It's time for all you ref-riding, Armani-wearing, contract-breaking, boycott-threatening, head-butting, each-other-dissing, into-the-stands-wandering clipboard jockeys to take a seat. The stage isn't yours, coaches. Not anymore. Come NCAA tournament time it belongs instead to little guys like Alvin (Pooh) Williamson and Tony Miller and Gerrod Abram; and to more familiar stars like Big Dog and Grant and Yell; and to Juwan and to Joe Smith.
After a season in which coaches stole the spotlight again and again with their boorish antics, college basketball's rightful stars seized it back over four festive days last week. The most entertaining part was the way the showstoppers sneaked up on us—after three days of relative calm—on one astonishing Sunday afternoon. The game's two alltime-winningest Goliaths, North Carolina and Kentucky, got stoned within minutes of each other by a couple of Jesuit Davids, Boston College and Marquette, respectively. And the lowest surviving seed in the tournament, Tulsa, pressed and shot its way into the Sweet 16, knocking off intrastate rival Oklahoma State right there in Oklahoma City.
By the end of the day, one coach who was in danger of losing his job (BC's Jim O'Brien), one whom no one had ever heard of (Tulsa's Tubby Smith) and another who has labored in Al McGuire's streetwise shadow (Marquette's Kevin O'Neill) were beaming while their illustrious victims, North Carolina's Dean Smith, Kentucky's Rick Pitino and Oklahoma State's Eddie Sutton, were left to line up golf dates. "A lot of people make a big deal about coaches," says Maryland point guard Duane Simpkins, whose 10th-seeded Terrapins are another surprising survivor of the first two rounds of the NCAAs. "But coaches can't go out there and make the baskets themselves."
Thank you, Duane. Who needs a coach when you have a point guard like Williamson? He didn't commit a single turnover while orchestrating Tulsa's 194 points in victories over UCLA and Oklahoma State. Miller, Marquette's floor leader, is a former quarterback from the Cleveland high school that produced Desmond Howard and Elvis Grbac; late in the Warriors' 75-63 upset of Kentucky, he simply shook off O'Neill's call for a timeout. In March the play's the thing. "It's just about fulfilling dreams," says Boston College's Abram, whose late free throws helped put away both Washington State, 67-64, and Carolina, 75-72. "You dream about those shots all your life."
This is not to say that the coach is useless, of course. A few hours before Boston College took on the nation's No. 1 team, O'Brien showed his players a video of the BC football team's 41-39 defeat of No. 1 Notre Dame last fall. Then and on Sunday the Eagles' success came down to the coolly drilled three-pointer. By reversing the ball on the perimeter among its three senior guards, Abram, Howard Eisley and Malcolm Huckaby, BC hoped to get the same shots little Liberty had gotten in playing Carolina tough in a first-round loss. The Eagles did indeed get those shots, squeezing off 31 three-pointers and making 12, half of them by Abram.
But it was another senior, 6'9" center Bill Curley, who scored 10 of BC's final 11 points, spinning to the basket past Eric Montross and Rasheed Wallace. The game ended on a telling note: There was Wallace, a freshman who hadn't shot a three-pointer all year, trying to make a trey to tie the game against the Eagles, whose senior sharpshooters had wrung from that shot everything they could. Wallace's effort clanged off the rim.
But this game heated up long before the end. Barely four minutes into the second half, BC freshman forward Danya Abrams clobbered Carolina point guard Derrick Phelps on a breakaway. Phelps suffered a concussion, and Tar Heel coach Dean Smith had to be restrained from charging after Abrams. On the North Carolina bench Phelps said he was O.K., but when the team doctor asked him to count backward by seven from 100 and Phelps couldn't, the Tar Heels' leader didn't play another minute. Postgame questions about the foul nettled the Eagles' coach. "We just had possibly the best basketball win in the history of Boston College, and we have to defend ourselves against a flagrant foul and rough play against that team?" O'Brien said. "Please, please—will someone please step up and give these kids a little credit?"
One Sunday earlier, Tulsa coach Tubby Smith—his real first name is Orlando—was pleading for justice too. He was literally on his knees, praying that his team would get a bid. A week later he was exultant, having watched the 12th-seeded Golden Hurricane move into the round of 16. One of 17 children, Smith got his nickname as a baby. While the svelte coach is DO longer tubby, his team's eye-it-and-fly-it style is aptly described by its Hurricane moniker. Tulsa went up on UCLA by 46-17 before coasting home 112-102. "UCLA had a reaction like, 'You guys can actually play?' " said Tulsa's Gary Collier, who dropped 34 points on the Bruins. One of UCLA's nemeses (who's also the guy who sank the three-pointer that finished off Oklahoma State 82-80) is actually named Lou Alcindor Dawkins. Just when UCLA coach Jim Harrick thought it was safe to tune back into the talk shows, he could once more feel the chill of John Wooden's shadow.
