Thursday March 17th, 2011

TAMPA, Fla. -- I want to be mad at the NCAA tournament. I really do. But I can't.

First, the anger. The injustice perpetrated on Clemson this week cannot be excused and should not be forgotten. Because NCAA television partners CBS and Turner Sports (Turner Sports is in partnership with SI.com and runs the site's business operations) -- which will pay the GNP of a small island nation to televise this tournament -- wanted two name-brand programs (Michigan State and UCLA) playing a potentially competitive game in primetime, 12th-seeded Clemson got stuck with a 12:15 p.m. ET tip Thursday. The Tigers faced West Virginia a little more than 36 hours after they beat UAB in Dayton, Ohio, in a new made-for-TV play-in game foisted on the viewing public and the playing teams this year.

Those television executives should have been forced to sit along the back wall of Clemson's locker room as five Tigers buried their heads in their hands and cried after their 84-76 loss. Some network bigwig in a suit should have had to fetch a paper towel so Clemson star Demontez Stitt could blow his nose.

"It stinks," said forward Bryan Narcisse, one of the few Tigers composed enough to speak.

The Tigers' legs failed them in the second half. They raced to a lead early, but they couldn't hold on. It might be a factor that they arrived in Tampa at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday and slept until 11:30 a.m. Then they went to the St. Pete Times Forum for a brief shootaround that served as their only practice for the fifth-seeded Mountaineers.

Still, Clemson had a chance in the waning moments. After guard Tanner Smith hit a free throw to make it 74-71 with 1:49 remaining, West Virginia guard Joe Mazzulla brought the ball up the court. Smith and another Tiger trapped Mazzulla after he crossed midcourt. Mazzulla tumbled. The whistle blew. There were only two possibilities. Either Mazzulla traveled, or he smartly called timeout before he traveled.

Except the official closest to the play saw a third possibility. He called an egregious reach-in on Smith. That sent Mazzulla to the line. Suddenly, the lead was back to five with 1:43 to play.

At that moment, I seethed at the NCAA tournament. But I couldn't stay mad.

The rage melted away moments later when Clemson tried to attack the top of West Virginia's one-three-one defense. Atop the diamond stood Dalton Pepper, a shy 6-foot-5 sophomore from Levittown, Pa. Pepper swiped the ball from Smith and raced downcourt for a dunk. On the next possession, Pepper picked Stitt's pocket and streaked in for a layup. On the next possession, Pepper turned over Stitt again.

If you read my work often, you know I have an affinity for people with unique names. You also know I believe the NCAA tournament brings out the best in people with magnificent monikers and that Fennis Dembo and Harold "The Show" Arcenaux agree.

That brings us to the best cooler named Dalton since Road House.

Pepper entered Thursday averaging 12 minutes and 3.8 points a game. In 31 games, he had six steals. By increasing his season steal output by 50 percent in 28 seconds, Pepper morphed from role player to SportsCenter star. It's such a dizzying ascent that Pepper can be forgiven for his response when a reporter asked in the postgame press conference what was going through his mind as Clemson dug into the lead. "Can you repeat the question?" Pepper asked "I wasn't paying attention."

Naturally, Pepper's status as a freshly-minted March hero didn't shield him from the slings and arrows of the other Mountaineers. "When things are going bad [in practice] and we need a basket, we usually just attack Dalton," Mazzulla said with just a hint of a smile. "He's perfect for the top of that one-three-one because of his length and his athleticism -- once we got him to understand what that position is and how you're supposed to play it. He almost played it to perfection today. He's great for the top of that one-three-one. Just not man-to-man."

Moments later, West Virginia's stars descended from the podium. Pepper, Mazzulla and Kevin Jones couldn't contain their laughter. "They asked [Pepper] what he was thinking during the game," an incredulous Mazzulla said. "Nothing."

They doubled over laughing again. On the other side of one wall of the hallway they occupied, Clemson players wiped away more tears.

I couldn't stay mad at the NCAA tournament if I wanted to. One 28-second span can turn rage to awe and a nondescript reserve into a star. One wall can separate heartbreak from joy.

That's why we watch.

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