If you've already crapped out of your office pool, if Coppin
State and the College of Charleston tantalized you with their
valiant bids to reach the Sweet 16, if you desperately want to
follow a team for love and not money, we would be pleased to
make things easy for you.
Rule out eight of the schools to survive the first week of the
NCAA tournament, for they've already won national titles.
Providence and Texas may be surprising survivors as 10th seeds,
but they're from the big-time Big East and Big 12, respectively,
and Cinderella is supposed to be a charwoman, not a dowager.
Besides, the Friars and the Longhorns have already been to a
Final Four, as have Arizona and Iowa State. That leaves Clemson,
Minnesota and St. Joseph's--except that the first two are from
pedigreed basketball conferences, and the last is from
Philadelphia's similarly storied Big Five.
So it's settled. Tennessee-Chattanooga thanks you for your
support. The Mocs are the first team from the Southern
Conference to survive the tournament's first two rounds since
1976 and are the first 14th seed to make it that far since
Cleveland State did so 11 years ago. With star forward Johnny
Taylor, who shares a name with the man who recorded the hit
Disco Lady, the Mocs are high-steppin' gate-crashers at a
society ball. And the school even has a celebrity fan, actor
Dennis Haskins, who plays Mr. Belding on Saved by the Bell and
keeps a Mocs' team picture in his office on the show. Granted,
he's not exactly Bill Cosby. And "saved by the bell" and "the
clock strikes midnight" are sort of at cross-purposes
metaphorwise. But we can't be too picky when Cinderella needs a
Chalk 'n' Chattanooga was the story of the first week of an NCAA
tournament in which No. 1 seeds Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota and
North Carolina all survived. But the first two rounds also
offered several lessons:
March 24, 1997
--You perform in the tournament as you do in the regular season.
"It's hard to turn it on and off, but we have the guys to do
it," said Cincinnati center Bobby Brannen after the Bearcats
beat Butler in the first round. "We can get it together when we
have to." Wrong. Cincy went 5-6 during the regular season
against teams in the tournament, and Iowa State took out the
Bearcats 67-66 in the second round. Maryland, a loser to the
College of Charleston on Thursday, and Wake Forest, eliminated
by Stanford on Sunday, staggered in late February and barely
made it to the middle of March. Huge Villanova, vulnerable to
speed and pressure all season, lost to a California team that
was comparable in size and a little bit quicker. Duke couldn't
rebound the entire season and lost 98-87 to Providence. If
you're a Devil, it's tough enough on a Sunday going up against
God--Friars point guard God Shammgod--you don't need to get
outrebounded 43-24 as well.
--Upsets don't happen from behind. Coppin State knocked off
second-seeded South Carolina 78-65 in the first round by racing
to an early lead and holding on; two days later the Eagles
caught but couldn't pass Texas, which survived a final Coppin
State possession to secure an 82-81 victory.
Tennessee-Chattanooga jumped out to a 20-2 lead against
third-seeded Georgia and held on for a 73-70 triumph. Afterward
Bulldogs coach Tubby Smith recalled being on the other end of
such a game three years ago, when his Tulsa team beat UCLA in
the first round. "We were right on UCLA--boom!--and they didn't
know what hit them," he said. "That's what happened today."
--The Pac-10 is every bit as strong as it appeared to be this
season. Four of the conference's five entrants survived the
first weekend, including Arizona and Stanford, unusually young
teams that between them play only two seniors regularly.
Stanford, which starts four sophomores under the baton of 5'10"
senior Brevin Knight, let Wake's All-America center, Tim Duncan,
get his--"because he always does," Cardinal coach Mike
Montgomery explained--but won 72-66 by locking up everyone else.
By halftime Duncan had 14 of the Demon Deacons' 19 points and 15
of their 17 rebounds, but guards Tony Rutland and Jerry Braswell
were a combined 0 for 9 from the field.
Neither Cal nor UCLA looked likely to prosper in the postseason
when they suddenly changed coaches last fall, but both teams
used the turmoil as a tempering experience. The Bruins haven't
lost since Feb. 8, when they avenged a 48-point loss to Stanford
and shortly thereafter learned that interim coach Steve Lavin,
who replaced fired coach Jim Harrick during preseason practice,
had been given the job on a permanent basis. "The more we go
through, the deeper the bond I feel with these guys," said guard
Cameron Dollar. In the first rounds of the tournament, UCLA
cruised past Charleston Southern and Xavier.