A tug from the past—specifically from echoes of Al McGuire's delightfully fractious teams of the mid-1970s—was also felt at Marquette, which is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since the Warriors' 1976-77 championship season. O'Neill, like McGuire a New Yorker (albeit an upstate one), prowls the sideline. In 7'1" center Jim McIlvaine the Warriors have an old-fashioned "aircraft carrier," as McGuire liked to say. Backup center Amal McCaskill sports muttonchops that are reminiscent of '70s star Bo Ellis, who still works the Warrior bench as an assistant coach. And earlier this season Marquette's Roney Eford simply sauntered up to the scorer's table and put himself into a game while O'Neill was down the sideline, talking to another player. Says Eford, "By the time he noticed, I'd done something he was cheering for."
McGuire would love the team's rocky road to the top. Foremost among the challenges was getting players to come to Milwaukee. "If only we could have recruited the parents," says O'Neill. "I'd get on the phone with the father, and he'd say, 'Oh, Marquette, you had great teams.' Then I'd get the kid on, and he'd say, 'Willard Scott says that's the coldest place in the country.' " But after blackening the Ragin' Cajuns of Southwestern Louisiana 81-59 with a 19-0 second-half run, Marquette made a mockery of Kentucky coach Rick Pitino's complaints that his team deserved a higher seed. (Hmmmmmm: The Tennessee job is yawningly open, next week's Southeast Regional is in Knoxville, and O'Neill is an energetic and combative fast-talker who has proved he can go lapel-to-lapel with Kentucky's Baby Baron and whip his—to use a word that's trendy in the profession right now—ass. Think there'll be anyone in an orange blazer waiting to give O'Neill a ride in from the airport?)
Sunday's shockers followed a surprise of almost equal magnitude the day before, when Maryland knocked off second-seeded Massachusetts. Last week the UMass team met the press wearing T-shirts that read THE SHOW HITS THE ROAD. The next day the Show was closed, mainly by the Terps' freshman of the year, Joe Smith, who had 51 points, 20 rebounds and three blocks in two games in Wichita. That marked the revival of an old production: Maryland basketball.
It hasn't always been a smooth run, though. Last season Simpkins, who contributed 20 points against UMass, told the press he hated coach Gary Williams. During one stretch early this season, Simpkins's backcourt mate, Johnny Rhodes, missed 18 straight three-pointers. Nonetheless, forward Exree Hipp—his dad is a full-blooded Cherokee, and Exree means Little Brave—told a Baltimore newspaperman during the preseason that Maryland was going to the Sweet 16. Late in the 95-87 defeat of UMass, in which he made eight of his 11 shots, Hipp sought out the scribe at courtside to say joyously, "I told you so. I got you now."
None of these four Cinderellas has a dominant upperclassman, but many of the teams that advanced more predictably last week boasted stars both seasoned and surpassing.
Connecticut junior Donyell Marshall made sure that his team hadn't packed in vain when the Huskies stuffed enough clothes in their suitcases to head directly from Rounds 1 and 2 on chilly Long Island to this week's East Regional in Miami. "That's what we were working for, to get the summer clothes out and put the winter clothes away," said the quiet star (whose nickname is Yell) after UConn dispatched Rider 64-46 and George Washington 75-63 behind Marshall's total of 37 points. The custom in sports these days is that you go to Disney World after winning a title. But UConn, which is on spring break, will be going to Orlando beforehand. Marshall says he's most looking forward to seeing It's a Small World during that visit. But if he wants to prep for Florida's 6'7", 287-pound Dametri Hill, he should probably check out Big Thunder Mountain.
Missouri, the West region's top seed, will depend most heavily on senior guard Melvin Booker, who scored 52 points in wins over Navy and Wisconsin; but when the turning point came against Navy, Booker wasn't even on the floor. Ten minutes into the game, with Mizzou down a point, coach Norm Stewart yanked his starters and sent in the end of his bench—including Chip Walther, a 5'10" walk-on. Walther is so lightly regarded that he doesn't fly with the rest of the team but tags along with the radio announcers on another flight. Yet the scrubs fared better than the starters, helping to boost Mizzou to a 29-24 halftime lead and an eventual 76-53 victory. "The coolest thing was the timeout," said Walther. "We got to sit on the chairs, and the other guys had to stand around us for a change. It was awesome." As was Missouri's offense in a 109-96 badgering of Wisconsin that sends the Tigers on to the regional semifinals against Syracuse.
