Bill Frieder may not care about it. J.R. Reid may be content to straggle in late for it. And the blazer-clad Scrooges of the NCAA Tournament Committee, who have ordered a freeze on the number of automatic bids they will award college basketball's mom-and-pop conferences, evidently don't understand why it seizes the nation's imagination each March.
But you know who will happily take the NCAA tournament just the way it is? Little Siena (1,300 men), of Loudonville in eastern New York State, will. Siena, the school that spent much of the season in search of both a nickname and a measles vaccine, knocked off Stanford 80-78. South Alabama will take these NCAAs, too. At halftime of the Jaguars' first-round, 86-84 upset of Alabama, coach Ronnie Arrow punctuated a profane locker-room peroration by punching a hole in a blackboard. "Can you believe." he would say jokingly later, "they'd give us a faulty blackboard?"
Louisiana Tech has no complaints, either. The Bulldogs won one and lost one, and heard their coach, Tommy Joe Eagles, tell them, "Men, life is hard by the yard, but a cinch by the inch."
Where else but in the first round of the NCAAs could you take all this in? And where else could you see a Middle Tennessee State freshman, Mike Buck, sink seven straight shots in a 97-83 defeat of Top 20 Florida State, and in one stretch outscore the entire Seminole team 13-0 all by his scrawny self? Buck is from Clarkrange, Tenn. (pop. 250), which is about 15 miles from Crossville, which is a light-year from the SEC, which, by the way, went 0-5 last week.
March 27, 1989
Never mind that Siena, Louisiana Tech, South Alabama and Middle Tennessee State all lost in the second round. Last week reminded us why the NCAA subregionals beguile so. Even the losers made the week special: Princeton (page 24) fell just short against Georgetown; East Tennessee State nearly eliminated Oklahoma; George Mason was so swept away by Indiana that the Patriots' mascot showed up for the second half toting a life raft; and Southern sank nine of its first 13 shots against North Carolina, only to miss 20 of 23 later.
By Sunday night the teasing had ceased, and the draw had reverted to chalk: 13 of the top 16 seeds had advanced, including the first two seeds in each of the four regions, and the No. 3 seed in three of them. Sixteenth seeds simply do not beat No. 1's; it has never happened since the NCAA went to the 64-team format in '85. Nor has a No. 15 ever beaten a No. 2. Siena's defeat of Stanford marked only the fifth time that a No. 14 has eliminated a No. 3. But this tournament's first round will be remembered for East Tennessee and Princeton each coming within a buzzer shot of interring a top seed. "I'd like the opportunity to play Oklahoma again," said East Tennessee coach Les Robinson, exhibiting a fair amount of gumption.
On the opposite side of the Southeast bracket from the Sooners, coaching gumption had reached a new low. On March 15, Frieder, the coach of third-seeded Michigan, announced that he would be relocating to Arizona State. That struck Wolverine football coach and athletic director Bo Schembechler as reflecting poorly on Frieder's loyalty, not to mention his timing, so Bo decreed that Michigan would have to get along without him in the tournament. But the Wolverines rallied around de facto coaches Rumeal Robinson and Glen Rice, who combined for 94 points in victories over Xavier and Arrow's Jaguars.
For the second year in a row Michigan will have a regional semifinal date with North Carolina, which beat UCLA without Reid, who was suspended for barely missing a 1 a.m. curfew two nights before the game. Don't look at me, said Tar Heels coach Dean Smith; the players make the rules, I only enforce them. The incident breathed new life into rumors that Reid's teammates dislike him and that Smith doesn't much blame them. The whispers also said that the 58-year-old Smith may retire at the end of the Carolina season. That should come in the regional final, through which Oklahoma ought to waltz.
Arizona should emerge from the West thanks to Sean Elliott, who is accounting, via assist or bucket, for nearly 40% of the Wildcats' points. Were it not for the survival of the other top seeds in the region, Nevada—Las Vegas, Indiana and Seton Hall, Arizona would be a cinch to return to the Final Four.
The top four seeds are also alive in the Midwest, where Louisville's Pervis Ellison exploded for 21 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists and three Unseldian outlet passes for second-half breakaway baskets in a second-round win over Arkansas. Syracuse and Missouri joined the Cardinals in the semis and will meet on Friday night. But Illinois, with guard Kendall Gill hale again, had the bracket buzzing. "It's hard to imagine that kind of athleticism until you face it," said Ball State coach Rick Majerus, after Gill & Co. rolled over his team. "I was awestruck."
