Tuesday March 24th, 2009

He is a senior without a ring, the most desperate of NCAA tournament players, driven one last time to punctuate his career with a net draped around his neck and confetti in the air. Four and a half years have passed since A.J. Price's life was interrupted. One day he was greatness in waiting; the next he was fighting for survival. As a freshman at Connecticut in the fall of 2004, he became gravely ill from a congenital abnormality in the blood vessels of his brain. He spent his 18th birthday in the intensive care unit of a Hartford hospital, disconnected from basketball in the most terrifying manner.

Last Friday he sat, elbows on knees, in a quiet corner of the UConn locker room at the NCAA tournament in Philadelphia. His teammates lounged at the other end of the room on this off-day for them, watching on television as games were played at distant sites during the tournament's chaotic opening round. His coaches chatted idly in a trainer's room, awaiting transportation back to the team's hotel.

Price's college journey ends soon. He is the soul of a very good Connecticut team that won two games in Philadelphia by a combined 82 points to advance to the Sweet 16, and now he can measure his appreciation -- and his ambition -- by those 14 days he spent in the hospital, of which he cannot remember a single second. "I lost two weeks of my life," says Price. "Like it never happened."

Now he tries to squeeze two weeks more from his career. They all hope for two weeks more. Sixteen teams survived the first weekend of the tournament, and there is a fortnight left to find sweet redemption, to slip through a window in time or to seize one last chance after narrow misses and crippling disappointment. They are ringed in chalk -- a record 14 of the top 16 seeds advanced; only Purdue (5) and Arizona (12) were exceptions -- but they share Price's hunger as if they are all Siena, the fearless ninth seed that took out Ohio State (in Dayton) in the first round and threw a monster scare into top overall seed Louisville in the second.

Some are fighting disrespect, either real (Arizona, widely criticized for its inclusion in the field despite a mediocre regular-season record) or perceived (Memphis, which believes its No. 2 seed is beneath contempt and that Conference USA deserves mention with the true power leagues). Some are trying to reward seniors with an overdue title (North Carolina for Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green) and others are seeking to end uncommon runs of postseason mediocrity (Duke) and frustration (Pittsburgh). Still others are on quests framed against personal struggles (Syracuse's Eric Devendorf, Purdue's Robbie Hummel and Kansas's Sherron Collins).

All of them are kindred souls with Villanova senior forward Dante Cunningham. After scoring 18 points in an 89-69 thrashing of toothless UCLA on Saturday afternoon, Cunningham found Wildcats coach Jay Wright as they ran off the floor together and recalled 'Nova's run to the Elite Eight three years ago when Cunningham was a freshman. "It's totally different this time," he told Wright. "I understand how those seniors felt. I can see the clock ticking." The Sweet 16 will separate fragile dreams from sturdy ones.

For the next round Connecticut (29-4) will travel west, from where it launched national title runs in 1999 and 2004. In both of those seasons, Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun also missed at least part of an early tournament game with some sort of medical problem. Last Thursday he missed the Huskies' opening game -- a 103-47 rout of No. 16 seed Chattanooga -- and spent the night in a hospital getting treated for dehydration.

Calhoun used his sick leave to watch video of UConn's win -- "They don't let you sleep in a hospital," he quipped -- until 2 a.m. Then he quizzed nurses about the time line facing his neighbor, a man who was awaiting a heart transplant. What happens when the heart arrives? Where do you keep it? When does he go to surgery? The grilling distracted him from his team's delicate timing, which had bothered Calhoun since explosive junior guard Jerome Dyson was lost for the season with a knee injury on Feb. 11. In Philadelphia, UConn played its best games in a month. Calhoun has great affection for these Huskies, thick with last-chance seniors like Price and Jeff Adrien and junior Hasheem Thabeet, who is expected to leave for the NBA. "Now it's about leaving a legacy at UConn," said Calhoun.

Few players left in the tournament are performing better than the 6' 2" Price, who had 27 points, eight assists and five rebounds in his team's 92-66 win over Texas A&M in the second round. Surely no player has endured more adversity -- some of it his own doing, most not. A year after his hospitalization (the official diagnosis was arteriovenous malformation, which led to bleeding in Price's brain and was alleviated by radiosurgery in February 2005), Price was suspended from the team for another year for his role in the theft of four laptops from dorm rooms (he was charged with felony larceny and ordered to do community service), delaying his college debut until the '06-07 season. That year's team won only 17 games and missed the NCAA tournament.

