Racket In The Brackets The upsets and buzzer beaters of the opening rounds augured perhaps the most exciting NCAA tournament ever

March 23, 1998

Immediate occupancy. Tournament Towers, 1998 March Madness
Boulevard, Suite 16. Spartan accmdns w/all cmfrts of Homer.
Husky dogs, 'Cats O.K. Pking 4 Rams. You see LA; no prairie vu.
Utes incl.

Michigan was gone, beaten 85-82 moments earlier by UCLA in the
second round of the NCAA tournament, as Bruins seniors Toby
Bailey, J.R. Henderson and Kris Johnson made their way down a
hallway in Atlanta's Georgia Dome on Sunday night. Just outside
the interview room the three players caught the image of Rhode
Island coach Jim Harrick on an overhead TV monitor. Harrick, who
had guided UCLA to an NCAA title in 1995, was 750 miles away at
the Midwest subregional in Oklahoma City just then, leading the
Rams to an 80-75 upset of top-seeded Kansas. "Look," Johnson
said. "There's Coach."

No, someone reminded him, Steve Lavin is now the Bruins' coach.
"I think that's why they created the word surreal," Lavin would
say of the moment. "That's art imitating life, or life imitating
art--or something like that."

Or something not at all like that, for the first week of this
NCAA tournament seemed to be derivative of absolutely nothing.
There have been other NCAAs in which a No. 1 seed failed to
reach the Sweet 16. (It has happened five times during the
1990s, twice now to Kansas.) There may have been a year in which
more early-round upsets racked the bracket and times when there
were surprises more seismic than these. There may even have been
tournaments with more subregional buzzer beaters. But never have
so many of the things that make for a delicious NCAAs come
together at the same time. Eight double-digit seeds won their
first-round games, and three--No. 13 Valparaiso, No. 11
Washington and No. 10 West Virginia--survived into the second
week. Eleven games in the first two rounds were decided by three
points or less, five by a single point. Four games needed
overtime, and only a few were never in doubt.

You usually need bricks to erect a building, but Tournament
Towers is wrought of the gossamer of soft jump shots, the
jury-rigging of deflections and loose balls, even a play so
preposterous that it seemed incapable of springing from its
blueprint. Our building would be a short drive from Sunset
Beach, what with the Pac-10's four entries winning all eight of
their games. There would be a fun house mirror in the lobby; how
else to explain Princeton's pressing and shooting down UNLV, of
all teams, with a 20-0 run, and then getting backdoored by a
Michigan State crew that outpassed, outshot and outassisted the
Tigers in a 63-56 victory? For a lease on Suite 16, anyone would
be willing to take out a loan. Washington guard Donald Watts,
who scored 17 points and set up teammate Deon Luton for the
game-winning jumper in the Huskies' 69-68 upset of Xavier, is
the son of former Seattle SuperSonics star Slick Watts. The
senior Watts, now proprietor of an industrial-cleaning business
called Slick and Clean, follows his son so devotedly that he's
$22,000 in debt--and counting. "I ain't got no money," he said
after the Huskies qualified for the East Regional in Greensboro,
"but I'm going to Carolina."

Some prospective tenants tried their best but could claim only
temporary residency. Illinois State beat Tennessee when forward
Dan Muller sank a layup with 1.8 seconds left in OT, only to
fall hard to defending champion Arizona two days later.
Richmond, the 14th seed in the East, survived an errant
in-the-lane runner by South Carolina guard BJ McKie in the dying
seconds of its first-round upset of the third-seeded Gamecocks,
but the Spiders could turn away few of the point-blank shots of
Washington's monument, 7-foot Todd MacCulloch, who had 31 points
and 18 rebounds in round 2. Even Indiana's first-round defeat of
Oklahoma, a game in which the Hoosiers held a 19-point lead with
13:07 left, went to OT before the Hoosiers won--only to be
ousted two days later by the No. 2 seed in the East, UConn,
whose own first-round victory over 15th-seeded Fairleigh
Dickinson wasn't assured until the final minute.

Consider Cincinnati guard D'Juan Baker. With 3.6 seconds
remaining in the Bearcats' first-rounder with Northern Arizona,
he secured a 65-62 victory with a cold-blooded three-pointer.
But such were the standards for this tournament that two days
later the bar for heroism had been raised. This time Baker made
a three from virtually the same spot with 7.0 seconds to play,
giving No. 2 seed Cincy a 74-72 lead over West Virginia--but
leaving just enough time for the Mountaineers' Jarrod West (no
one but West Virginia could suit up a Jarry West) to fling one
last shot.

