A few things in this world you can count on. For instance, when James Brown was released from prison late last month, he announced, "I feel good." (You knew he would.) Also, when it gets to be March and time for college basketball's Annual Bracket Racket, inexplicable and wondrous things will occur. The mighty will fall to ragamuffins from obscure compass points, an adenoidal ball peen head will go nutso on cable, and some guy with acne from a town with no stoplights will find his three-point stroke and enjoy a Warholian quarter hour of fame.
Givens, all. So how come we're so doleful after the week just past? Lordy, we did get an astonishing first-round upset. Haven't heard of arachnophobia? Just ask Auburn (1984 tournament), Indiana ('88), Georgia Tech ('88) and now Syracuse what it's like to be a high seed in the NCAA basketball tournament and face the Richmond Spiders.
Alas, in the second round nary a single lower-seed team beat a higher seed over 16 games. Of course, this has been a season for favorites anyway. More precisely, for one favorite—UNLV, everybody's choice to retain its title in Indianapolis. Last week gave us a strange sort of Indy qualifying, with teams vying for spots in a race in which the pole position, if not the victor, had been determined long ago.
When UNLV center George Ackles injured his left foot during a 99-65 first-round rout of Montana in Tucson, you could almost sense the rest of the field becoming amateur podiatrists, straining to interpret Ackles's infirmity as a sign that Vegas was vulnerable. So what happens? For UNLV's 62-54 defeat of Georgetown on Sunday someone hands coach Jerry Tarkanian a lug wrench, he bolts 7-foot backup center Elmore Spencer (six blocks) to the chassis, and vrooooom, out of the pits and down the road toward the Final Four goes UNLV.
March 25, 1991
Just when the Rebels were about to lap the field, Georgetown made a run at them in their second-round game out WEST. "What's today, March 16th?" said Hoya coach John Thompson before his matchup with Tarkanian, who had never beaten him. "Our philosophy is more in keeping with yesterday [the Ides of March]. We didn't come to praise Caesar. We came to bury him." Hoya freshman guard Charles Harrison was less literary but no less apt: "If you respect them, they're going to blow you away."
Gamely, the Hoyas dissed Vegas. Midway through the second half, after trailing by as many as 15 points, they pulled to within four, before the Rebels surged once again. Then, in the closing minutes, just before Hoya forward Alonzo Mourning fouled out, Georgetown sliced UNLV's lead to five points. Both Hoya rallies, though, were halted by ill-advised shots by young players, and Georgetown had to settle for becoming only the second team all season to lose to UNLV by a single-digit margin.
Tark had been disappointed by his players' lassitude in their tuneup against Montana. "We were throwing alley-oops from half court and trying to dunk them one-handed," he said. "I told them to cut that crap out." (Tsk, tsk. Now, kids, back to basics: Always dunk your alley-oops from half court with two hands.) And after the Georgetown win, the Sad-Eyed One insisted, "There are probably four or five teams who've played as well as us in the tournament."
Jud Heathcote's Michigan State team would have been next for UNLV had not the Spartans fallen 85-84 to Utah in double OT. Michigan State had edged Wisconsin-Green Bay 60-58 in the first round when star guard Steve Smith nailed a leaning jumper as time expired. Smith immediately ran over to the Fighting Phoenix bench and asked one player, "So, what are your plans for spring break?"
The Spartans missed out on tournament wins in 1986 and '90 because of bizarre time-keeping incidents, but against Utah their luck turned enough to at least buy them a couple of extra periods. First, an unusual off-the-ball foul in the waning moments of regulation gave Michigan State an opportunity to convert a four-point play, which it did to tie the game and force the first OT. Then, a Spartan putback of an intentionally missed free throw with 4.4 seconds remaining in the extra period bought a second reprieve.
However, it will be the Utes and their 6'10" star, Josh Grant (29 points and 10 rebounds against Michigan State), who will face UNLV in the regional semifinal in Seattle. "It'll probably be a bloodbath for us," said Utah coach Rick Majerus. "But what's the worst that can happen? What are they going to do, eat us?"
