He looked like a lone demonstrator, that Pittsburgh assistant
coach who held up a placard during the Panthers' first-round
defeat of Wagner last Friday. The sign read REGULAR, and while it
was meant only to signal a play, it seemed to register a plea,
too--that war, launched on the eve of this NCAA tournament, be
counterbalanced by something familiar and ordinary. ¬∂ And the
opening week of the NCAAs did have a measure of comfort to it, at
least to judge by how the chalk held up. Other than Marquette and
the cuddly Bulldogs of Butler, no team from outside the six Bowl
Championship Series conferences survived the first two rounds.
Only three of the top 12 seeds, Florida, Wake Forest and Xavier,
failed to advance. The Sweet 16, full of the usual suspects,
includes every national champion since 1996, plus another four
teams that have reached the Final Four at least once during that
This is an article from the March 31, 2003 issue
But many favorites moved through in a decidedly irregular way. Of
the 48 first-week games, 24 were decided by a single-digit
margin; in 11 the margin was no more than three points. Four
games went to overtime, and in the West, Gonzaga's 96-95
second-round near miss against Arizona, which players from both
teams immediately nominated for ESPN Instant Classic--hood,
needed two OTs. "I could appreciate how good a game it was," Zags
forward Richard Fox said afterward. "But as far as being
satisfied, there won't be a day the rest of my life when I won't
think, What if?"
What if, indeed. What if Fox's teammate Blake Stepp had banked
home that eight-foot follow shot at the end of a game marked by
10 lead changes and seven ties, a struggle that Stepp himself
called "the hardest"--not greatest or best, mind you--"game I've
ever been a part of"? What if Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Dylan Page
had sunk that layup to eliminate Notre Dame, instead of rolling
it off the rim? What if Wisconsin's Freddie Owens, after taking a
pass from childhood buddy Devin Harris, had bricked the
three-pointer that instead swished through and ended Tulsa's
remarkable late-season resurrection? What if those two free
throws with five seconds to play, sent whispering through the net
by a 46% foul shooter named Aaron Coombs, had stood up for 11th
seed UNC-Wilmington in the opening round against Maryland?
Instead, the week's most dramatic buzzer-beater came not from
Cinderella but from the defending national champions, whose Drew
Nicholas (make that Bryce Drew Nicholas) drained a high-stepping
three-pointer after a dash up the right sideline. To park
yourself in front of the TV last week was to watch a movie that
could have been called Almost Famous.
The lone team to go Hoosiers on us was Butler, which,
appropriately enough, plays its home games in Indianapolis's
Hinkle Fieldhouse, scene of the climactic moments of that film. A
year ago the Bulldogs became the poster boys for the aggrieved
mid-major after the tournament's selection committee passed them
over, despite their 26-5 record and wins over Big Ten neighbors
Indiana and Purdue. This year Butler, seeded No. 12, scored the
only classic upsets of the first week--if you define a classic
upset as a double-digit seed beating a team from a power
conference--with its 47-46 defeat of Mississippi State and
79-71 victory over Louisville. Using a freshly installed
offensive set in which 6'10", 230-pound bruiser Joel Cornette set
high picks and guards Darnell Archey and Brandon Miller rubbed
defenders off him, the Bulldogs dictated the pace of both games.
Miller's runner in the final seconds beat one of the SEC's best
teams. Archey, who weighed 135 pounds upon graduating from high
school, knocked down eight of nine three-pointers in Sunday's
defeat of the pride of Conference USA, including the trey that
put Butler up 73-69 with 1:32 to play. "Butler's not a
mid-major," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said afterward. "Butler
is a major, major basketball power."
Both Archey and Miller grew up as Steve Alford disciples in New
Castle, Ind., the former Indiana icon's hometown, while Cornette
has a brother, Jordan, a 6'9", 235-pound sophomore forward, who
plays for Notre Dame. "We felt we were owed one from last year,"
said Cornette, whose parents, Joel and Christi, will try to
shuttle between regional sites in Anaheim (where the Fighting
Irish will play) and Albany, N.Y., this week. "We're making up
for lost time. If this wasn't on TV and nobody said a word about
us, it would still be the same feeling. Because we're still
playing for a national championship, and we're still here."
That so many obscure teams played valiantly seemed to vindicate
the tournament committee's decision to award bids to every
mid-major with a case, even at the expense of such
power-conference candidates as Boston College, Tennessee and
Texas Tech. "Butler went out and played people just like they did
last year," said Southern athletic director Floyd Kerr, a
committee member, "and they didn't lose to anyone they weren't
supposed to lose to." Added another member, The Citadel athletic
director Les Robinson, "You don't root for a team like Butler to
win or lose. But you at least want close games, where it says,
'This team clearly belongs.'"
Whether the tournament itself belonged during a time of war was
one question all the participants had to confront. When it became
clear that U.S. troops would be keenly following the games,
however, few doubted that the NCAA had done the right thing by
letting the event proceed. "It's not a distractor at all," said
Tyrone Barley of St. Joseph's. "War has nothing to do with
basketball. I want the best for this country, but any basketball
player knows how to separate the two."