When the Bearcats' defender, Ruben Patterson, tipped the ball,
it could do only one thing: thud half dead off the backboard and
through the hoop--perhaps because said hoop, at the east end of
Boise State's pavilion, is the one locals know as Edney's Hole,
for it's the basket through which another 5'10" guard, UCLA's
Tyus Edney, dropped the winning shot against Missouri during the
Bruins' championship run in '95. The final score after both
Edney's and West's heroics was 75-74. "Did he tip it in?" West
said, repeating an interrogator's question about Patterson's D.
"I think God knocked it in."

In fact, West earlier had made a sort of pilgrimage to the
altar. As the teams gathered for the opening tip, West left
midcourt for a moment to jog to the goal that would be so
merciful 40 minutes of play later. He jumped up, slapped the
glass with both hands and then returned to center court.

Unlike Muller and Baker, most of the first round's most
resourceful shotmakers survived the second. Syracuse's Marius
Janulis is a stubborn 6'5" guard from Lithuania who, when asked
once whether he could dunk, snapped, "When dunks are worth three
points, I'll work on my dunking." In the Orangemen's opener with
Iona, he sank a game-winner twice over. The Gaels led 58-57 with
under a minute to play when Janulis bottomed out a
three-pointer, only to watch Iona point guard John McDonald
throw in an off-balance three of his own that gave the Gaels the
lead anew with :24 left. That set up Syracuse's last possession,
in which Todd Burgan had his shot blocked; after regaining
possession, he looked up to catch a glimpse of the clock.
Janulis happened to be in his line of sight. Three seconds was
just enough time for Burgan to find him with a pass and for
Janulis to sink another three.

It was Valparaiso guard Bryce Drew who threw in a three to cap
the week's most baroque buzzer-beating play, and his father,
Crusaders coach Homer Drew, who called it. The play, named Pacer
after the NBA team from which the elder Drew lifted it, might be
familiar to football fans as a sort of hoops hook-and-ladder
play. Valpo had practiced it so often that Bryce spoke for all
the Crusaders when he asked Homer, "Why are we working on this?
We never use it."

They hadn't, that is, until their first-round meeting with No. 3
seed Mississippi. Valparaiso trailed by two points with 4.1
seconds to play when the Rebels' Ansu Sesay, the SEC's player of
the year, missed two free throws. A scramble for the rebound
left the Crusaders with possession 94 feet from the basket; now
only 2.5 seconds remained. Drew and two of his teammates, senior
forward Bill Jenkins and senior guard Jamie Sykes, knew what
they would run.

Sykes, the inbounder, is only 5'11", while Keith Carter, the Ole
Miss swingman who guarded him, stands 6'4". "I pump-faked [to
get Carter to move], because all I could see was his face, he's
so tall," said Sykes, who's an outfield prospect in the Arizona
Diamondbacks' system. "Then I saw Bill. Our eyes met. It was
magical."

Sykes threw his strike. Jenkins, a sort of Frenchy Fuqua in
Homer Drew's Immaculate Conception, leaped. ("It's the highest
I've ever seen Bill jump," the coach would say.) He snared the
ball and, while still airborne, flicked a lead touch pass to
Drew, who after faking upcourt toward Sykes was now cutting
unchecked down the right sideline. Drew caught the ball, stopped
and--in the grand tradition of the heretofore most celebrated
citizen of the northwest Indiana city of Valparaiso, Orville
Redenbacher--popped. "I felt like it was short," Bryce would say
after the 70-69 victory. Said Homer, "God had an angel direct
that ball over the front of the rim."

Bryce's mother, Janet, and sister, Dana, were watching from the
stands. Dana was an Academic All-America at Toledo; as a senior
she made a key shot in the win that put the Rockets in the 1995
NCAAs. Thousands of times in the backyard she and Bryce had
played a game called four-three-two-one, in which they counted
down the seconds before launching imaginary buzzer beaters. As
Sesay toed the line, Dana turned to Janet. "Don't worry, Mom,"
she said. "Remember: four-three-two-one."

It was not a by-the-numbers tournament for Dean Smith disciples.
The travails of Smith's former aides might have left him
grateful to be in retirement. By the end of the first weekend,
teams coached by Roy Williams and Eddie Fogler were upset
victims. Fogler, whose Gamecocks lost to underdog Coppin State a
year ago, insisted that he wasn't going to prepare any
differently for Richmond this season. "If we get beat," he said,
"that'll be a real bright statement, huh?"

