After all the parity and punditry that has been satellite-dished out this season, it's a welcome confirmation of the college game's singular appeal that the NCAA basketball tournament should still startle, stun and otherwise surprise.
Yes, all four No. 1 seeds—Nevada-Las Vegas in the West, North Carolina in the East, Indiana in the Midwest and Georgetown in the Southeast—advanced to the regionals last week. But as we saw the field reduced from 64 teams to 16, who among us knew there was an outstanding center squirreled away in the Rockies? That the Association of Mid-Continent Universities (AMCU-8) would send forth another team that would upset a major-conference power? That a variation of a wonderful early '70s cheer—"The Fly is open! Let's go Peay!"—would be unzipped and put to use in a couple of unrelated ways?
And how many really knew that Fennis Dembo, a consensus All-Namer three years running, could actually play? That Dale Brown, LSU's maven of the Freak defense, could really coach? And that Dallas Comegys could do both at the same time?
Fess up, now. You had no idea. Nor did you guess there would be six 100-point games after only two rounds, an NCAA record. That the five teams from the Big East, supposedly mired in a down year, would win their first eight games and come close to taking all 10 of their first- and second-rounders. That there was any way a 6'8", 260-pounder would launch 13 three-pointers in a single game, let alone make five of them, let alone have his coach countenance it all without protest.
The hoops seismologists will tell you that this year's first- and second-round upsets weren't quite as tremulous as last season's, but there were several nonetheless. To measure them, we might make use of something we'll call the Leckner Scale, after Eric Leckner, the hitherto unknown center for the Wyoming Cowboys, who lassoed favored Virginia and UCLA in the West Region. It's really quite simple: The size of an upset is measured by the disparity between the respective seedings of upsetter and upsettee.
For instance, when Austin Peay State, No. 14 in the Southeast, shocked Illinois, a third seed, it registered an 11 on the Leckner Scale. By defeating Clemson, the No. 4 team in the same region, No. 13 Southwest Missouri State of the AMCU-8 got a 9 on the Leckner, just as Xavier did in xapping Mixxouri in the Midwest. Brown's LSU Tigers recorded an 8 by beating Temple, the Midwest's No. 2 and the highest seed to fall. And when Leckner and Dembo's No. 12 Cowboys knocked off the Cavaliers (No. 5) and Uclans (No. 4) out West, the needle hit 7 and 8, respectively.
Yet more participants were upset by the logistics of the NCAA's new drug-testing program, which called for the seven players on the winning team with the most regular-season playing time, plus one reserve chosen at random, to undergo urinalysis after the team's first-round game.
The reality of drug testing was more Kafkaesque. Countless players were detained for hours after games, while they tried to overcome dehydration and produce specimens. Others, in legitimate need of medication, feared taking it, lest they test positive for a banned substance. Florida coach Norm Sloan went so far as to move his Gators from their Syracuse hotel, fearing his players might test positive because of passive marijuana smoke from another room. "The road to New Orleans," observed Missouri center Gary Leonard, "starts in the bathroom."
Favorites ran into their biggest problems in this region, where Austin Peay's improbable win over Illinois obliged Dick Vitale to make good on a promise to—freeze it!—stand on his head, and Southwest Missouri State proved that six juco transfers and a point-on-the-compass name do not necessarily an outlaw band make. Seriously, folks: Do names like Winston Garland, Basil Robinson and Kelby Stuckey belong in a lineup or in liner notes on a Simon and Garfunkel album? Clemson must have been unsure, at least until after Southwest Missouri's pressure man-to-man, the nation's stingiest, held the Tigers 27 points below their average and kept the ball from ACC Player of the Year Horace Grant, who didn't score a field goal in the second half. Meanwhile, the patient Bears from Kathleen Turner's old school had no problems finding Garland, their splendid guard, who scored 24 in a 65-60 win.
The Governors of Austin Peay, pride of Clarksville, Tenn., used their Sic 'Em Offense—"I just throw the ball out and say, 'Sic 'em,' " said coach Lake Kelly—to stun Illinois 68-67. Darryl Bedford, the Govs' 6'8", 260-pound Round Mound from Downtown ("I'm a so-called versatile player"), buried five three-pointers against the Illini, but it took Tony Raye's two free throws with :02 remaining—and Kenny (the Snake) Norman's missed buzzer shot, a makable 18-footer that slithered off the rim—to finish off Illinois and its season-long habit of losing late leads.
