The lone scoreboard in Seattle's KeyArena looms high above
midcourt, a quirk that created identical Edvard Munch scenes just
hours apart there last Saturday. As Stanford and Gonzaga players
gazed upward, the last seconds of their remarkable seasons
melting away, their dread-filled looks gave the impression that
the sky was falling. In a sense, it was--and not just in Seattle:
On Sunday in Columbus, mighty Kentucky's players would wear the
same masks of despair. Shattering a run of yawn-inducing chalk
during the NCAA tournament's first round, the Cardinal, the
Wildcats and the Bulldogs--the nation's top three teams in the
latest AP poll--crashed against ... Alabama, UAB and Nevada?
If your reaction was, Who are they? join the club. "There's room
in the game for little guys," proclaimed second-year UAB coach
Mike Anderson, whose diminutive, ninth-seeded Blazers blitzed
Kentucky, the tournament's top overall seed, in a 76-75 thriller.
Likewise, the eighth-seeded Crimson Tide's 70-67 upset of
Stanford (the Phoenix region top seed) and the 10th-seeded Wolf
Pack's 91-72 takedown of Gonzaga (the St. Louis second seed)
brought a shocking end to the seasons of two teams thought to
have the tools--size, depth, experience and perimeter
punch--necessary to win it all.
Only once since the brackets were expanded to 64 teams in 1985
had two No. 1s failed to survive the opening weekend (in 2000).
These upsets were a reminder that the tournament can still be a
capricious beast, or as 'Bama coach Mark Gottfried likes to call
it, "the greatest show on earth. Everybody's got a chance."
Alabama, UAB and WAC co-champion Nevada (the only double-digit
seed to reach the Sweet 16) made the most of their chances by
exploiting their one advantage. "Our whole game plan was to use
our quickness," said Nevada coach Trent Johnson. Sure enough,
6'9" Wolf Pack forward Kevinn Pinkney (20 points) and 6'6" Tide
swingman Kennedy Winston (21 points) thoroughly unsettled their
bigger, slower counterparts on the offensive end. Meanwhile,
UAB's quick 5'11" guards, Mo Finley (17 points) and Carldell
(Squeaky) Johnson, harassed Kentucky with so much full-court
pressure that Anderson's mentor, former Arkansas coach Nolan
Richardson, was beaming with pride afterward. "I told Mike when
he became a head coach, 'Take this style with you wherever you
go, and you'll win with it,'" Richardson said. "People don't like
Whatever works. It certainly didn't hurt the dragon-slayers that
they had already met elite foes--Nevada in nonconference
showdowns (a 93-79 loss at UConn and a 75-61 home upset of
Kansas), UAB in Conference USA play and Alabama in the SEC.
Indeed, Alabama's game-breaking second-half run on Saturday,
which turned a 53-40 Stanford lead into a three-point deficit,
didn't come out of nowhere. In its 72-68 overtime win at Arkansas
on March 3, the Tide climbed out of a 22-point hole. "We just
keep fighting," says 'Bama's senior point guard, Antoine Pettway.
"Seeds and rankings don't mean anything in March."
No Tide player had a bigger influence last week than Pettway, the
fast-talking former walk-on from Alberta, Ala. After last
season's starting point guard, Mo Williams, left early for the
NBA, skeptics in Tuscaloosa wondered if Pettway--who'd started
only 10 games in three years--could handle the position. "I was
hearing things in the paper: He can't run the point," the 6-foot
Pettway recalls. "But I just took it as fuel." On Saturday,
Pettway started his 31st straight game, and his three-pointer
gave Alabama the lead for good at 55-53. "Pett has a big heart,"
says Tide guard Earnest Shelton.
Not that there's anything wrong with having NBA prospects, the
best of whom in Seattle may have been--surprise--Nevada's Kirk
Snyder. A 6'6" junior guard, Snyder torched Michigan State with
19 points in a 72-66 first-round upset and hit for 18 against
Gonzaga, proving that the best players in the land aren't just
the ones you see on national TV. Says Snyder, whose academic
problems at Upland (Calif.) High scared off most recruiters,
"It's like nobody knows who you are your whole life, and you come
out on the national stage and show everybody, Hey, I can play
basketball. Here I am. Why didn't you guys see me before?"
Lack of recognition is nothing new for Nevada (ne Nevada-Reno),
which is overshadowed by UNLV. "We want people to forget about
Las Vegas and think about Reno for once," said Wolf Pack guard
Todd Okeson, whose 19 points and seven assists broke open the
Gonzaga game. If Reno is the Biggest Little City in the World,
one can only wonder what to call Weskan, Kans. (pop. 300), a blip
of high-plains humanity where Todd's father, Darrel, farms corn,
wheat, sunflowers and milo. "We ain't got a gas station. We ain't
got a restaurant. We ain't got nuthin'," says Okeson, whose
speech nevertheless sounds strangely urban, like John Travolta's
in Pulp Fiction.
Then again, such jarring surprises seemed appropriate on a
weekend when three teams with a combined 85-7 record fell to
opponents that had piled up 29 losses among them. The tournament
is a crapshoot. When Alabama meets fifth-seeded Syracuse, there's
little reason to think the Tide can't unseat the defending
champion. The same holds true for UAB against fourth-seeded
Kansas. As for the ascendant Wolf Pack, which will face Georgia
Tech, Okeson knows exactly what to expect. "Nobody's going to
pick us to win--again," he says. "It won't be nuthin' new for us,
though. Just a few more people in the stands." And, for all three
tournament upstarts, a few million new fans nationwide, holding
their breath for the last Cinderellas still dancing.