ONLY IN its dreams does a school without athletic scholarships
knock the defending champs out of the NCAA tournament with a
backdoor layup. Wishful reverie, nothing else, would allow a
freshman to misplace his shoes and socks and still help shoot a
No. 12 seed past a five and then a four. Only daft fantasy puts
Tumbleweed Tech from a going-out-of-business football conference
25 points up on North Carolina in the second half, and brings a
backboard crashing down on the Tar Heels to boot.
First conceive it, then achieve it. Come the NCAA tournament,
matters are sometimes that stark and simple. "Wasn't that just
perfect?" said Princeton's sophomore guard Mitch Henderson,
pulling his head up suddenly from the box score in the aftermath
of the Tigers' 43-41 upset of UCLA. "A backdoor pass to win the
game. A backdoor!"
If there really is a hoop heaven, the house band would be
Princeton's, troubadours in straw hats who played the theme from
Underdog late in the Tigers' victory. Sitting in with them would
be Drexel's Malik Rose, who had 21 points and 15 rebounds in the
12th-seeded Dragons' 75-63 first-round defeat of No. 5 seed
Memphis, for he was an all-state player in high school--an
all-state tuba player. As for All-Americas, of the schoolboy
basketball variety, Duke had five on the floor at one point
during its game with Eastern Michigan and still lost 75-60.
Princeton, Drexel and Eastern Michigan were all one-hit wonders
that failed to survive the second round. But other dreamers
stepped in to trump them with figments of their own, sometimes
involving faraway places. Georgetown forward Boubacar Aw, who
used to get up at four in the morning to watch the NCAA
championship game on TV in Senegal, yearns to reach the
Meadowlands this year because only the Final Four is aired at
home. "My mother and I have not seen each other for a long
time," says Aw. "If we get to the Final Four, she will be able
to watch and say, 'Look, there is my son on television.'"
Massachusetts point guard Edgar Padilla grew up shooting at an
empty paint can hanging from a fence in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico;
last week, seated on the bench late in the Minutemen's
first-round defeat of Central Florida, he turned to his deaf
father, Mariano, in the stands, and the two made postgame plans
in sign language. And to Doron Sheffer, Connecticut's Israeli
floor leader, the Huskies' winning it all would not be so wild a
dream, for in 1993 Sheffer led Galil Elyon to an Israeli
national championship over Maccabi Tel Aviv, which to that point
had won 23 straight titles.
March 25, 1996
Shortly after Sheffer and the Huskies ended Eastern Michigan's
run and Syracuse halted Drexel's, Mississippi State brought to a
close the 30-year college coaching career of Princeton's Pete
Carril. The Bulldogs have a dreamer of their own in junior
forward Dontae Jones, a high school dropout so devoted to the
sport that once, when a bench-clearing brawl broke out during
one of his school's games, he came out of the stands, where he
had been sitting because of an injury, picked up the game ball
and began shooting jumpers while the fight continued. "Fists
were flying everywhere, and I'd just be ducking around them,
practicing my moves," he says. After Northeast Mississippi
Community College coach Mike Lewis spotted him in a Nashville
midnight-basketball league two years ago, Jones picked up his
high school equivalency diploma, enrolled at Northeast
Mississippi and then bagged 36 credit hours over the summer to
become eligible for the Bulldogs. "I burn for the game," says
Jones, who singed Virginia Commonwealth and Princeton with a
combined 24 points.
Georgia Tech sophomore forward Matt Harpring, who in the Yellow
Jackets' two NCAA wins over Austin Peay and Boston College
scored 47 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and added six assists,
four steals and a blocked shot, has had to be every bit as
persistent as Jones. Plus, at a press conference last Saturday
he had to listen to a pissant freshman--well, O.K., it was Tech
teammate Stephon Marbury, who had his best game yet as a
collegian in the Yellow Jackets' 103-89 defeat of BC--call him
"not very talented." Harpring almost wound up at Duke or
Northwestern on a football scholarship because his efforts to
wheedle a basketball grant-in-aid out of Tech coach Bobby
Cremins were going nowhere. Only after Yellow Jackets assistant
Kevin Cantwell all but threatened to quit and malcontent forward
Martice Moore transferred to Colorado did Cremins relent. Over
the summer Harpring, who had made the ACC's all-freshman team,
added six inches to his vertical leap and 25 pounds to his
frame. "Last year he played into you," says Cantwell. "Now he
plays over you."
Harpring's mix of motion, spot-up jumpers, putbacks and other
scavengings--"call it a snowflake game," he says, "a lot of
little things that add up to something big"--helped Tech rebound
from a 6-7 start to win the ACC regular-season title. "I'd be
miserable," Cremins confesses, "if he were playing someplace
Unlike Harpring, Wake Forest guard Rusty LaRue didn't give up
his football career when he reached college. In fact, LaRue, a
Deamon Deacon senior, balances the demands of basketball,
football (as Wake's starting quarterback, he's the holder of
eight NCAA passing and total-offense records), baseball (he's a
pitcher), marriage (to Tammy, his sweetheart since his freshman
year in high school), fatherhood (son Riley was born at 4:08
a.m. on Jan. 31, only hours before dad scored seven points in a
win over North Carolina State) and school (he had a 4.0 grade
point average as a computer science major last fall). After
Deacon floor leader Tony Rutland sprained his knee in Wake's
victory over Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament final, LaRue
assumed the additional duties of point guard. During the
Deacons' 65-62 second-round triumph over relentless Texas, he
played 37 minutes, scored 14 points and had seven rebounds. "I
enjoy everything I do," LaRue said afterward. "But I'm not used
to playing point guard, and I'm really tired."
