We follow it every March not only to see who becomes the game's champion but also to champion the game—to celebrate college basketball's reach, diversity and balance. We follow it to see an unlikely flock of Cardinals—from Ball State, hardly the first Indiana college that comes to mind when you mention basketball—educate the more famous Cardinals, the Doctors of Dunk from Louisville, in how to throw it down. We follow it to behold Princeton sending its perennial chill down some high-seeded spine, in this case Arkansas's, whose relieved coach, Nolan Richardson, muttered after a narrow first-round victory, "The fat lady didn't sing, but she was ahumming." We follow it to hear Towson State's Kurk Lee pause in midgame, as the pesky Tigers refuse to be shaken by a pompous Oklahoma team, and ask a Sooner player, "Do you know where Towson State is now?"
We also follow it to pour our hearts out to Loyola Marymount, which showed us that the emotion of losing a cherished comrade is high-octane stuff, capable of revving up an offense that seemed already to be moving as fast as it possibly could.
The computer that helped shape the 64-team field of the 1990 NCAA basketball tournament spit out Michigan as the No. 3-seeded team in the West Regional and Loyola Marymount as No. 11. But the computer can't shed a tear and thus wouldn't have even the foggiest explanation for the Lions' stirring 149-115 thumping of the defending national champs on Sunday afternoon (box). "Like an amusement park," Hank Gathers once said, eyes asparkle and soul full of life, of the disciplined choreography that coach Paul Westhead designed for the Loyola Marymount basketball team. "So many rides, so much to do!" The Lions, going in days from burying Gathers to praising him the best way they know how, are approaching the crest of a final run on their emotional roller coaster.
The computer was bamboozled at other turns, too. What's an amalgam of microchips to make of nine of the top 16 seeds coming a cropper just two rounds into this tournament, or of a couple of wide-eyed freshmen coming prematurely of age? UCLA's Tracy Murray showed the poise of any number of Bruins of yore, dropping in the two free throws that upset the East's No. 2 seed, Kansas, 71-70, despite two timeouts called by Jayhawk coach Roy Williams in what Murray called "a freeze-the-freshman kind of deal.... I thought it was funny." At about the same time, Aaron Williams of Xavier replaced fouled-out teammate Tyrone Hill, the Musketeers' best player, and scored in the waning moments after snatching an offensive rebound over the Hoyas' Titanic Twosome, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. Williams then grabbed two key rebounds of missed Georgetown free throws to seal the exciting 74-71 win.
If in the unfolding of all this we sort out the Player of the Year (is it Loyola's Bo Kimble? Syracuse's Derrick Coleman? Georgia Tech's Dennis Scott/Kenny Anderson/Brian Oliver? Murray State's Popeye Jones?) from the Player, of the Regular Season (Gary Pay ton and Oregon State were the other victims of the Cardinals of Ball State last week), fine. And bully for us if in the process we can also separate the good conferences from the better ones. The Big Ten sent a record seven teams to the tournament, but only two reached the Round of 16, and none of the Big Three from the Big Eight—Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas, each of which took a turn atop the polls during the season—survived. Meanwhile the ACC went 9-1, and still had four schools alive.
So there was nothing rational about Rounds 1 and 2 other than this: The tournament belongs not to the elite conferences, much less to the nine-man oligarchy that lords self-interestedly over this event. It belongs rather to the hundreds of young men who have turned the NCAAs into a billion-dollar bacchanal and will share in nary a penny of it, and who played 48 games last week, 16 of which went down to a final, gut-wrenching shot or into overtime. Out of respect for Gathers, let's no longer call them heart-stopping finishes, but life-affirming ones.
For so many college kids, last week was spring break, a chance to bust loose. Maurice Newby and Jason Reese had been playing together since the third grade at the Des Moines Salvation Army Community Center, and now they found themselves wearing the uniform of the University of Northern Iowa—the University of Nothing Impossible, as a cheerleader's sign put it. "You live to get into the tournament," said their coach, Eldon Miller. "And when you do, you live to win games." Reese's 18 points and 15 rebounds, and Newby's 25-foot three-pointer with two seconds to play, kept the Panthers alive against mighty Missouri 74-71 last Friday, before Minnesota sent them home on Sunday—barely—81-78.
"We didn't come out here just planning to watch Louisville run and dunk," said Ball State guard Billy Butts after the Indiana Cards' 62-60 upset of the Louisville Cards. "There's no doubt they didn't take us seriously. We deserved more respect than they gave us."
Unheralded Alabama humbled the West's second seed, Arizona, 77-55, outrebounding the Wildcats by 12. Forward Robert Horry—ever heard of him?—threw in three-pointers all week, including two treys during a critical 14-0 run that should have gotten 'Bama loose for Loyola Marymount. Said Arizona coach Lute Olson, "They kicked us every way you could be kicked."
For a signature play for all this, how about the time in Xavier's defeat of Georgetown when Hill went ahead and inbounded the ball without the requisite referee's handling? It was the attitude of the week in miniature: Let's play, already.