A third former Smith assistant, Bill Guthridge, was luckier. His
top-seeded Tar Heels, in their first encounter with neighbor UNC
Charlotte, were taken to the barricades of overtime by hoops
revolutionary Diego (Trey) Guevara, who tied the game with a
final-seconds three-point volley from the hills. Only flawless
free throw shooting--the Tar Heels made their last 17 in a
row--saved Carolina from elimination.

There were sound basketball reasons for Kansas's sudden
departure, a couple of them echoes of the Jayhawks' loss to
Arizona a year ago: the ability of Rhode Island guards Tyson
Wheeler and Cuttino Mobley, who combined for 47 points, to drive
against Kansas's half-court pressure; the top seed's haste down
the stretch; and All-America forward Paul Pierce's failure to
sink any of his seven three-point attempts. Yet Williams, just
as bleary-eyed in defeat as he was a year ago, didn't want to
get into them. "If I talk too much about them it will sound like
I'm blaming the players," he said. "I never want to do that. I'd
rather you say the dumb old coach messed up."

It would be simplistic to reduce Kansas's elimination to that.
But in Oklahoma City last week came two stark examples of one of
the game's truisms: Nothing drawn on a clipboard will work as
well as what's writ on a coach's face. At one point in the
second half, with the game still winnable, Williams screamed,
stomped and flung his sport coat to the ground when the Jayhawks
failed to respond to a defensive call he made.

A year ago Williams had described Kansas's loss to the Wildcats
as devastating. Now, having failed to reach the Elite Eight for
the fourth time with a team seeded No. 1, how would he describe
this one? "I told the players I was sorry if I caused them
problems by openly talking about my desire for a national
championship," he said. "I know one thing. I'm tired of grading
these kinds of effects, these hurts." A coroner examining the
remains of another 35-win season prematurely ended might
conclude this: Williams's Jayhawks won't win their now
decade-in-coming national title until after Williams takes
elimination with such equanimity that the stakes the following
season won't seem dauntingly high.

Homer Drew wouldn't be a bad example of how players take their
cues from a coach's countenance. Back at Valpo the athletic
department raises funds with its Hug Homer program. (Donate five
bucks, get a hug from the basketball coach.) Arms folded or
hands clasped, his face always bright with possibility, he wore
a smile most of Sunday afternoon, a pastor greeting his flock
after the service. Even as the Crusaders fell nine points behind
Florida State, it was as if Drew had the radiant power to touch
off the rally that forced overtime and an eventual 83-77 win.

Coaches of tenants set to move into our building's Final Four
Floor--and it says here that they'll be overdue Purdue,
ascendant Kentucky, obsessed Arizona and imperturbable North
Carolina--could learn a thing or two from the man who last week
permitted only one thing to cause a furrow to crease his brow.
"I've got to come up with another game-ending play," Drew said.
"Everyone has seen Pacer a million times in the last two days."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH LOSING FACE The nose of Tennessee's Tony Harris meets the arm of Illinois State's LeRoy Watkins in an opening-round NCAA game, won in OT by the Redbirds (page 28). [Tony Harris, LeRoy Watkins, and others in game--Leading Off] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO GLASS MENAGERIE Beastly battles for boards marked UCLA's win over mighty Michigan. [UCLA players and University of Michigan players in game] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: DAVID E. KLUTHO (2) A PRAYER IS ANSWERED Under the watchful eye of Dad (left, arms folded), Drew launched his last-second three against Ole Miss. Then the celebration began. [Homer Drew watching Bryce Drew in game; several Valparaiso University players celebrating] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: DAVID E. KLUTHO (2) RAM TOUGH Rhode Island's Preston Murphy & Co. took it right to Kansas, which may have wanted too badly to win a championship for Williams (right). [Preston Murphy and other in game; Roy Williams speaking to University of Kansas players on sideline] FOUR COLOR PHOTOS: ROCKY WIDNER (4) IT WASN'T OVER TILL IT WAS OVER The Cincinnati bench thought Baker (5) had beaten West Virginia with his three, but that was before West trumped him at the buzzer. [D'Juan Baker and opposing player in game; University of Cincinnati players celebrating; Jarrod West and others in game; West Virginia University player and fans celebrating on sideline]

"I know one thing," said Williams. "I'm tired of grading these
kinds of hurts."

Baker beat Northern Arizona with a three. Two days later the bar
for heroism had been raised.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)