On Selection Sunday, Arkansas was the most astonishing team to
receive a bid, slipping into the draw as the 12th seed in the
East after a season of losses, academic suspensions and injuries
that left coach Nolan Richardson starting four freshmen in the
NCAAs. Yet the Razorbacks advanced, thanks in part to the
unlikeliest of Hogs. Pat Bradley is a Massachusetts kid who
knocked down four three-pointers in a 65-56 second-round defeat
of Marquette. Then he had to fly back to Arkansas wearing
sneakers with his best suit because he had mistakenly shipped
off his shoes, socks and underwear with the equipment manager.
"Normally I've got them taught, and all I have to do is coach,"
said Richardson. "But this year it was all teach, teach, teach."
After the SEC tournament, figuring he had done as much teaching
as he could, Richardson told his team to quit playing walk-it-up
and implement the 40 Minutes of Hell style that had led to the
Hogs' playing on the first Monday night in April each of the
past two years.
The other surprise team from the SEC is as whiskered as Pat and
the Piglets are young. None of Georgia's eight seniors had been
to the NCAAs until this season; hence the disappointment felt by
one of them, starting point guard Pertha Robinson, when he was
felled by the flu and had to remain in his hotel room for the
Dawgs' first-round game with Clemson. "I wanted to cry," he
would later say. "To finally get here and not be able to play...."
To make matters worse, the game was not on local TV, and a buddy
had to phone Robinson every few minutes with updates on
Georgia's 81-74 victory. Inasmuch as Robinson hadn't eaten for
two days and was hospitalized briefly for dehydration, it was
understandable that he failed to reach double figures on
Saturday in the eighth-seeded Dawgs' 76-69 ousting of No. 1 seed
Purdue. But every other Georgia starter did so, which left
Boilermakers coach Gene Keady fuming and snarling on the sideline.
If the Southeast was the region of fallen champions (UCLA, Duke
and Indiana all lost there in the opening round), and the West
was proverbially wild, wild (that's where Purdue fell and where
Drexel took out Memphis), then the Midwest Region was the Hot
Zone. Viruses slowed that bracket's two marquee players, Wake
Forest's Tim Duncan and Utah's Keith Van Horn, yet their teams
advanced just the same. The Utes won, thanks to 6'11", 260-pound
Michael Doleac, a doughy sophomore biology major. With foul
trouble keeping Van Horn, who had been too sick to play in
Utah's tournament opener, on the bench for most of the second
half of the Utes' 73-67 second-round victory over Iowa State,
Doleac--a.k.a. S.S. Doley, Baby Huey and Cranium--went for a
career-high 23 points. "Everybody's always calling me
something," says Doleac, who called his own number, grabbing six
of his 12 rebounds from the offensive glass.
Louisville point guard DeJuan Wheat wasn't ill, but a severely
jammed right middle finger played havoc with his shooting stroke
over the last month of the season. Wheat first taped the
distressed digit to his index finger, only to shoot 0 for 9 in
his next game. Then he taped it to his ring finger and went 2
for 16. Finally Wheat's aunt, Rosemary Easley, stole into his
bedroom one evening and, as DeJuan was napping, said a prayer
while rubbing his finger with some unidentified ointment.
Perhaps that explains Wheat's 33 points, including 6 of 11 from
beyond the arc, in an 82-80 overtime defeat of Tulsa, and his 19
points, including a jumper and two free throws in the final
minute, as the Cards turned back a late Villanova run and
eliminated the No. 3 seed 68-64.
Texas Tech forward Darvin Ham had a little support from his
family, too. "Bring the backboard back for me," his brother
DeRonnie had told him on the eve of the Red Raiders'
second-round game with North Carolina. Tech trailed 16-14 when
Ham rose to follow-dunk a miss by teammate Jason Sasser and came
down with more than a mere two points. "I just wanted to run
around the court and do backflips," said the Tech senior of the
shot that (with apologies to Darryl Dawkins) might hereafter be
known as the Wham Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Ham Jam. "I can't wait
to go home and watch it on SportsCenter."
Ham's demolition of the backboard touched off much chest bumping
(Sasser with Ham), high-fiving (Carolina's Jeff McInnis with
Ham) and rubbernecking (by Georgetown's Allen Iverson, who
bolted from his postgame interviews to admire the wreckage). It
also caused a 27-minute delay, during which several players
showered to remove shards of glass that had rained down on them.