Last season UConn went 24-8, but lost in overtime to San Diego in the opening round of the NCAAs, a game in which Price blew out his left ACL. "Right when I hurt my knee," says Price, "I was just about back to the player I had been when I got here. But the knee injury was nothing. [During] my rehab after the illness my freshman year, I'd be exhausted after walking for 10 minutes. The knee rehab wasn't even close to that." There are players on UConn's roster who were in eighth grade when Price was hospitalized in 2004. "I'm pretty sure they know my history," says Price.

"They don't," says Calhoun. "They know he's a great player, and maybe they know he had knee surgery. That's it."

Like Calhoun, Price is driven by urgency. "You look around," he says. "And there's just too much talent on this team. "

In the West Regional, Price and the Huskies meet Purdue. The Boilermakers fulfilled their preseason prophecy by winning the Big Ten tournament, but only after struggling to find rhythm through December and January while the 6' 8" Hummel first rested and later adjusted to painful fractures on both sides of his L5 vertebra. He stood up during classes because sitting for long periods was unpleasant. "In basketball I couldn't get down in my stance," says Hummel. Fans offered strange cures -- such as eucalyptus oil -- which Hummel politely declined.

Hummel is one of three sophomores -- along with 6' 10" center JaJuan Johnson and 6' 3" guard E'Twaun Moore -- who came to Purdue together and now are the team's three leading scorers. The Boilermakers are one of just two Big Ten teams (Michigan State is the other), of a surprising seven that were selected, to survive the tournament's first weekend. The Big East, meanwhile, also had seven teams in the field but validated a year's worth of superlatives by sending a tournament-record five of them to the Sweet 16.

Among those is Syracuse, for whom Devendorf, a 6' 4" junior guard, is a fearless attacker on offense and a sound defender on the top of the Orange's befuddling 2-3 zone. He is the team's most accurate three-point shooter (39.4%), although junior Andy Rautins has made more (and sophomore Jonny Flynn is the most talented of the three guards). In the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament it was Devendorf who hit the barely disallowed three-point shot at the end of regulation that led to Syracuse and Connecticut's six overtimes.

Yet Devendorf may also be the most reviled player in the NCAA tournament. After being accused of striking a female student with the heel of his hand in an off-campus altercation on Nov. 1, Devendorf was temporarily suspended from the university and ultimately ordered to complete 40 hours of community service before he was eligible to return as a student and member of the team. Among the glaring contradictions in his life, an athlete punished for striking a young woman also has a nine-month-old daughter, Madelyn. Her name is among the 12 tattoos that crisscross his body.

Devendorf missed two games in December and returned to a greeting of ceaseless bile from opposing fans. "The things that I've heard said to him are so foul that I won't repeat them," says Rautins.

Devendorf shrugs. "Everyone hates me, and that's fine," he says. "I love to be hated. It gets me going."

On Sunday he led Syracuse with 21 points in its 78-67 second-round win over Arizona State. The victory sent the Orange into a matchup with Oklahoma and powerful center Blake Griffin in Memphis on Friday, with the winner to face either North Carolina or Gonzaga. One of the games that Devendorf missed during his suspension was a 72-65 win over Memphis on the same FedExForum floor where the South Regional will be played. "I felt like I let my team down by not being with them in Memphis," Devendorf said on Sunday as he walked down a hallway in the belly of American Airlines Arena in Miami after the second-round win. "But I learned a lot during that time. I did my community service at a rescue mission in Syracuse. To see people come in there on Christmas [Day] makes you feel blessed for what you have."

He could walk in Mother Teresa's footsteps and he would still get his wish in Memphis: He will be hated by many, a redemptive character whose saga is not easy to embrace. Kansas's Collins, who fed Mario Chalmers for the game-tying three-point shot with 2.1 seconds left in regulation in the national title game last April, presents a similar issue: Last June a woman who claimed Collins exposed himself to her in a campus elevator filed a civil suit against him, and a Kansas judge initially ordered Collins to pay $75,000 in damages because he had failed to file a response. The suit ultimately was dismissed because of insufficient evidence.

Memphis, which lost that championship game 75-68 in overtime, carries indignation west to play Missouri in Glendale, Ariz., on Thursday. After Memphis rallied late to dispose of No. 15 seed Cal State Northridge 81-70 in the opening round, their sensitive buttons were pushed by Maryland guard Greivis Vasquez, who had said the day before, "If [Memphis] played in the ACC, they'd have a losing record in the league....The ACC is too tough."

Less than 24 hours later, as the Tigers were disposing of the Terps, 89-70, Memphis fans began chanting, "ACC! ACC!" with more than four minutes to play. "People will say what they want to say," says Tigers junior forward Pierre Henderson-Niles. "But we showed them last year with what we did to Michigan State, Texas, UCLA. It's not about the conference, it's about who you have on your team, who has heart."