The desperate intensity with which the kids on the unheralded teams went at it infected even those at the top schools, where a youngster might be inclined to take a tournament bid for granted. There was UNLV's Greg Anthony, his jaw wired so tightly shut that migraine pain shot through his head, who helped push the No. 1-seeded Runnin' Rebels into the semifinals in the West. Dale Davis led Clemson back from 19 points in arrears to beat La Salle and take a place in the East Regional semis, this despite a stress fracture in his left foot. But the masterpiece of the tournament's first week was Georgia Tech's 94-91 defeat of LSU, a game with only 11 turnovers to go with 185 points and 30 assists. The Yellow Jackets muddled through the opening minutes, trailing 22-5 before the Scott/Anderson/Oliver trio put up trios of their own. They made eight three-pointers in the second half, helping to offset the LSU inside game—Stanley Roberts had his way with Tech's overmatched frontcourt, as did the Tigers' Shaquille O'Neal, whom Tech coach Bobby Cremins referred to all week as "Chenille." Afterward, LSU star Chris Jackson, who had a severe chest cold and scored a subpar 13 points, confessed what many had suspected—that he'll go pro even though he has played only two collegiate seasons.
Savor all this now, for henceforth the tournament won't be quite the same. ESPN, the mom-and-pop network that raised this wondrous event through the 1980s, has been aced out by CBS, which starting next year will have the NCAAs all to itself. An NCAA committee—the Committe on Restructuring, maybe?—is discussing the possibility of tightening its requirements for Division I membership, which could deny some schools a chance to take the very first baby steps down the Road to the Final Four. And beginning next spring, at least one of the small conferences, whose presence gives the tournament its Charles Kuralt feel, will be excluded from the field of 64.
The American South conference becomes eligible for an automatic bid in 1991, meaning there will be 31 conference champions vying for 30 automatic berths, a number the NCAA Basketball Committee vows not to increase. Thus, the two weakest conferences—right now, according to one computer ranking, they're the Southland and Mid-Eastern Athletic, but the American South might very well be at the bottom when the NCAA rankings are released in April—will have to "play into" the bracket. In addition to carrying a scarlet letter around all year, the two booby leagues will be expected to arrange this "play-in" playoff themselves—and pay for it themselves, notwithstanding the $1 billion that CBS is coughing up for rights to the NCAA tournament over the next seven seasons.
Even some big-time coaches oppose the humiliating "play-in." "Every conference should have an automatic bid, and they should cut down on the at-large teams," says Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote. "It's nice to have seven Big Ten teams in the tournament, but I think we could sacrifice one team so that a league could get its winner in."
Yet this may well have been Cinderella's last big dance. Under the new system, the tournament promises to become even more cliquish than it already is, and that's saying something; in this year's field, five conferences—the Big Ten, Big East, ACC, Big Eight and Pac-10—accounted for 26 of the bids. This development shouldn't surprise anyone: Seven of the Basketball Committee members come from the largest third of Division I universities, three of which play in conferences with the word Big in their titles. "Let's face it," says Calvin Burnett, the president of Mid-Eastern Athletic champion Coppin State. "They're greedy, and the whole issue is to keep as many teams out as they can and keep as much as they can for themselves."
The tournament's future shouldn't be determined by the special interests but by the fans who have taken the tournament to their bosom. And what enchants the multitudes aren't the overexposed sixth-and seventh-place teams from the Big This or Big That conferences. It's the Xaviers, the Ball States, the Nothing Impossibles...in short, the schools that sabotage office pools and worm their way onto Late Night with David Letterman, whose host, by the way, is a member of Ball State's Class of 70.
Once again last week, three of the four lowest seeds took the bounce out of some cocky No. 1's. Towson State—for the record, it's in suburban Baltimore—was within a basket of Oklahoma late in a 77-68 loss. Jones, Murray State's post-up fool, scored 37 points as the Racers pushed Michigan State into overtime before losing 75-71. Boston University actually led Connecticut 41-38 with 16:19 remaining in the game at the Hartford Civic Center, on what's essentially the Huskies' home floor—UConn played eight of its 13 home games there this season—before reality set in. It was not happenstance that earned ESPN its highest-ever ratings for any non-NFL telecast during last Thursday night's Princeton-Arkansas game in the opening round. (Indeed, television insiders believe the excitement of Princeton's effort against Georgetown last season, which until last Thursday had been ESPN's highest-rated first-round game and had ended in a one-point Tigers loss, helped persuade CBS to make its big-ticket bid for the entire tournament, first round included.)