Brigham Young drew a first-round match in Salt Lake City with undersized Virginia, against which 7'6" Shawn Bradley blocked 10 shots in a 61-48 victory. But the Cougars found the roles reversed when they had to go up against second-seeded Arizona and its frontcourt contingent of 6'11" Brian Williams, 6'11" Sean Rooks and 7-foot Ed Stokes. The Wildcats sealed it with a late 21-6 run, during which Williams threw down a dunk over Bradley. "I used to practice with [7'7"] Manute Bol, and I dunked over him a few times, so I was used to the feeling," said Williams after the 76-61 win.
Led by sharp-shooting guard Terry Dehere, Seton Hall beat Creighton 81-69 in Salt Lake City for the right to take on Arizona in Seattle. The Pirates trailed at the half, but the Bluejays' cast of precise and patient perimeter players—call 'em the Mutuals of Omaha—then came a cropper, turning the ball over so many times that Creighton coach Tony Barone, a former Chicago Cub batboy, must have been tempted to reach for the pine-tar rag.
Either Seton Hall or Arizona will be a worthy opponent in the regional final for, presumably, UNLV—the Pirates because they're now playing their best defense of the season, the Wildcats because of their antipathy for the Runnin' Rebels. Mourning believes that the Hoyas softened up Vegas. "From reading the papers, you'd think they were Superman and Batman," he said. "They're not invincible."
"He can say what he wants," countered Rebel guard Anderson Hunt. "But we're advancing, and they're going home."
No region more flagrantly violated the tournament's traditional spirit of unpredictability than the SOUTHEAST, which produced nary an upset. The atmosphere in Atlanta and Louisville was not unlike the run-up to a major prizefight, with Arkansas, the No. 1 seed, and Indiana, the No. 2, sending signals to each other from opposite sides of the draw.
Indiana was blessed with friendly confines in Louisville, where it outscored Coastal Carolina 25-9 from the free throw line in its 79-69 first-round victory despite the 13-for-15 shooting of the Chanticleers' Brian Penny. The previous day, Florida State coach Pat Kennedy had pulled his team off the floor shortly before the Seminoles had exhausted their allotted practice time. "The place was already packed with Indiana fans, and I could just imagine what it would sound like when [Hoosier freshman] Damon Bailey walked onto the court," he said. "I didn't want ray kids to go through that."
Kennedy also recalled that as a teenager he had fetched Cokes for Hoosier coach Bob Knight when Knight conducted a clinic at a basketball camp in the Poconos run by Kennedy's brother, Bob. "The son of a bitch only paid me $50 for being there," Knight said upon hearing this story. "Tell Kennedy that."
Kennedy got to see Knight's latest clinic for free. The Seminoles led the Hoosiers by 11 with 1:41 left in the first half when Bailey and another former Indiana Mr. Basketball, guard Pat Graham, nailed treys before the break. In the second half Knight went mostly with a small lineup composed of penetrating shooters. They did not commit a turnover and outscored Florida State 50-22 en route to an 82-60 win.
In a matchup of motion offenses in Charlotte, Indiana will play Kansas, which advanced to the regional semis by beating New Orleans 55-49 and Pitt 77-66. Last season's Jayhawks peaked in January and then fizzled. This season's team has traced an inverted line. "Last year's team was full of good kids," said Kansas coach Roy Williams. "In fact, they were maybe too good for their own good. They were so conscientious they worried about what people thought." And this team? "They care about what I think."
It must be the pull of the moon in March, because the Crimson Tide runs high most every spring. In the 11 years Wimp Sanderson has been the coach, Alabama has made six appearances in the Sweet 16—and gone no farther. Yet in beating Wake Forest 96-88 in the second round, thanks to 21-point efforts from point guard Gary Waites and forwards Melvin Cheatum and Latrell Sprewell, 'Bama showed why its fortunes could change. Said Wake Forest coach Dave Odom, whose team had also lost to the Tide in November, "Waites is doing all the things now that he did then, plus he's trying to score. Now they attack you from five spots instead of four."