Along with the upset twins, the region's most compelling story was Providence. Four days before their opening game with UAB, as the Friars were returning from the Big East tournament in New York City, highway patrolmen stopped the team bus to inform coach Rick Pitino and his wife, Joanne, that their six-month-old son, Daniel Paul, who had been ill since birth, had died of a heart ailment. In happier times, the Providence staff had dubbed its three starting guards the Rainbow Coalition for their tops-in-the-land knack for sinking three-pointers. But the Friars are no chuck-and-duck crew; they score, then swarm the baseline with full-court pressure. By the end of Providence's 90-68 first-round victory, the Blazers' tongues were hanging out, and it wasn't to sample any Birmingham home cooking. Friar guard Billy Donovan, this season's Scott Skiles minus the rap sheet, followed up his 35 points and 12 assists against the Blazers with a 25-point effort, including 16 over the final 11 minutes, to put Austin Peay, 90-87 overtime losers, on the last train to Clarksville.
Kansas opened up by downing Houston 66-55. And it was Houston, not Phi Slamma Jamma: One of the Cougar guards, Tim Hobby, came to school on a golf scholarship, and coach Pat Foster actually said, "We felt like we had to hold the ball." Sic transit gloria slamma. Jayhawk freshman Kevin Pritchard scored 11 straight points late in the first half, thanks largely to the prodding of Danny Manning. "I didn't just tell him to shoot," Manning said. "I screamed at him."
As for Manning, remember his four-point effort against Duke in last year's Final Four? Now forget it. His career-high 42 points in Kansas's 67-63 win over Southwest Missouri State showed how far he's come. He'll next meet Reggie Williams and Georgetown, who, in their 82-79 second-round defeat of Ohio State, came back to win from a double-digit deficit for the fifth time this season. Bucknell was Georgetown's first victim, losing 75-53. Said Bison guard Chris Seneca, "One guy gets up tight on you on defense, plays hard and you get tired. When their guy gets tired, they throw in another who's just as quick."
"We are hot," says Hoyas coach John Thompson, "but we're not a dominating team." Alabama, on the other hand, is both. The Tide shot 72.7% in routing New Orleans 101-76, missing only 15 of 55 field goal attempts all game. "Lord," marveled Benny Dees, the Privateers' coach, "they light it up just like a Piggly Wiggly cash register."
Where Georgetown has seven freshmen and sophomores among its top 10, 'Bama has three five-year seniors. And while the Hoya pressure is formidable, even the Tide's 6'9" Derrick McKey can handle the ball. Look for Alabama to take out the Southeast's carpetbagging No. 1 seed. Hey, the Tide didn't lose twice to Seton Hall.
By halftime of north Carolina's first-round outing, the Tar Heels had surrendered 53 points to Bruce Lefkowitz and Penn, which isn't a law firm, but the 6'8" center and his 13-13 Ivy League Quakers. No surprise that Dean Smith was quite perturbed at his Heels. "He isn't one to yell," senior Michael Norwood would say later. "When he raises his voice one little bit, it gets everybody's attention." Attention gotten, Carolina reeled off three absolutely devastating halves. Penn went down 113-82 in a withering display of powder-blue traps and transition baskets. Then Michigan, an impressive 97-82 first-round winner over Navy—and Naismith Award winner David Robinson, who went out with 50 points, 13 rebounds and, let's never forget, 1,320 on his SATs—sat through a similar horror show. Or, even worse, ran through it. "I thought they would slow it down," said Carolina's Dave Popson. "Other teams have. But they were willing to run, and they paid the price." Charge that 109-97 score to Wolverine coach Bill Frieder's expense account.
Thus the Tar Heels earned their revenge match with Notre Dame, which made pebbles of Dwayne (Bam-Bam) Rainey and Middle Tennessee State (84-71), then used David Rivers's five three-pointers, and a free throw with :04 remaining, to oust TCU 58-57. Why are the Irish, ignominious first-round losers to Arkansas-Little Rock last season, cooking now? "The problem last year was we couldn't get tapes of Little Rock," said coach Digger Phelps. Why, of course. Carolina tapes are plentiful—and scary, especially those in which Kenny Smith, who sat out the Heels' 60-58 loss at Notre Dame on Feb. 1 after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, is his old, accelerating self. Hey, Digger, better to show your team Hoosiers.
Syracuse won two straight tournament games for the first time in 10 NCAA appearances, earning coach Jim Boeheim a water-bucket dousing from center Rony Seikaly. "To get the monkey off his back," Seikaly explained, "we washed it off." But this Orange edition isn't necessarily high in vitamin C. They slogged past Georgia Southern 79-73 on their home floor before unleashing quicksilver guards Sherman Douglas (27 points) and Greg Monroe (20) on Western Kentucky in a 104-86 win. "They don't just outlet it," said Hilltoppers coach Murray Arnold. "They downlet it, uplet it, either way."
Florida, with two-platoon depth and its own pair of backcourt conjurers, Vernon Maxwell and Andrew Moten, will cause problems for the Orange. Consider: Down 49-40 with 12:24 remaining against North Carolina State, Gator coach Norm Sloan inserted the sure-shooting Lawrence brothers, Joe and Pat, and switched Florida into its "55 D" pressure man-to-man. The move touched off a 17-0 run (leading to an 82-70 win), during which Moten yelled to his mates, "This is the same team we used to be." He meant the 16-4 midseason Florida, before it lost 6 of its last 11 heading into the NCAAs.