It's indefensible that in choosing its at-large teams, the committee should take into consideration nothing beyond its precious power ratings and computer printouts, the same raw data that imploded last week as soon as the ball went up. Heaven forbid that a league be grandfathered an automatic bid for reasons of tradition (the Ivy League and Southern Conference, for instance) or mission (e.g., the historically black MEAC and SWAC). Hellfire if the NCAA should ever make a school's graduation rates, or its record of compliance with NCAA regulations, the test of qualifying for the tournament. It's not as if allowing a few long shots into the NCAAs has jeopardized the quality of basketball. "The game is designed for upsets now," says North Carolina coach Dean Smith. "You used to be able to hold the ball. And now we've got the three-point shot." Smith should know, for Carolina, an eighth seed, found itself in the unfamiliar role of fitting its tarred heels for glass slippers by beating top-seeded Oklahoma in the Midwest, 79-77, last Saturday. Never has the supposedly soulless machine of college hoops been such an emotional group. Never has Smith had to be so resourceful, even dusting off the Four Corners and putting the mercurial King Rice at its controls. Why, Tar Heel forward Rick Fox actually did a little dance after sneaking baseline on the Sooners and banking home the winning two as the final horn sounded.
Virginia's Bryant Stith came as close as a buzzer-beater to extending the farewell tour of his coach, Terry Holland, who announced last spring that he would leave the university to become the athletic director of his alma mater, Davidson, after this season. Stith found himself in the post with four seconds to play and second-seeded Syracuse leading 63-61 in a second-round game in the Southeast. He spun on Coleman, who put his long limbs to good use by snuffing the shot in close quarters and sending Holland, who thought Coleman had committed a foul, into an uncharacteristic fit. But Stith, who finished with 30 points and 5 of 7 three-pointers, didn't cry foul. In fact, he showed the same class for which his coach has been known. "This is the NCAA tournament," he said, "I don't think you can make such a call on a touch foul."
Purdue's Tony Jones had a similar experience. With Texas up 73-72 and time running out, the Longhorns' Guillermo (Panama) Myers took "the biggest gamble I've ever taken," by leaving his man unguarded and immaculately rejecting Jones's layup. "I saw his path for the layup," said Myers. "The way he went up, sideways, gave me a chance to block it." Purdue coach Gene Keady signaled for a goaltending call, and at his postgame press conference he ripped the officiating generally, pounding his fist and cursing during the interview session. "I've always had the officials at heart," he ranted. "I've always been on their side. But this is just bull. It's getting old." Keady then repeated, "It's getting old," until it got old.
Texas coach Tom Penders, whose Longhorns—speaking of things taurine—would be making their first Round of 16 appearance since 1972 when the tournament opened with only 25 combatants, had a different opinion of the refs. "I'd like to have a limo and bring those guys down for every conference game we play," said Penders, whose star, Travis Mays, had sprung for a career-high 44, including a tournament-tying 23 free throws, in a 100-88 upset of Georgia, and had won the Purdue game with two free throws with seven seconds left.
Texas earned a spot opposite Xavier in the decimated Midwest draw, in which three of the top four seeds had been defeated. Musketeer coach Pete Gillen had quoted from Stonewall Jackson to his team before the game—even if "they don't have a clue who Stonewall Jackson is." And he had watched Aaron Williams, his 6'9" freshman, spend much of the game bumbling around against the Hoyas' twin towers. "He was in shock," Gillen said. "He was thrown to the mat like he was the wrestler who was supposed to lose in the tag team match."
Yet Williams's teammates—Hill, Derek Strong and point guard Jamal Walker—took it straight to the Hoyas, building an 18-point lead, and held on until Williams got up and started grappling, eventually saving the victory with his work under the boards. Walker, who is all-New York City shake-and-bake, put down the clinching free throws. Hoya coach John Thompson should have known that this wasn't going to be his week after an elderly woman espied him at Washington's National Airport last Tuesday and congratulated him for beating Mike Tyson. He was nonetheless captivated by Xavier's frenetic effort. "Their style gave us fits," he said. "We haven't been a good team against pressure all year. I had a lot of worries, and they all came true. They're big, mobile and flexible. They're the way we were in the old days."
In the West, the NCAA had booked Ball State's flight out of Salt Lake City for Friday, as it does for many lower-seeded teams. Playing the chalk, no one figured on the Cards' Paris McCurdy's throwing in an awkward jumper at the buzzer, getting fouled and dropping in the free throw that beat Oregon State 54-53. Their flight rescheduled, these Cardinals never trailed on Saturday, outdunking Louisville in the rarefied Salt Lake air. If Louisville's Cards were the Doctors of Dunk, Ball State's were the Surgeons of Slam. Their most emphatic throwdown came late, when forward Chandler Thompson broke away after stripping Louisville's Jerome Harmon, in midjumper. "Their Cardinal is the same as our Cardinal," said Ball State coach Dick Hunsaker. "It's the heart inside the jersey, not the name on the jersey, that you win with."
Isn't it, though. For a Final Four, you could do a lot worse than Connecticut, Georgia Tech, Xavier and Loyola Marymount. It is arguable which is more exciting—UConn when it extends its defense, or Tech's Kenny Anderson in the open floor, or Xavier's Hill around the basket, or Loyola Marymount when there's air in the ball and a rim in the vicinity. This much is certain: Stout hearts, the one thing Hank Gathers was cheated out of, are at the center of these three weeks, and all four of those teams—indeed, all 16 teams that moved on—have shown that theirs are ready.