Alabama next faces Arkansas, whose coach, Nolan Richardson, found himself having to cheer up his players following their 97-90 second-round defeat of Arizona State. Seems that the Hogs, winners by 41, 47, 29 and 31 points in their previous four games, were disappointed that they didn't dispatch the Sun Devils more easily. "Just remember that a raggedy ride is better than a smooth walk," said Richardson. Arkansas can expect the former from the Crimson Tide.
With five of the top eight seeds in the EAST falling in the first round, the region opened up all the more for top-seeded North Carolina. And the Tar Heels showed no trace of complacency, drumming Northeastern (101-66) and Villanova (84-69) in Syracuse to reach the Round of 16 for the 11th year in a row.
The Tar Heels travel to East Rutherford, N.J., to take on what will have to pass as this season's Cinderella, Mid-American Conference champ Eastern Michigan, which recently retired its nickname, the Hurons, because it was an affront to Native Americans. (A Detroit Free Press contest has proposed a replacement: Emu, which, while acronymically apropos, is also a flightless, ostrichlike bird.) The proposed Emus beat Penn State 71-68 in OT inside the Carrier Dome to reach the regional semis. Eastern Michigan's splendid point guard, Lorenzo Neely, scored five of his 18 points in the extra session and guided the team after two frontliners fouled out.
Funny thing about North Carolina: For all the early-season second-guessing coach Dean Smith endured for using so many players and not finding a "rotation," you're hearing something altogether different now that he's employing his scrambling, half-court D to excellent effect. "I know Vegas is in this thing," said Villanova coach Rollie Massimino. "But I think Carolina has the talent to win it all."
If Smith is firing off thank-you notes for the way the draw has broken, the first one should go to Dick Tarrant, Richmond, Va., 23173. The Spiders never trailed in their 73-69 stunner over Syracuse. Late in the first half forward Terry Connolly, Richmond's lone senior, found himself in heavy traffic under the basket and improvised a behind-the-back flip to teammate Jim Springer for a layup that put the Spiders ahead by six. Just then, any neutral observers at Cole Field House in College Park, Md., threw their loyalties to the underdogs.
So deep were the Spiders, and so confident was Tarrant in his overmatched players, that he inserted a cold freshman, guard Eugene Burroughs, into a hot game with 1:29 to play. Fouled with 21 seconds left and the score 70-69, Burroughs calmly toed the line, winked at his dad in the stands and swished the two free throws that, minutes later, had students in Syracuse screaming obscenities out of their dorm-room windows. Not since the tournament went to 64 teams in 1985 had a team seeded so low (No. 15) knocked off one so highly placed (No. 2).
If you can come to terms with Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton's being in the tournament while Kentucky, the team he left on probation, stays home, you'll cotton to the Cowboys. They play the throwback defensive style favored by paterfamilias Henry Iba. That was enough to defeat turnover-prone New Mexico 67-54 in the first round and to bamboozle N.C. State's dynamic backcourt of Rodney Monroe and Chris Corchiani in the second. Corchiani, who had upbraided Duke's Bobby Hurley during the ACC Tournament the previous week for whining to the refs, was caught caterwauling a few times himself during the 73-64 loss to the Cowboys.
Oklahoma State, which plays a fierce man-to-man defense, now faces Temple in one of the tournament's most intriguing matchups. The Owls showed unusual balance and consistent shooting, in addition to their normal sticky matchup zone, in easing past Purdue 80-63 and the itsy-bitsy Spiders 77-64. Temple's superb guard, Mark Macon, will meet up with the Cowboys' defensive specialist, Corey (the Terminator) Williams, who says, "When I come in, I tell the man I'm guarding, 'I'm baaaaaaack.' " Macon is baaaaaaack, too—back in the Meadowlands, where he surely will want to atone for the 6-for-29 shooting performance he turned in there in a losing effort against Duke three years ago in the regional final.