The Gators' 85-66 dismantling of Purdue was more methodical. Leading by just two at the half, they let loose 7'1" freshman Dwayne Schintzius, who not long ago had to lard his hands with stickum just so he could catch the ball. His deft shooting (21 points) and passing (six assists) from the high post complemented the slashing and pounding of Maxwell and forward Melven Jones as Florida pulled away and left the Boilermakers panting.
Florida or Syracuse will try to run with the Heels, and they'll meet Michigan's fate. Digger—and everyone else—can leave the net-cutting drills off the practice agendas.
It was the biggest miss of Dallas Comegys's career, and he's had a lot of them. This one, however, was intentional. With 12 seconds left and DePaul trailing St. John's 69-67, Comegys was at the line to complete—or so it seemed—a three-point play. But, acting on his own, Comegys bounced his free throw off the rim and chased after it down the lane. Teammate Stanley Brundy, who had gotten the word from Comegys and knew the miss was coming, swooped in first, but the ball caromed off his hands to the Blue Demons' Kevin Edwards. When Edwards passed the ball to DePaul's Rod Strickland, who tossed in the tying layup, Comegys looked like a genius. The four-point play bought the Blue Demons an OT life, in which they beat the Redmen 83-75 and delivered themselves from what appeared to be their sixth early-round flameout in their last seven NCAA appearances. "I didn't think a free throw would do us any good," shrugged Comegys, "and I thought we could use our quickness."
St. John's might not have been playing DePaul at all except for center Marco Baldi, whose improbable jumper off the dribble with two seconds left had beaten Wichita State 57-55. And the Johnnies would not have forced DePaul's late miracles had they not scrapped back from a 14-point halftime deficit. But then Comegys, who last season was being called Dallas Comatose, thought quick and fired his deliberate brick. Said a grateful coach Joey Meyer, "There's no way I would have told him to do that. It surprised the crud out of me. I just yelled 'Dallas' as loud as I could. But that's coach Comegys."
Coach Comegys's tactics were no more unorthodox than coach Dale Brown's. As LSU beat Georgia Tech 85-79 and Temple 72-62, Brown was busy telling all who cared to listen what he isn't (he isn't "evangelistic," "Elmer Gantry" or "Rasputin"). Tiger center Nikita Franciscus Wilson served notice that he isn't a trilateral summit conference, just a young man with an enormous heart who missed 23 games over two seasons because of grade problems, and is making up for it with a vengeance. He scored 34 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in the two games, while floor leader Darryl Joe shot 13 for 19, including 9 for 12 from treyland. And while Owls coach John Chaney pooh-poohed LSU's Freak defense—"You don't want to get caught in an alley with a freak, that's all I know about it," he said—the Tigers continued their remarkable knack for holding opponents below 50% from the field. Against LSU the Owls shot 36.5%, with bellwether guards Howard Evans and Nate Blackwell going just 8 for 30. "Anything is possible with the mouth," said Brown, "but in two seconds it evaporates with the molecules." That explains why Brown's mouth never stops working. And why his words seem to make up for what his team lacks in talent.
The Southeastern Conference's other Tigers, the ones from Auburn, used their Wild in the Streets offense to take an early 24-10 lead against Indiana. But at that point Knight threw a few tirades. Soon the Hoosier Dome multitudes were in a froth, his players were in gear and the officials were in fear. A slew of seemingly phantom fouls left already-thin Auburn ill-equipped to handle the onslaught of the Indiana guards. Keith Smart and Steve Alford each turned in career games—Smart with 20 points, nine rebounds and an IU record 15 assists and Alford with 31 points, nailing seven of his first eight three-point attempts—in the Hoosiers' 107-90 win.
The victory sent the Hoosiers, who had earlier beaten Fairfield 92-58, into the regional semis against Duke and Mike Krzyzewski, a former Knight player at West Point and assistant at Indiana. The Blue Devils muddled past Xavier, whose three Musketeers—scorer Byron Larkin, shooter Stan Kimbrough and rebounding terror Tyrone Hill—had eliminated Big Eight regular-season champ Missouri, 70-69. Duke's designated stopper, Billy King, held Larkin to 18 points, stripping him for a breakaway slam with just under four, minutes to go that helped the Dookies surge to their 65-60 victory.
King may muzzle Alford, but Krzyzewski won't do the same to Knight, who has a 6-0 lifetime record against his protègès. And if Benny Dees, the New Orleans coach, speaks the truth—"My daddy told me there are two things in life that don't last: Dogs that chase cars, and teams that can't shoot free throws"—DePaul won't knock off Knight, either.