"We've made adjustments all year," said Cal coach Ben Braun, who
took over for the ousted Todd Bozeman in September and then had
to replace guard Ed Gray, the Pac-10's top scorer, who broke a
bone in his right foot with three games left in the season.
"I've adjusted to my players. They've adjusted to me."
After leading the Bears past Villanova 75-68 and taking a seat
at the press conference podium, Cal forward Tony Gonzalez held
up a camera to capture the members of the media who were
capturing him. It was a gesture that underscored how, come
tournament time, everybody takes his shot.
No matter the obstacle. While St. Joseph's was on its way to the
Philadelphia airport for the Hawks' trip to Salt Lake City, word
reached coach Phil Martelli that the team's flight had been
canceled. At the airport the St. Joe's party was told it might
catch an alternate flight by running to another concourse. "I
told [the airline personnel] that the last guy I knew who ran
through airports got in pretty big trouble," Martelli said
later. The Hawks finally made it to Utah, and by jacking up a
tournament-record 43 three-pointers, and making 14 of them, in
an 81-77 win over Boston College, they guaranteed that they'll
have to cope with Philly International at least one more time.
Others couldn't get their shots to fall but were still thrilled
at the chance to squeeze them off. Murray State forward Vincent
Rainey scored 23 points in a 71-68 first-round loss to Duke,
then asked Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski for an autograph.
At 11-18, Fairfield was probably the last of the teams in the
field, but the Stags were No. 64 with a bullet; they led North
Carolina by seven at the half of their first-round game and
nearly stopped Dean Smith (page 32) from getting his
record-tying 876th career victory. Long Island University's
Charles Jones, the nation's leading scorer, didn't merely get
his shot, he got 37 of them, scoring 37 points and actually
patting himself on the back after one basket during a 101-91
loss to Villanova. The Wildcats won, said Blackbirds guard
Richie Parker, because "they height-sized us," a coinage that
might have intrigued former LIU coach Clair Bee, the late author
of the Chip Hilton novels.
If LIU comported itself roguishly--bragging so furiously about
their chances of beating Villanova that they inspired the
headline IT AIN'T NOVA TIL IT'S OVA from the New York
Post--UCLA's behavior was positively Etonian. Charleston
Southern had a senior guard named Errol McPherson who on Feb. 15
tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He was
strapped into a knee brace and inserted into the lineup late in
the Buccaneers' 109-75 loss to the Bruins, even though he could
barely run up the floor. During the final seconds UCLA forward
Sean Farnham obliged Lavin's instruction to foul McPherson, who
went to the line and dropped in a free throw. "We appreciated
what he'd been through and wanted to get him some points," said
Bruins swingman Kris Johnson. All part of giving everybody a shot.
Tennessee-Chattanooga's breakthrough notwithstanding, the
appearance of small and mid-major schools in the Sweet 16 has
become as rare as a major college ballplayer without his own
sport-utility vehicle. Blame the gap between members of big-time
and small-time conferences on the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI)
and similar computer rankings that the NCAA tournament committee
uses to evaluate teams.
Which does the committee trust more, the RPI or the polls? Well,
the College of Charleston, 16th in the polls and 53rd in the
RPI, got a 12th seed in the Southeast; Maryland, ranked 22nd but
with an RPI of 19, was seeded fifth. Yet Charleston whupped the
Terps 75-66. "I kept checking the polls and thought, Wow, that's
moving in a nice direction," said Cougars coach John Kresse of
his team's steady rise this season. "But as the polls were
moving north, the RPI was moving south. And I said to myself,
This is not as logical as it should be."
Actually, it's perfectly logical. The committee uses rankings
that are based as much on whom you play as on how you play, and
a season of home-and-home games in the Trans America Athletic
Conference dragged down the strength of Charleston's schedule
and hence its RPI. But to say it's logical doesn't mean it's fair.
"We've played some of the best teams in the country inside and
outside the league," Arizona coach Lute Olson said last week.
"And when you play that tough a schedule, it really helps you."