In the MIDWEST, Ohio State entered the tournament as the shakiest of the No. 1 seeds, having lost its last two regular-season games. Coach Randy Ayers considered his team to be on "the critical list," and even after a 97-86 first-round defeat of Towson State in Dayton, he refused to give the Buckeyes a clean bill of health. "We didn't sustain the lead [at one point it shrank from 18 points to five]," he said, "and we shot free throws badly." Indeed, poor foul shooting nearly did in the Buckeyes against Georgia Tech and its wondrous sophomore guard, Kenny Anderson, but they hung on to win 65-61.
"At this stage, attitude is more important than preparation," said Ayers. "We needed confidence." Two victories, however tenuous, have put the swagger back in the Buckeyes' step—and into that of point guard Mark Baker, who had been hobbled by a late-season ankle injury.
Only this week did Anderson let on how much he has suffered this season carrying the Yellow Jackets and coping with speculation over whether this would be his final year as a collegian. The stress has been such that clumps of his hair have begun to fall out. "The doctor said it might be a fungus," said Anderson, who notes that he's a fretter by constitution. "But I'm going with the worry theory."
In Tech's 87-70 defeat of DePaul, Anderson had been magnificent, your average transition magician with a five-speed transmission. He was spottier against the Buckeyes, scoring six straight points to pull the Yellow Jackets to 57-53 with 5:14 remaining but then going cold as Ohio State steadied itself and finally sank some free throws—seven in a row over the last half minute.
Fourth-seeded St. John's is Ohio State's next opponent, in Pontiac, Mich. Texas coach Tom Penders, whose Long-horns lost 84-76 to the Redmen, thinks the Johnnies' combination of prudent shooting and frontcourt size could be enough to undo the teetering Buckeyes—but only "if they can play in a rhythm and hit their free throws, because Ohio State puts you on the line a lot."
In the opinion of Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, his No. 11-seeded Huskies produced "as good an 80 minutes as we've played all year" to move into the regional semis against Duke, the team that beat them out of a Final Four berth last year. In the first 40 of those minutes, Connecticut controlled LSU's All-America center, Shaquille O'Neal, in a 79-62 victory. Then came a 66-50 win over a depleted Xavier team, whose floor leader, Jamal Walker, played only six minutes because of a bum foot. As the Huskies mush on, watch guard Chris Smith. At hoops clinics in the Northeast they're already teaching his top-of-the-key, crossover dribble move and calling it "the Chris Smith."
The highlight of Duke's 102-73 first-round romp over Northeast Louisiana in Minneapolis was Blue Devil coach Mike Krzyzewski's trashing of a chalkboard at halftime to fire up his charges. Two days later the Blue Devils, who have made the Final Four four of the last five years, dominated Iowa 85-70. "They're so experienced," said Hawkeye coach Tom Davis, after his team tried in vain to disrupt Duke with full-court pressure. "If anything, Duke is ready now for pressure defense. I think that loss to UNLV [in the 1990 title game], and the way the pressure hurt them, still sticks in their craw."
Every team, it seems, is talking about UNLV, referring to UNLV and measuring itself against UNLV. Because Georgetown at least gave the Rebels a decent game, perhaps the rest of this tournament won't be played under a sort of terry-cloth shroud. "Last year we were right there with them," says the Buckeyes' Baker, referring to Ohio State's loss to Vegas in the second round. "Then we shot 24 percent in the second half. We just didn't feel we could beat them. This year our confidence level has changed. We believe we can take them now."
But UNLV took Georgetown's best shot—twice—and still comfortably prevailed. That game, far from sowing doubts among the Rebels, may well have tempered them. So it says here that, all things considered, this isn't really a field of 16. It's a field of 15, with one thresher.