This is not the time of year for perspective. after Western
Carolina earned a berth in the NCAAs by winning the Southern
Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., on March 3,
Catamounts coach Phil Hopkins asked the public address announcer
to make a very public proposal to his girlfriend, Bronda Dedmon:
Would she marry the coach? Hopkins's intended happily gave the
Marv Albert response, but later the press popped a question of
its own: Which was bigger, Coach, making the field of 64 or
getting Bronda's assent?
"Well," Hopkins said, with less hesitation than the future Mrs.
Hopkins could have liked, "I've been married before."
Ah, the first time. There's nothing like it--even if you're going
up against No. 1--seeded Purdue, as the Catamounts are. Monmouth,
North Carolina-Greensboro and Valparaiso will also get their
first exposure to March Madness.
The results from last weekend's conference tournaments offered a
foretaste of the chaos likely to besiege the sport over the next
three weeks. Championship games in league tournament after
league tournament--from the Big East to the Big Eight; from
Conference USA, which needed overtime in its final, to the Big
West and the ACC--were decided by a single point. Selection
Sunday turned into Black Sabbath for the two teams that drew
virtually every vote for preseason No. 1. First, Kansas saw its
top seeding turn to rock chalk with a loss to Iowa State in the
Big Eight final. Then fissures of vulnerability appeared in the
armor of mighty Kentucky, a loser to Mississippi State in the
SEC final. Suddenly the NCAAs began to take on the promise of
the Indiana state high school tournament, that free-for-all in
which even the tiny Milan Highs can win it all.
March 18, 1996
As you stare down your draw sheet, trying to sort out the
Cinderellas from the evil stepsisters, we offer a compendium of
what to look for between now and April Fool's Day. Forget
midnight. We've entered that time of year when the bewitching
hour comes at 12:15 p.m. EST, the starting time for the first
THE MYTH OF BIG MO
Let Connecticut and Wake Forest CELebrate their victories in
last weekend's Big East and ACC conference tournaments. Recent
history shows they won't be celebrating on April 1.
Since N.C. State, which went 17-10 in the regular season,
sneaked into the NCAAs by winning the 1983 ACC tournament and
then marched to an NCAA championship, only Georgetown in '84 and
Duke in '92 have won a major-conference tournament on their way
to the title. (Forget UNLV and Louisville; they beat weak fields
in the '90 Big West and the '86 Metro tournaments,
respectively.) Arkansas in '94, North Carolina in '93, Duke in
'91, Kansas in '88 and Villanova in '85 all lost in their
conference tournaments. As for NCAA champs that had no
conference tournament, Indiana lost two of its last three in
'87, and Michigan lost its regular-season finale at home in '89.
It's hard enough to win six games in a row under NCAA tournament
conditions. Winning nine or 10 straight is well nigh impossible.
Kansas won't win this year's NCAA tournament. Neither will
Georgetown or any of the mighty three from Conference USA,
Cincinnati, Memphis and Louisville. That's because all are
subpar foul-shooters, and no team in 22 years has won an NCAA
title while making free throws at a percentage below the
national average, which this season was 67.3%.
Memphis at 62.2% and Georgetown at 64.1% are especially
vulnerable, but Kansas and Arizona (at 64.5%), Louisville
(65.5%), Texas Tech (66.1%) and Cincinnati (67.0%) aren't much
better. The last team to win a championship while neglecting
this critical aspect of the game was John Wooden's 1973 UCLA
Bruins. (Curiously, only three of the 10 UCLA teams that won
titles from 1964 through '75--all thought to be so fundamentally
sound--shot fouls better than the national average. All of which
might go to show how much more raw talent those Bruins possessed
than their rivals.)
As for those teams with an advantage in tight games, Utah (the
nation's best at 78.0%), Connecticut (73.7%), Iowa (72.4%),
Marquette (71.6%) and Wake Forest (70.5%) are all well above
average from the line. Wake ranks high even though its
oft-fouled center, Tim Duncan, ashamedly confessed to coach Dave
Odom a few weeks ago that he was the worst free throw shooter
among the starters. "I knew it," says Odom, "but I wasn't going
to tell him."
WHY GUARDS ARE SO IMPORTANT
Now it can be told how UCLA coach Jim Harrick felt when he
learned hours before last spring's NCAA title game in Seattle
that point guard Tyus Edney wouldn't be able to play because of
an injured right wrist. "I was absolutely devastated," Harrick
says. How devastated? "I didn't want to come out of the locker
The Bruins beat Arkansas, of course, but not without a career
game from off-guard Toby Bailey (26 points, nine rebounds) and
an astonishing contribution from Edney's understudy, Cameron
Dollar, who had eight assists and only three turnovers in 36
minutes. Such is the importance of guards come March.
