The Best Years of Their Lives

It's usually simple enough to become player of the year in college basketball—just have a brilliant season while your team attains a level of success it couldn't have reached without you. But this year's group of candidates is so distinguished that applying those standards barely narrows the field. Who had the better all-around season, Duke center Christian Laettner or Ohio State swingman Jimmy Jackson? Laettner was merely the best player on the country's best team, the player who held the top-ranked Blue Devils together while point guard Bobby Hurley and swingman Grant Hill were sidelined with injuries. For his part, Jackson showed an unsurpassed ability to take over games down the stretch. But was either of them more responsible for his team's achievements than center Shaquille O'Neal was for LSU's or center Alonzo Mourning was for Georgetown's?

The competition is the closest in years, so close that we thought the winner should have some other dimension, something more to recommend him. That's why we turned to Harold Miner, USC's spectacular guard. A 6'5" junior, Miner has all the traditional credentials. He completed the regular season as the nation's third-leading scorer, with a 26.9-point average, and he led the Trojans, widely picked to end up no higher than fourth in the Pac-10, to a second-place conference finish and a No. 10 national ranking. What's more, he breathed life into a program that hardly had a pulse two seasons ago, and he did it with a flair that even rival crowds enjoyed. For all those reasons, Miner is the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED men's Player of the Year.

Like Miner, 5'9" senior forward Frances Savage of Miami had a season worth noting for more than the impressive statistics she accumulated. Savage worked her way back from a career-threatening knee injury that forced her to redshirt last season. She averaged 23.4 points and 10.5 rebounds to lead the sixth-ranked Hurricanes to 29 consecutive wins after a season-opening loss. Because she had a sensational season while playing with pain, Savage is our Player of the Year among the women.

Of our two winners, Miner is easily the flashier. With his well-chronicled idiosyncrasies—which include giving the ball a hug before shooting free throws and placing his nose on various teammates and objects—he seems to stop just short of being a hot dog. "I only do what comes naturally," says Miner. "I think that's why fans on the road have never really treated me badly. They can sense I'm not trying to get attention or embarrass anybody."

That's not to say Miner doesn't have a sense of mischief. Three days after he scored 29 points and had 13 rebounds in the Trojans' second victory of the season over UCLA, on Feb. 27, he walked into Pauley Pavilion for the Bruins' game against Duke clad in a USC sweatshirt—"I was rubbing it in just a little," says Miner—and was booed as he passed in front of the UCLA student section. But when Miner looked up and Hashed his car-to-ear smile, the boos turned to cheers and then into a chant of "Transfer! Transfer!" Miner is surely the first Trojan player ever to be courted by a Bruin crowd. If Miner leaves Southern Cal before his senior year, though, it will be to join the NBA, not UCLA.

Savage also had to beat out a lot of outstanding competition—most notably, Virginia guard Dawn Staley, our 1990-91 women's Player of the Year—but her comeback was too compelling to ignore. Savage had previously undergone surgery on her left ankle in 1989. That injury, however, was nothing compared with what she went through last season. In the Hurricanes' second game Savage went down with torn cartilage in her left knee. When doctors operated, they discovered a hole in her thigh bone that was due to a congenital defect. "They used a laser to burn the bone so it would bleed and build up sear tissue over the hole," says Savage. "When I came back this year [the NCAA granted her an extra season of eligibility because her injury occurred so early in what should have been her senior year], I knew people were wondering if I'd be as good as I had been."

She came back better than ever. Savage finished the regular season seventh in the nation in scoring. Her best performance was in the semifinals of the Big East tournament, in which she scored 41 points against Providence. "I had no idea I'd scored 41 points," says Savage. "My way is to play as well as I can and then look back when it's over and see what I've done."

After the seasons they've had, both Miner and Savage can look back on 1991-92 with pride.

A Plea for the Little Guy

The members of the NCAA tournament selection committee must be tired by now of having people tell them how to do their job, but we can't resist offering one suggestion. The committee should adopt a policy requiring teams to finish in fifth place or better in their conference to be eligible for an at-large bid.

Every year teams that have mediocre or losing records in the bigger, richer leagues, such as the ACC, Big East, Big Eight and Big Ten, are awarded tournament berths. This results in the exclusion of teams from smaller conferences—the kinds of teams that have proved they belong in the field In pulling off the upsets that have helped make the tournament so popular. Two sixth-place finishers made this year's held: Wake Forest, which was 7-9 in the ACC, and Iowa State, which ended up 5-9 in the Big Eight. Fans of the NCAA tournament would have been better served if the selection committee had invited Wisconsin-Green Bay (14-2 in the Mid-Continent Conference and 25-4 overall) and Richmond (12-2 in the Colonial Athletic Association and 22-7 overall). Each was the regular-season champ of its league but was upset in its conference tournament.

Also-rans from the major conferences seldom distinguish themselves in the tournament. Indeed, not one of the 48 teams to reach the Final Four since 1980 finished as low as sixth in its conference, and only two (Virginia in '84, LSU in '86) came in fifth and still reached the semifinals. At the same time teams from the lesser conferences have proved that they can play exciting and competitive basketball. When people refer to March Madness, a large part of what they're talking about is Cleveland State over Indiana in '86, Austin Peay over Illinois in 1987. Northern Iowa over Missouri in '90 and Richmond over Syracuse in '91.

This isn't to say that the smaller conferences deserve to have as many teams in the NCAA tournament as the larger, tougher leagues or that Wake Forest and Iowa State aren't dangerous teams. It just means that teams that play well in their conference all season but stumble in their conference tournament deserve consideration over teams that aren't even as good as half the teams in their own league.

Cinderellas helped turn the NCAA tournament into the cash cow that it has become. The committee ought to invite a few more of them to the ball.

Tip-ins

After all the debate over whether or not Notre Dame should be in the NCAA tournament with a 14-14 record, the Irish were not given a bid. The women at Notre Dame, however, became the first team ever to get into the NCAA women's tournament with a losing record. They finished the regular season at 14-16 but earned an automatic bid by winning the Midwestern Collegiate Conference tournament....

March Madness seems to be taking its toll on coaches. Hawaii's Riley Wallace collapsed from an intense headache during the Rainbows' WAC tournament game against Utah, Louisiana State's Dale Brown was reprimanded by the SEC for his role in the Tennessee-LSU brawl during the league tournament (page 14), Idaho State's Herb Williams was suspended for a game by his school's president for having taken part in a brawl during the Bengals' win over Weber State on March 7, and Arizona State's Bill Frieder had words with a fan during the Sun Devils' loss at USC last Thursday....

The women of Bentley College, in Waltham, Mass., who are 30-0, need a victory over Pittsburgh-Johnstown this weekend to become the first team to make four consecutive trips to an NCAA Division II Final Four. Seven of the Falcons' top eight players were on the dean's list last semester....

No one can accuse ESPN's Terry Holland of being overenthusiastic. When BYU's Kevin Nixon nailed a buzzer-beating three-pointer from beyond midcourt to defeat UTEP in the WAC tournament's championship game, Holland's reaction was, "Goodness."

PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHMiner produced enough gems to edge standouts like Jackson for Player of the Year. PHOTOBOB STOWELLAfter missing last season with an injury, Savage led Miami to 29 straight wins.

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