Here are a few final words on Wimp. Afterward there will be no more Wimp jokes, just admiration for his freshly crowned Southeastern Conference champion 26-4 Alabama basketball team, about which Winfrey (Wimp) Sanderson says, "I hamper 'em enough by tryin' to coach 'em."
After he hampered the Crimson Tide through three victories in the SEC tournament in Atlanta last weekend, including a 69-62 win over LSU in the final, his usually downcast countenance lifted for just a moment. "I got kind of misty-eyed cutting down the nets," he said. "If we don't even get invited [to the NCAA tournament], this is the greatest day in Alabama basketball history."
Of course Alabama, a splendid team, was invited, and it entirely deserves its No. 2 seed in the Southeast Regional. Sometimes the Tide makes scoring look as easy as tying your shoelaces. If 6'9" Derrick McKey isn't going over the opposition, bullish Michael Ansley is going through it. Or shifty Terry Coner and James Jackson are going by it. Or Mark Gottfried and Jim Farmer are staying far away from it, where they exploit the three-pointer as well as any team that really doesn't have to.
The SEC also richly deserved its other five NCAA bids, which went to Florida, Auburn, Georgia, Kentucky and LSU. After all, look what each of those teams went through. Unlike the Big Ten, which quits after its 18-game double round-robin, the 10-team SEC keeps on keepin' on, staging a 9-games-in-69-hours hoopsfest. The best top-to-bottom basketball assemblage in the land began its tourney offering:
•The Michael Jordan of college basketball," as LSU's Oliver Brown calls Tony (the Wizard) White of Tennessee. The Vols won 14 games thanks to White's wand.
•Real under Dawgs. When, as the conference season began, Georgia lost top scorer Toney Mack and top defender Patrick Hamilton to grades, and top rebounder David Dunn to a stress fracture, coach Hugh Durham promised his leftovers he would add the legend TMW (for The Miracle Workers) to any banner commemorating a postseason appearance. The Dawgs' Dennis Williams met Durham's challenge. He bottomed out a 27-foot three-pointer at the buzzer of Georgia's 65-63 quarterfinal win over tenacious Ole Miss. "A $200,000 shot," Durham called it, referring to the NCAA tourney first-round money that Williams's heave indeed assured. The Dawgs' Milt Blakley forced LSU into OT in the semis with another timely trey, but the miracles ran out in the second OT of Georgia's 89-88 loss.
•Parity's poster child. Will Perdue, the 7-footer with size 21½ AAAAAAA feet, couldn't get Vanderbilt past Tennessee on the tourney's first night, but don't forget that the 16-15 Commodores beat Indiana, Missouri, Notre Dame and Penn, not to mention SEC rivals Florida and LSU—NCAA tournament teams all. But the question isn't really Will Perdue. It's would Purdue—or its Big Ten brothers Indiana, Iowa or Illinois, for that matter—finish in the SEC's first division? "Talking strictly talent, Indiana would be a midlevel team," says Barry Booker of Vandy, which beat the Hoosiers 79-75 in December.
As for Alabama, the tournament gave the Tide a chance to ratify its 16-2 conference record, blemished only by a last-second loss to Kentucky and an overtime defeat at Florida. 'Bama began by dispatching Tennessee 68-60, largely by sticking its own munchkin, the 5'11" Jackson, on the Wiz, who scored a quiet 26. But in the semis, Auburn, which had beaten Kentucky 79-72, looked as if it would beat 'Bama by a TKO. When midway through the first half the Tigers' Chris Morris hung from the rim after a tap dunk, Sanderson stomped his feet wildly. A technical foul on Wimp led to four more Auburn points and a 27-26 Tiger lead. Then, early in the second half, Farmer yelled an obscenity when he felt he'd been fouled, and the Tigers used that T to run off eight straight points and seize a 49-45 advantage.
"Shoot!" Farmer protested to referee Don Ferguson. "I said shoot!"
No he hadn't, but someone else evidently had. Farmer soon wiped out another Auburn lead with the first of three straight three-pointers. As the Tide pulled away, the Tigers could only send them to the foul line, a futile strategy because five of 'Bama's first six players are better than 81% from the stripe. That's a Final Four statistic. "Today was the first time [in three losses] I thought Alabama was better than us," said Auburn coach Sonny Smith after the 87-68 defeat. "Like, not reachable. When they needed three baskets, they got 'em from downtown Smyrna."
Meanwhile, in the other half of the draw, LSU coach Dale Brown was rummaging around in his motivational toolbox. He invoked C.G. Jung. He alluded to the film Platoon, and obviously got his message across. "It is true the American Army was fighting the Vietcong," said Jose Vargas, Brown's Dominican-born center. "But they were also fighting themselves. If you're going to hell, you have to go hugging each other." Even Walt Disney got a mention: Editors once rejected his cartoons; told him he would never be an artist. "I try to stay low-key," Brown confided. "You can tell too many Knute Rockne and Iwo Jima stories."
Before ousting Georgia in the semis, the seventh-place Bayou Bengals pasted a 72-66 beating on second-seeded Florida, which had twice beaten LSU by an aggregate 45 points during the regular season. Here were Brown's Tigers, taking Atlanta, the site of LSU's startling Southeast Regional victory last March, all over again. "Why do kids go for hard rock music, or people with spikes in their hair?" said Auburn's Smith, trying to explain the Brown phenomenon. " 'Cause they like to have crazy people to rally around. And he's one of'em."
Brown resolved to be "a living example" to his players by proving that fatigue exists only in the mind. He didn't sleep after Friday's quarterfinals or Saturday's semis. He went for a 2 a.m. jog, phoned some sportswriters and spurned his daughter's 6:30 a.m. advice: "Go to bed, Daddy. I won't tell the team."
Brown functioned fine during Sunday's final, at least through the game's first 30 minutes. Then, with Alabama up 45-41, referee Luis Grillo whistled LSU's Anthony Wilson for charging and assessed Brown a technical for protesting. Fair enough. But then Brown gave Grillo the choke sign, and ref John Clougherty swooped in to assess a second technical. Jackson sank all four free throws, pushing 'Bama's bulge to eight.
Brown's judgment may have seemed addled by insomnia, but he knew what he was doing. LSU's Darryl (Your Average) Joe quickly made a steal and layup. Anthony Wilson added a short jumper. And when Nikita Wilson followed with a layup, the Bengals were within two. And now 'Bama had a chance to show how it uses steals and follow shots and free throws—the tools of a successful craftsman—to get the job done. Coner—"Our throttle," Sanderson calls him—made a steal that led to a McKey tip-in, then made an acrobatic layup and three free throws. And McKey added a jumper during a 9-2 run. Altogether, the Tide would drain 20 of 22 second-half foul shots. "I could have stayed up a week," Brown said afterward, "and we wouldn't have beaten Alabama."
With two fifth-year seniors (Farmer and Jackson) and a quality center in a relatively centerless field, Alabama's NCAA tournament prospects look promising. "The question is whether Ansley has the bulk to knock people around," says Smith. "You need that big ol' brute who'll stick his head in the fire and stomp on somebody's nostrils."
Like Jackson and Coner, Ansley, who goes 6'7" and 215, has a big ol' brute's haircut. There are no J.R. Reid-style, flattop coifs, known as fades, in the Tide lineup. That's East Coast, ACC stuff. "We're from the South," says Ansley. "We don't even consider the fade."
They're also from the SEC, where fading is not in fashion.