From North Carolina State's Sidney Lowe and Dereck Whittenburg
in 1983, to Indiana's Steve Alford and Keith Smart in '87, to
North Carolina's Derrick Phelps and Donald Williams in '93,
champion after NCAA champion has featured poise and experience
in its backcourt. The reason is simple: Coaches must cede more
control during the three weeks of the NCAAs when emotion, luck
and defense all take on greater importance. As teams tend to
play conservatively and scores get lower, the decision-making
falls to the guys in whose hands possessions begin and, under
tournament conditions, more often end. "Guards are especially
important in the second round," says Stanford coach Mike
Montgomery, "when you have so little time to prepare."
"They say you have to have good frontcourt people," adds Long
Beach State coach Seth Greenberg. "But without good guard play
to go with them, big men can be ineffective." Defenses can sag
when guards aren't hitting their shots from the outside. And
even when big men are scoring, their efforts can be undone by
sloppy guard play. Coach Jerry Tarkanian spent much of UNLV's
1990-91 season insisting that point guard Greg Anthony, not
forwards Larry Johnson or Stacey Augmon, was the most critical
member of his team. No one really believed him until those
Runnin' Rebels lost to Duke 79-77 in the national semifinals
after Anthony fouled out with just under four minutes to play.
On UNLV's last possession the disorganized Rebels failed to get
a decent shot.
Almost all the contenders in this year's draw--Connecticut,
Kentucky, Massachusetts, Cincinnati, Georgetown, Kansas,
Villanova--have two good guards. But the fate of many of these
teams will hang on questions about those backcourts. As reliable
as the combo of Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso has been for
UMass, will the 36 minutes a game each has averaged cause them
to run out of gas during the postseason? Kansas looks good on
paper with experienced leaders Jacque Vaughn and Jerod Haase,
but Haase's jumper has been off this season (29.7% from
three-point range). And is it clear yet which one of Kentucky's
point guards--Anthony Epps, Jeff Sheppard or Wayne Turner--will
run the team in the final minutes of a close game? The Wildcats
haven't had any close games.
Whichever teams draw Kentucky will have to be ready to apply a
tourniquet if the Wildcats go on one of their bloodletting runs.
How can coaches stanch the bleeding? They can change defenses,
order a few extra passes in the forecourt or send in a sub. And
if a TV timeout is coming--they are called at the first dead ball
after the 16-, 12-, eight- and four-minute marks of each half,
if neither team calls time around those points--a coach might
forgo calling a timeout of his own. If he's desperate to stop
the action in the first half, he'll spend a 20-second timeout
because the one 20 allotted per half is a use-it-or-lose-it.
Keep in mind, too, that a tournament timeout--what with all the
commercials that must be squeezed in--lasts nearly three minutes.
"The timeouts take an eternity," says Texas coach Tom Penders.
"They really help a team that plays only six or seven guys."
Adds UMass coach John Calipari, "I don't have enough to say
during tournament timeouts. I just say, 'For the next minute and
a half, let's hang out.'"
Before the 1988 NCAA tournament, Kansas coach Larry Brown
(right) told senior forward Danny Manning that only Manning
could make the Jayhawks great because he was their only great
player. Manning led Kansas to a title, taking the Jayhawks one
step further than Larry Bird and Grant Hill carried Indiana
State in '79 and Duke in '94, respectively. Among the possible
one-man bands in this year's draw: Keith Van Horn of Utah, John
Wallace of Syracuse and Wake Forest's Tim Duncan, of whom coach
Dave Odom says, "I can see a difference going into this portion
of the season. He's all business."
REMEMBER THE NBA FACTOR
Recent NCAA champions share one characteristic: NBA quality
talent. Every champion since 1986 has had at least two players
who have made it to the pros (below), even if some of them
played only briefly. Most were first-round draft choices. In
fact, the only titlist since 1963 without a future first-round
pick was Indiana in '87, and those Hoosiers had three
second-rounders, Steve Alford, Keith Smart and Dean Garrett, and
a Hall of Fame coach in Bob Knight. They also got one of the
timeliest buzzer-beating shots in history, from Smart, to win
That bit of history augurs less well for Cincinnati,
Massachusetts and Wake Forest (all of which have lottery picks
in the pivot but may not have any other future pros) than for
Connecticut, Georgetown, Kansas and Villanova, each of which
could send a few players to the NBA. But it bodes best for
Kentucky, whose Derek Anderson, Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, Ron
Mercer, Mark Pope, Wayne Turner and Antoine Walker could all
wind up in the NBA. If it sounds preposterous that a single team
could field so many future pros, think again: The 1978
Wildcats--the last Kentucky team to win a title--had nine
Five of the last six NCAA titlists came into the tournament as
No. 1 seeds, and the sixth, Duke in 1991, was a No. 2. But even
if the favorites win it all, the first two rounds still leave
the draw pocked with upsets. Here's how to tell if one is in the
Serving treys. "A lot of upsets happen when an underdog has a
great three-point-shooting night and a favored team doesn't,"
says Texas Tech coach James Dickey.
