and be with people and have them stroke [his ego]," Calipari adds. "I'm like, 'Go to the movie theater! Go to the mall! Go buy a dog! Because dogs love you.' But to go out at three in the morning? It's to get stroked. I'm telling you, there are other ways to do it."

And, as Calipari has discovered, there are other ways to motivate his sensitive big man. Thus the decision last month to have Dorsey start writing his own story line in preparation for every game. That included visualizing his individual highlights, the crowd's reactions and the response of his teammates. "When he's in a positive frame of mind," Calipari says, "there's not a more dominating player." Sure enough, Dorsey showed up in Sunday's 77-74 win over Mississippi State, producing 13 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks.

"I was the good Joey today," a beaming Dorsey explained afterward. After all, Prop Joey knows as well as anyone: If he can follow the script for just two more weeks, it will be one scary proposition for the rest of the field.

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