Marist, which seemed so intriguing, proved to be Maris, as in Roger, over and out. Pittsburgh, which slew the Red Foxes 93-68, then looked strangely tentative at times in its otherwise epic 96-93 run-and-shoot loss to Oklahoma. The Panthers' epitaph could be found on the stat sheet from that game. Missed free throws: 15, including 5 enormous ones down the stretch. Turnovers: 22. Rebounding: 13 offensive boards versus 22 for the Sooners. "Our kids were simply too impressed with their own plays," said Pitt coach Paul Evans. "We just forgot to get back."
Of Oklahoma's nine losses this season, seven were by a total of 16 points, and the win over Pitt was the Sooners' second straight tight victory, after a 74-69 defeat of Tulsa. Oklahoma made the most of host team Arizona's first-round ouster by UTEP, hiring the teamless Wildcat band to play for the Sooners. Then Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs let loose with a few of his diversionary cracks. Sample: "We run the wishbone. We like to run, and nobody likes to pass."
How will those merry gridders match up with Iowa, 84-82 winners over gallant UTEP? Oklahoma's Tim McCalister, who sank two late jumpers against Pitt from impossible angles, took a stab: "The question is, how's Iowa going to match up with us?" Added Tubbs, "We love to be pressed. That's our game. If Iowa presses us, there'll be 300 or 400 points scored."
Fact is, Iowa presses everybody, and the Sooners will need a strong frontcourt game from Choo Kennedy (3 for 19 in his two tourney games) and continued support from Harvey Grant and Stacey King. Consider the hockey game that Iowa took from the Miners, complete with body checks all over the floor and wholesale line changes. UTEP had somehow beaten Arizona 98-91 in OT, despite losing four players to fouls. But against the Hawkeyes, UTEP simply wore down in the final four minutes, after leading for most of the game. An Ed Horton layup with 1:10 left gave Iowa an 80-77 lead that buried the Miners for good. "Fatigue was basically their problem," said the Hawkeyes' Roy Marble, who had 28 points. "They should have kept attacking us, like we would have done."
And as UNLV has done all season. Coach Jerry Tarkanian keeps insisting that this is the hardest-working team he's ever had. Yet the Runnin' Rebels score in triple figures so often—12 times in 36 games—that people often overlook their work at the defensive end. In fact, Vegas took a good Kansas State team out of its motion offense in an 80-61 second-round win, and only Gerald Paddio's shooting slump (7 for 24 last week) might have caused concern in the Vegas camp. "You choose your poison with them," said Wildcats coach Lon Kruger. "There are so many ways they can hurt you."
Fennis Dembo knows that. The Cowboy was cooling out in his hotel room Saturday night after scoring 41 points in Wyoming's 78-68 second-round defeat of UCLA, while on the TV screen behind him Rocky Balboa was getting geared for Ivan Drago. Dembo saw the similarities. "Yes, we have to find Freddie," he said to a visitor, referring to UNLV's sharpshooting guard, Freddie Banks. "Fearless'll be letting it go for three."
Fennis, you'll recall, is the lightly recruited junior swingman from San Antonio who has a twin sister named Fenise, and a mother who based both names on the French finis, in earnest hope that the twins would be the last of her 12 offspring. Fennis gave a smile and a wink to CBS's Billy Packer after sinking the front end of a one-and-one with 25 seconds left that helped spell finis for Virginia, 64-60, in the first round. Then he missed his second free throw. "It blew the whole thing," says Dembo. "I was trying to get a compliment."
UCLA had so much respect for Wyoming's center, Leckner, an erstwhile boogie-boarder from Manhattan Beach, Calif. (42 points and 20 rebounds in two games), that the Bruins sagged on him, leaving Dembo wide open for three-pointers. Fennis launched 10 of them, making seven. As the Cowboys' Jonathan Sommers shut down UCLA star Reggie Miller (three points over the final 10:58), Dembo found ample occasion to woof at Miller. Explained Fennis, "It wouldn't have been a Dembo-Miller, hotdog-to-hotdog show if I hadn't."
At 6'11" and 265 pounds, Leckner could pose problems for the essentially centerless Runnin' Rebels. But the Rebs beat Admiral Robinson and his Middies 104-79 in December, and you have to wonder why Vegas point guard Mark Wade was yelling encouragement to Leckner late in the UCLA game—"Suck it up, big fella!"—if he feared the Cowboys. Iowa or Oklahoma would be a different story. But Vegas owes Oklahoma, which gave UNLV its only L this season; and Iowa can't shoot trey J's with Vegas.
So: Alabama, North Carolina, Indiana and Las Vegas. That's the prix fixe Final Four. But for something à la carte in New Orleans, may we recommend a Cajun dish? It has a little frankfurter in it, and a lot of spice. We call it Fennis Gumbo.