Memphis has proven itself dangerous once again. Coach John Calipari survived losing Derrick Rose, Joey Dorsey and Chris Douglas-Roberts to the NBA after last year's title game, and his team's matchup with frenetic Missouri should be one of the most heated in the Sweet 16. (Mizzou, under third-year coach Mike Anderson, is no slouch in the redemption category either. The Tigers are one year removed from a spate of off-court issues that contributed to a 16-16 season.) But in fact Memphis's quest is about the reputation of its league too. The Tigers were the only team from Conference USA to earn a spot in the tournament. And despite Vasquez's braggadocio, the ACC has been largely a bust: Among the seven conference teams selected to the tournament, only warhorses Duke and North Carolina remain.

Both advanced from a friendly sub-regional in Greensboro, N.C., and both find themselves reaching to match their own high standards. The Blue Devils, who have won three national titles since 1991 under Mike Krzyzewski, last played in the Final Four in 2004 and have now made their first Sweet 16 since '06. Within the team, a subtle psychological dance has unfolded. The players live with an acute awareness of the frustration of losing early: Duke went out in the first round of the '07 tournament and then in the second round a year ago, when current juniors Jon Scheyer and Gerald Henderson walked off the floor after losing to West Virginia 73-67 in Washington, D.C., only to watch painfully as Purdue was warming up to play Xavier. Before Duke's 74-69 second-round win over Texas on Saturday, Henderson said to Scheyer, "Don't forget about last year and what we saw."

Meanwhile, Krzyzewski has taken the opposite approach, constantly coddling his team's psyche. "Every day he's telling us, 'Now's our time' and 'Live in this moment,' " says Scheyer. "Coach has been doing a good job of making sure we don't feel that extra pressure and that we're just playing for this year." The Blue Devils, who rely on offensive spacing and three-point shooting to get the most from their relatively modest skills, will need a full complement of emotional weapons against Villanova on Thursday in Boston. The Wildcats have powerful and dangerous starters at all five positions, led by Cunningham, and have three strong reserves, including explosive sophomore guard Corey Fisher. If Duke can knock off ­ 'Nova, the Blue Devils would probably meet Pittsburgh, an even tougher team with a mission of its own -- to get past a Sweet 16 roadblock that has halted the Panthers for 35 years.

North Carolina's quest is self-evident: To deliver a championship to core seniors Green and, most of all, Hansbrough, the 6' 9" forward who in the Tar Heels' 101-58 opening-round win over Radford became the leading scorer in ACC history. The goal became vastly more realistic when gifted junior point guard Ty Lawson, who missed the ACC tournament and the opening-round NCAA gimme with a jammed right big toe, returned to score 23 points last Saturday in an 84-70 win over LSU.

Unlike Krzyzewski, North Carolina coach Roy Williams has not minimized his team's quest, which matches the Tar Heels with Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 on Friday. As the Heels struggled with LSU in the second half, Williams screamed during a timeout, "Is this how you want your careers to end? Then continue to play like this."

Arizona, the lone double-digit seed remaining, needs no such motivation. The Wildcats' very presence in the tournament is a gift they have embraced. They lost four of their last five games to end the regular season and then bowed out in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament. Two hours before NCAA selections were announced, they ran through a brutal practice at the McKale Center in Tucson. "It was the most intense practice of the year," says sophomore guard Zane Johnson. "It was like we had all this nervous energy. Honestly, I didn't think we were going to make the tournament. None of us did."

They watched CBS's Selection Show alone as a team and celebrated only with one another when they were picked. They endured near unanimous trashing by college hoops nation, which held the Wildcats up as emblematic of the NCAA's power-conference bias. Then they won two games, taking down overmatched (and overseeded) Utah and upstart Cleveland State, answering the criticism on the floor. Their minirun has served as sweet satisfaction for two people more than others. Interim coach Russ Pennell was given the job when Lute Olson suddenly retired for health reasons in October, and Pennell now finds himself nearing the game's grandest stage despite the fact that he is unlikely to be retained. "You never know what life is going to deal you," says Pennell. "I had no idea this would happen the way it did."

Junior forward Chase Budinger, maligned for subpar performances in Arizona's first-round losses the last two years, scored 35 points in the two wins. Now the Wildcats meet Louisville in Indianapolis. "We've had hard times," says Budinger, "but all that matters is where we're at now." Here is where they are: Alive, playing late March basketball with house money. And, like the rest of the Sweet 16, convinced of their destiny.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.