Wake-up calls. If some teams look a little sluggish in a game
that starts at noon, it may be because they got up at the crack
of dawn for their team meal. If there's one thing college kids
can't stand, it's an early wake-up call. "I have one 8:30 class
this semester," says Kansas forward Scot Pollard, "and I'm
Clashing styles. "It's an oil-and-water thing," says UConn coach
Jim Calhoun. "If you see Wisconsin-Green Bay playing Georgetown,
that becomes interesting. But if Princeton is playing Villanova,
that doesn't have as much potential, because Villanova runs
tremendous half-court offense." Following Calhoun's dictum, keep
an eye on Princeton facing UCLA, Drexel against Memphis and
Kentucky's possible second-round matchup with Wisconsin-Green
Bay, which outscored the Cats for a half last December.
What types of teams are most vulnerable to being upset? "Ones
plagued by inconsistency throughout the season," says UCLA coach
Jim Harrick. "Ones that seem to play to the level of their
competition. Ones that struggle in the half-court sometimes.
"Gee," Harrick adds with a furrowed look. "We seem to fall into
The careful tournament observer will notice that the officiating
in the first round is uneven. To staff the 32 games, the NCAA
has to muster 96 referees, and there aren't half that many
first-rate zebras in captivity. Further, consider the
circumstances in each of those early games: Three refs from
different parts of the country, who probably have never worked
with one another, are put together to officiate a game between
two teams they might never have seen before. Meanwhile, the
officials are competing among themselves, in a tournament within
the tournament, to advance to the next round. None of this makes
for good whistling.
But the refereeing gets better as the tournament progresses.
NCAA officiating coordinator Hank Nichols, along with a panel of
observers at each site, works with the same NCAA committee that
chose the teams to pare down the 96 opening-round refs to the
best 40 for the regionals, and ultimately to the zebras'
equivalent of the Final Four: the Final Three who will work the
championship game on April 1 at the Meadowlands.
Some of these favorites are sentimental, some otherwise. But if
you happen to be casting about for a team to root for, here are
some candidates to consider:
--Purdue. Next year the Boilermakers welcome a superb recruiting
class, so avoid the rush and pull now for an oxymoron, a
top-seeded Cinderella, with the best coach, Gene Keady, never to
reach the Final Four.
--Princeton. The Tigers will try to postpone the final game of
that engineer of postseason thrills, coach Pete Carril, who'll
step down after the tournament (page 100). The last time Carril
and Old Nassau faced UCLA was '69, when it took a Sidney Wicks
jumper at the buzzer to beat them.
--Central Florida. At 11-18 the Golden Knights need all the
support they can get. Given their first-round date with UMass,
they might take a hint from the name of their conference--Trans
America--and take out some extra insurance.
And don't be distressed if some matchups are blowouts. That
might give a Valparaiso bench sitter named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Jr. a chance to score in the NCAAs, just as his old man did. And
Indiana might get to put Kevin Lemme, a former team manager, in
the lineup during a rout. UConn, too, has a heartwarming,
bench-warming story. The Huskies' Justin Srb lost both his
parents a year ago: his father, Richard, to a neurological
disorder, and his mother, Susanna, in an unsolved murder. The
university gave the walk-on a scholarship this year, and Srb has
Sentiment aside, our favorites are Georgetown in the East
because its depth trumps UMass's; Kansas in the West because
Purdue never had to deal with so much inside strength this
season in a downsized Big Ten; UConn in the Southeast because of
its three sublime guards, Ray Allen, Doron Sheffer and Ricky
Moore; and in the Midwest, Kentucky (left), which has been
anointed the favorite, and deserves to be.
"We're a terrific basketball team with outstanding talent," says
Wildcats coach Rick Pitino. "But let's not get carried away."
For our part, thank you, we'll get carried away.
'93 N. Carolina