After play resumed the Red Raiders scored 10 unanswered points
and, ultimately, a 92-73 victory. Tar Heel coach Dean Smith
later referred to the incident as "that backboard thing," as if
Ham's slam were some monster risen from the muck. To be sure,
there was something vaguely supernatural about the result: It
was the first time Texas Tech had ever reached the Sweet 16, and
only the second time in 16 years that Carolina had failed to do
As the Red Raiders and the soon-to-be-defunct Southwest
Conference ride off with some satisfaction into the sunset, the
football-fixated SEC is enjoying a basketball boomlet, having
won all eight of its games in the first two rounds. That league
provided a top seed (Kentucky) and knocked off another (Purdue,
beaten by Georgia), and will take its shots at the Yankee No.
1's--UMass (which will face Arkansas) and UConn (which takes on
Mississippi State)--in the regional semifinals. "We play in a
weak league," State coach Richard Williams said sarcastically
last weekend. "Kentucky and the 11 dwarves."
As the Wildcats snarl menacingly at the Midwest field, the SEC's
three supposed also-ran representatives are strategically
deployed in the other regions of the draw, poised to do next
week at the Meadowlands what the Big East did when it invaded
SEC country in 1985 and filled three of the Final Four in
Lexington. Arkansas has won 13 of its last 14 NCAA tournament
games under Richardson's guidance. With his light but wise hand,
Georgia coach Tubby Smith, who took Tulsa to the Sweet 16 in '94
and '95, has given his team's eight seniors a new sense of
purpose. But the team with the best shot at joining Kentucky in
East Rutherford may be Mississippi State, which defeated both
the Cats (in the SEC tournament final) and Princeton in the
space of a week, each at its own game.
Meanwhile, only three Big East teams, two ACC teams, one Big
Eight team and one Pac-10 team survived the tournament's opening
weekend. And the Big Ten should be ashamed of itself. Its
champion, Purdue, barely beat 16th-seeded Western Carolina and
then gave up 48 points in the first half of its loss to Georgia.
Adding to the conference's woes, its Player of the Year, Brian
Evans of Indiana, went 2 for 14 during the Hoosiers' 64-51 loss
to Boston College. And the icon among its coaches, Indiana's Bob
Knight, not only was defeated in the first round for the fifth
time (and by a lower seed for the fourth time) in 11 years but
also brazenly taunted the NCAA about the $30,000 fine it had
assessed him for obscenely berating a functionary during last
Let the record reflect that current Big Ten commissioner Jim
Delany, when he was a member of the NCAA's basketball committee
in the late 1980s, was one of the power brokers who wanted to
turn the automatic bids from several "weaker" conferences over
to at-large representatives from the "stronger" leagues. Of
course the haughty haves will always look better on those
computer power ratings that the tournament committee regards as
holy writ, because the elite teams play clubby intraconference
schedules and made-for-TV power meetings while refusing to visit
the campuses of lower-profile Division I schools. But crunch
this number: No team finishing lower than fourth in its league
reached the Sweet 16 of these NCAAs. Would it have really been
so terrible to have had Davidson (which was 25-4 but lost in the
Southern Conference tournament, thereby missing out on an
automatic bid) or the College of Charleston (a 24-3 team that
finished first in the Trans America conference but couldn't win
the automatic bid because it hadn't been a league member for
three years) in the field instead of, say, Clemson (which
finished sixth in the ACC with a 7-9 record)?
After all, Princeton's defeat of UCLA was the first round's most
entertaining game. Yet engineering the Bruins' death by a
thousand cuts may not have been Carril's greatest achievement.
For all of the Runyonesque coach's protestations about the
insignificance of his 16th-seeded Tigers' one-point loss to
top-seeded Georgetown in 1989--"Nobody in history has been
congratulated more for a loss," he says dolefully--his greatest
legacy to college basketball may be that near miss seven years
ago. For without that stirring game, the big-timers who sit on
the tournament committee might have indeed been able to
confiscate the bids that now go to leagues like the Southern and
the Ivy. And in so doing they might have denied the little guys
the chance to dream.
Not that everyone's dreams last week were sweet. Michigan
sophomore forward Maceo Baston lived what is becoming a
recurring Wolverine nightmare. Just as Chris Webber did in the
last seconds of the 1993 NCAA title game, Baston called a
timeout his team didn't have, incurring a technical late in an
80-76 loss to Texas.
And the dreams of Syracuse forward John Wallace may have been
altogether too sweet. He overslept and missed the Orangemen's
flight to Albuquerque, though he caught up with his teammates in
time to score 36 points in Syracuse's two wins last week.
Another would-be dream catcher, Western Carolina's Joel Fleming,
muffed his chance in the final seconds against Purdue. If
Fleming's potential game-winning three-pointer had fallen, the
Catamounts would have likely become the first 16th seed to beat
a No. 1. But Fleming's shot glanced cruelly off the rim.
Some 90 minutes later, with Georgia's game against Clemson under
way, the P.A. system at The Pit in Albuquerque crackled to life.
"Joel Fleming, would you please report to your bus. Please, get
on your bus."
Dreams sometimes die hard.