Barley's Hawks lost to Auburn despite an extraordinary game (32
points, nine rebounds) from point guard Jameer Nelson. East
Tennessee State lost to Wake Forest, and Missouri lost to
Marquette, despite similar efforts from backcourtmen, the
Buccaneers' Tim Smith and the Tigers' Rickey Paulding. But guard
play could carry a team only so far. Just as the power
conferences ultimately ruled the Sweet 16, the games themselves
belonged mostly to teams with power players, as cruiserweights
like Florida, Oklahoma State and Indiana bowed, respectively, to
broad-shouldered opponents Michigan State, Syracuse and Pitt.
"Playing small ball in the tournament is like playing with fire,"
said Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser, who watched his
second-seeded Deacons stumble against Auburn in the second round
as 6'9", 270-pound Wake center Eric Williams sat for long
stretches with fouls. "For teams to advance, they need a strong
That verity will bear itself out in the games ahead. With its
rugged profile, Pitt is lying in wait to knock off Kentucky in
the Midwest. In the East, Syracuse will hope that its three
versatile freshmen, forward Carmelo Anthony and guards Billy
Edelin and Gerry McNamara, will continue their mature tournament
play. "The good news is we're in every game," says coach Jim
Boeheim. "But that's also the bad news. We're just not
experienced enough to put people away." After ending Auburn's
run, the Orangemen should founder against Oklahoma, whose coach,
Kelvin Sampson, is so committed to the power game that he
sometimes orders his players to chuck up a shot simply to fetch
it off the glass. In the South look for Texas, with its balance
and depth, to take out UConn and Maryland.
Which brings us to the West. Time and again this season Arizona
has prevailed by wearing down opponents with waves of fresh
players. Yet as Gonzaga hung with his team last week, coach Lute
Olson seemed oddly unwilling to go to his bench, choosing instead
to play five Wildcats for 40 minutes or more. But Arizona's close
call may simply anneal what remains the deepest team in the land.
En route to their championship six years ago, the Wildcats won
six tournament games by an average of 5.2 points, going to
overtime to beat Kentucky in the final. SI picked this Arizona
team as its preseason No 1. We reiterated that choice in our
tournament preview. We're standing by it now. And that's about as
regular as the college basketball business gets.
Big Men Who'll Make the Difference
As needed, these bruisers in the Sweet 16 will bump, grind and
even deftly score
If there was a recurring on-court theme during the first week of
the NCAA tournament, it was this: Muscle matters. With that in
mind, here are seven Sweet 16 entries whose physical power will
make them formidable foes in this week's regionals.
Thanks to 6'8" shot blockers Jeremy McNeil and Hakim Warrick, who
anchor the back line of a 2-3 zone, other Orange defenders can
be more adventurous. That helped Syracuse beat Oklahoma State
68-56 after falling behind early 25-8.
The Irish trot out 6'10", 240-pound freshman forward Torin
Francis, whose inside presence has opened things up for the
team's outside shooters, giving them such good looks that they
hit 11 of 16 three-pointers in the first half of a 68-60
second-round victory over Illinois.
The Longhorns' 6'8", 235-pound center James Thomas is to the
rebound what point guard T.J. Ford is to the assist. Thomas
pulled down 12 boards in Sunday's 77-67 defeat of Purdue. The
5'10" Ford can pick a few himself: He grabbed nine rebounds
against the Boilermakers.
Few teams deploy beef better, and the Panthers, with 6'6",
265pound center Ontario Lett, have brains to go with brawn. "They
have so many big bodies, and they know how to use them," said
Wagner coach Dereck Whittenburg after Pitt hammered his team
87-61 in the first round. Lett is bookended by 6'4" Jaron Brown
(20 points in the 74-52 win over Indiana on Sunday) and 6'9"
Donatas Zavackas; imposing reserves include 6'7" Chevon Troutman
and 6'10" Toree Morris.
The Sooners' infirm guards--Hollis Price is suffering from a
strained groin, and Ebi Ere has a broken bone in his left
wrist--got a lift last week from a freshman center, 6'8",
260-pound Kevin Bookout, as they hobbled around the perimeter,
hunting shots. Bookout muscles his way close enough to the basket
to have been the Big 12's most accurate shooter (57.1%). In
Oklahoma's 74-65 win over Cal on Saturday he nimbly dropped in
nine of 11 from the field and scored 22 points.
The Spartans rotate three 6'10" wide bodies (most notably
240pound freshman Erazem Lorbek) through their lineup, as well as
senior Aloysius Anagonye, a 6'8", 260-pound holdover from the
2000 title team. All know when their bruising style has softened
up opponents. "They start running a little slower, or they're
breathing harder, or their legs aren't planted quite as hard,"
says Anagonye. "As soon as one of us notices it, he'll say,
'So-and-so is beat. Let's go right at him.'"
The day before the tournament opened, coach Jim Calhoun touted
the clean defense of his center, 6'9", 252-pound Emeka Okafor.
"He always goes straight up!" Calhoun said, pointing to a picture
in the Huskies' media guide of an impeccably vertical Okafor
returning a shot to sender. The nation's leading shot blocker
(4.7 per game), Okafor rejected seven BYU field goal attempts in
the first round. Two days later he boosted the Huskies past
Stanford by grabbing six offensive rebounds.
making up for lost time."
said Fox of Gonzaga's OT loss.