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
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
All of them are kindred souls with Villanova senior forward
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
He could walk in
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
Memphis has proven itself dangerous once again. Coach
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
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
Unlike Krzyzewski, North Carolina coach
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
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