After Texas surprised Georgia Tech in the first round, Longhorn guard Lance Blanks said, "We're the Rodney Dangerfields of the tournament." A 19-point loss to Missouri proved that Texas needed a few Rodney Monroes. On Sunday, Monroe, North Carolina State's 6'3" guard, scored 40 points against Iowa and forced two overtimes with spectacular jumpers. The Wolfpack pulled away in the second OT to win 102-96 and set up an Eastern Regional meeting with Georgetown. After three listless tournament halves, the Hoyas' Charles Smith awoke to score 28 second-half points in an 81-74 defeat of Notre Dame.
A Gopher has an overbite unbecoming a Cinderella, but don't try telling that to Minnesota coach Clem Haskins. "I believe in putting five guys on the basketball court and playing hard," says Haskins. "I don't believe in fairy tales." That's too bad for the Gophers, who defeated Kansas State and the newly christened Siena Saints to stay alive in the East. Next tip is Duke. Fantasy will cease in the regionals.
If there's one theme common to recent success in the NCAAs, it's outstanding guard play. Nearly all the national champions going back to Magic Johnson's Michigan State team of 1978-79 have had it. Apply this theory and most of the tournament's mysteries clear up. Take Virginia. "You need two quality guards, preferably three," says Cavalier coach Terry Holland, whose troika of John Crotty, Richard Morgan and Bryant Stith scored 160 points in Virginia's two victories. "You win with your guards in the first two rounds. After that you need a good big man." Alas, Oklahoma, Virginia's next opponent, has 6'10" Stacey King, and the Cavaliers have no one his equal.
Virginia is also the type of team that points out the wrongheadedness of the NCAA committee's decision to freeze the number of automatic bids at 30. Though a middling ACC team (the Cavaliers were 18-9 overall and 9-5 in the conference), Virginia received one of 34 at-large invitations and a fifth seed in the Southeast. "A crock," is how Siena coach Mike Deane describes that decision. When North Carolina's Smith suggested last week that basketball undergo a Division I-A and I-AA mitosis, as football has, Deane added, "That's another effort by the elitists to claim everything for themselves. Those schools play their own schedules with their own referees and build up their records and get good seeds. I'll play anybody in the country home-and-home, but I bet I won't have many takers."
Indeed, how does a Deane lure a Deano and his team to Loudonville? With nonconference matchups beholden to TV's obsession with the cult of the coach, he doesn't, and that's why a wide-open tournament is so essential. Without one, Alabama never would have played South Alabama and Georgetown never would have played Princeton.
Even as it lords over the polluted landscape of collegiate sports, the NCAA clings to its bromides about student-athletes. Yet in 1991, when there will likely be more conferences (32) seeking automatic bids than there will be bids to go around (30), the committee will pass them out according to "basketball criteria" only. The SWC, say, could have its strongest members on probation, yet retain automatic bids. Meanwhile, the Ivy League, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, the Southern Conference, the American South Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference—leagues that provide the tournament with its motley essence while hewing more closely to their educational missions than do most major conferences—will have no guarantees.
"The way it has been is good for basketball," says Princeton coach Pete Carril. "It's good for the NCAA, and in a way it's good for the country. When you start closing down the family grocery store, what have you got?"
What you've got is more or less the current sweet 16, including Smith, Holland, Oklahoma's Billy Tubbs, Louisville's Denny Crum, Georgetown's John Thompson, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Illinois' Lou Henson, N.C. State's Jim Valvano, Arizona's Lute Olson, UNLV's Jerry Tarkanian and Indiana's Bob Knight. Almost every name coach from every name program remains. Factor in the records of two absentees—Frieder and Missouri's ailing Norm Stewart—as well as the records of two arrivistes, P.J. Carlesimo of Seton Hall and Haskins of Minnesota, and you have more than 6,000 victories among the 16.
One wonders how Tubbs would do with Robinson's East Tennessee players, or Robinson with Tubbs's. How Thompson would do with Carril's players, or Carril with Thompson's. The only hint we ever get comes once a year, over a couple of days in March.
This wonderful event isn't measured by its Final Four, its Great Eight, its Sweet 16 or even its Better Half. The NCAA tournament is only as broad and deep and righteous as its 64th team. So in the spirit of Tommy Joe Eagles's wisdom—"Hard by the yard; a cinch by the inch"—let's not forget those inch-high schools. The Lilliputians, after all, make this classic what it is.