Purdue junior Glenn (Big Dog) Robinson treated Central Florida and Alabama as if they were fire hydrants, turning in his seventh and eighth straight 30-points-plus games as the Boilermakers rolled, 98-67 and 83-73, respectively. Making Purdue hotter still is the charge that it's a one-man team. "If we were a one-man team, I'd see the box-and-one every night," says Robinson. And he doesn't because teammates Matt Waddell and Cuonzo Martin have played so well. Up next: Kansas, which beat Wake Forest by using 10 players at least five minutes each. To keep Big Dog down, coach Roy Williams will rely on his depth. "We gotta get the Pound Puppies to go after him," says Williams.
When Denny Crum called his Louisville team "a bunch of dogs" at one point this season, he was certainly not being flattering, and he was definitely including Clifford Rozier, his 6'9" junior All-America, in his assessment. Following a first half on Sunday in which Rozier stubbornly tried to wheel and score against a collapsing Minnesota zone and the Cards fell behind by 13, Crum set up obedience school in the locker room, telling Rozier, "We aren't gonna win if you're gonna be shooting against three people." Rozier didn't take a shot in the second half, instead kicking the ball to teammates, who ended up hitting 11 three-pointers, including five by Dwayne Morton, as the Cardinals won 60-55. As Rozier has said of Crum, "You can't argue with the Boss Man now that he's in the Hall of Fame." If Rozier really wants an argument, though, he should be able to get one from Reggie Geary, the lippy defensive specialist who has breathed new fire into formerly placid Arizona, the Cards' next foe.
Duke senior Grant Hill responded well to the pressure he feels to lead the Blue Devils back to the Final Four. He scored only 11 points in an easy 82-70 win over Texas Southern but poured in 25 in an 85-74 defeat of Michigan State and helped hold Spartan star Shawn Respert to a measly two shots in the first half. "There was an article in the Durham paper that called me the third-best defensive player in the league," Hill said. "I wanted to show that they were wrong." Hill and his teammates must have been particularly pleased to see the elimination of both North Carolina and Wake Forest, which combined to knock off Duke four times this season. Should the Dookies get to Charlotte, they can now claim the town as their very own.
But, as always, it's the Cinderellas who will draw the most interest as the tournament progresses. Now that they're no longer secrets, how far can they go?
BC faces Indiana, whose entire team seems to be taking an elective called Anatomy 101. There's Pat Graham's twice-fractured left foot, Alan Henderson's bum right knee, Brian Evans's separated right shoulder, Damon Bailey's strained abdomen, Sherron Wilkerson's broken left leg—and now coach Bob Knight's aching back, which forced him to stand up while facing the press last week. "Standing doesn't bother me," he said. "In fact, with you people it gives me sort of an aura of power, addressing the masses." Henderson wants to be an orthopedist someday; he can diminish Boston College's chances of advancing if he studies very hard, very fast.
Tulsa plays Arkansas in Dallas's Reunion Arena, where the Razorbacks have won 11 straight times. Tulsa, the school that gave Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson his first Division I head coaching job, took the Hogs to overtime in December, when Williamson committed just one turnover. Having gone through Arkansas's 45 Minutes of Hell three months ago, Tulsa isn't going to be intimidated by the Hogs.
Marquette's prayers rest largely with McIlvaine, the nation's leading shot blocker, who'll have to go up against Duke's 6'11" Cherokee Parks and then, in all likelihood, Big Dog. Last week McIlvaine told reporters what it was like being a kid in Wisconsin when the Warriors won their last title. "One kid threw his television out the window," McIlvaine recalled. "He said it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, so he didn't need his TV anymore."
Maryland will meet Michigan, with the Wolverines suddenly in the role of whiskered veterans, and the Terps—who start three sophomores and two freshmen—playing the upstart. Terrapin fans would make a mistake to boo Michigan center Juwan Howard, lest Joe Smith suffer the consequences. Howard's reaction to jeering is almost Pavlovian. "It's kind of like a welcoming," he says. "It motivates me." Howard heard raspberries when he stared down Pepperdine's 5'9" point guard, Damin Lopez, following a scramble for a loose ball, and he finished with 28 points and nine rebounds as the Wolverines won 78-74 in overtime. Two days later the crowd at the Kansas Coliseum in Wichita was at it again; Howard responded to the catcalls with 34 points and 18 boards in an 84-79 defeat of Texas. "Lots of basketball gurus talk about how guards win you games in the tournament," says Michigan coach Steve Fisher, under whom the Wolverines are now 12-0 in games decided by five points or fewer in the NCAAs. "Well, then Juwan's a big guard."
Michigan is one of six surviving schools that have won at least one NCAA title over the past 17 years. But the pick here is for Arizona, Arkansas, UConn and Purdue—none of which has ever cut down a net after a championship game—to make it to the Final Four. All four have good coaches, but, thankfully, they have guys who can play, too.