No kidding. But what if you're a Charleston, a Chattanooga or a
Coppin State and no big-time school will play you because, win
or lose, simply taking the court against you will make a mess of
its RPI? "Alabama was supposed to play us [one year]," said
Jackson State coach Andy Stoglin before his Tigers lost 78-64 to
Kansas in the first round. "Then we beat Tulane, and Alabama
canceled. We signed a contract to play Tulane home-and-home,
beat them on the road, and they wouldn't come back."
Mocs coach Mack McCarthy tells a similar tale. "Home-and-home,
we'll play anybody in the country," he says. "That's an open
invitation. Call us. The last time we played Alabama, Auburn,
Mississippi and Mississippi State, we beat all four of them. Not
one of them will play us anymore."
In its deliberations the committee rightly punishes teams that
play non-Division I opponents. It should do the same when a
school plays more than half its games at home. But it won't,
because virtually all the dozen members of the committee are
affiliated with big-time schools that for years have been
dodging the Davids or insisting on playing them two or three
times at home for every once on the road. "John Kresse pleaded
with me to play him," says an administrator at a Big East school
who's sympathetic to Charleston's plight. "He said they can't
even get two-for-ones anymore. I told him if I scheduled him,
he'd better be ready to hire me. Because I'd be fired."
Until a more equitable day arrives, and in spite of seedings
that make long shots longer, the tournament remains the little
guys' one chance. It's where two teams hook up on a neutral
floor with neutral refs and a crowd happy to throw its support
to the underdog if given the slightest excuse. There was no
better example than Coppin State, the champion of the
traditionally black Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Eagles
coach Ron (Fang) Mitchell has a raspy voice that reminded
friends of an old Soupy Sales character called White Fang. "Over
the years the 'White' was dropped for obvious reasons," says
Mitchell, who earlier this season devoted an entire practice to
suicide sprints--42 of them--because his team's first-semester
grades so displeased him.
After Coppin State's upset of South Carolina, the MEAC's first
victory in NCAA tournament play and only the third ever by a
15th seed over a No. 2, Mitchell's wife, Yvonne, found center
Terquin Mott outside the Eagles' locker room and lent him her
Bible because, she said, "I know you forgot yours." She told him
to consult Chapter 17 of the First Book of Samuel, verses 20
through 50--the story of David and Goliath.
Certainly the Pittsburgh Sheraton didn't expect David to win.
When Coppin State's team and entourage returned from the Civic
Arena, they discovered that the hotel staff had turned over many
of their rooms to other guests. The cheerleaders doubled up, and
some staff and supporters made the four-hours-each-way commute
back and forth to Baltimore for the second-round game against
Texas on Sunday. If not for defensive stops by the Longhorns'
Reggie Freeman and DeJuan Vasquez in the final seconds of that
game, Coppin would have been booking rooms at the regional
The Mocs succeeded where the Eagles failed in part because of
team manager Jason Carter. While getting ready for their game
against Illinois, the Mocs could hear the Illini players
chanting and carrying on in their locker room a couple of doors
down the hall. Carter investigated and dutifully reported back
to the Tennessee-Chattanooga locker room. "Hey, guys, you'd
better change your pool picks," he said. "They're already saying
they're going to the Final Four."
"It was like we weren't even there," Mocs point guard Willie
Young would say later. "They thought they were going out for a
scrimmage." Chattanooga responded by outrebounding its Big Ten
opponent by 18. The lesson: Don't mock the Mocs.
If Illinois isn't going to the Final Four, who is? "Kansas and
Kentucky are the only teams in America not an ankle sprain away
from being average," says Texas coach Tom Penders, who'll get no
argument here. As for the other two No. 1 seeds, North Carolina
can't defend the perimeter, and Minnesota, despite its balance
and depth, has an irreplaceable player, guard Bobby Jackson, who
tends to get in foul trouble. So out of the East and the
Midwest, respectively, we're picking Cal and UCLA.
But we're still rooting for the Mocs. On Friday against Georgia,
up three with 2.7 seconds to go, Tennessee-Chattanooga huddled
up. "Now, if we win," Taylor told his teammates, "don't go
running around like we won the national championship."
Several Mocs exchanged looks. Then guard Wes Moore spoke up.
"You're nuts," he said. "If we win, I'm going to celebrate."
If they win again, we--and every school that only wants a
shot--should celebrate too.