SYRACUSE WAS history, a puddle of Orange in the New England thaw (24 turnovers!), and Vermont coach Tom Brennan, who's departing his post after 19 seasons, was holding court at the Holiday Inn bar last Friday night, one hand wrapped around a Bud longneck and the other fist-bumping every fan in sight. How much bliss could one man take? Try 29 cellphone messages, some containing only screams of joy. Or that postgame call from Vermont's Senator Patrick Leahy. ("Hey, guys," Brennan boomed, "Senator Leahy bet Hillary Clinton!") Or now, just before midnight, the not-a-misprint score from Worcester, Mass., that flashed on the bar's 22-inch TV: Vermont 60, Syracuse 57. Talk about retirement send-offs. "Syracuse!" roared Brennan, still mainlining the ecstasy of T.J. Sorrentine's game-clinching 26-foot moonshot. "They just won the Big East championship!"
Believe it, Coach: Cinderella had beaten the witching hour, ending nearly two days of unprecedented chalk and restoring our faith in the opening week of the NCAA tournament. It hardly mattered that the 13th-seeded Catamounts would surrender to No. 5 seed Michigan State on Sunday, for they had triggered the flood of upsets that we've come to expect in March. When the waters subsided, only eight of the top 16 seeds remained, the fewest after the tournament's first two rounds since 2000. No matter how the surprise Sweet 16 teams fare this week--and there are plenty, led by 12th-seeded Wisconsin-Milwaukee--the racket in the brackets further validated this college hoops season's status as the most entertaining in a decade.
By week's end, in fact, the tournament was playing out like a basketball-themed version of VH1's I Love the '90s. You want Gen-X nostalgia trips? We present UW-Milwaukee, which resurrected the decade-old spirit of Loyola Marymount's Gathers Memorial Gang by full-court pressing Alabama and Boston College into submission. You want mind-bending upsets? Enter Bucknell, which knocked off Kansas and partied like it was 1999--the last time a 14th seed (Weber State) picked off a No. 3 (North Carolina). You want 20th-century rivalries? Then pencil in Utah versus Kentucky for the third time in the tournament since 1993, with the Utes' transcendent center, Andrew Bogut, playing the role of Keith Van Horn. You want the General? Then let's recommission Texas Tech coach Bob Knight, who reached Week 2 to end a drought dating back to 1994, when he led Indiana. Deadpanned Knight, after his sixth-seeded Red Raiders reeled in No. 3 Gonzaga from 13 points down, "I guess I won't be fishing now."
Nor will nearly a half-dozen other reborn schools--Louisville; North Carolina State (a No. 10 seed in the Syracuse region and conquerors of a No. 2, defending national champion Connecticut); Villanova; Washington; and West Virginia--which punched Sweet 16 tickets for the first time since the days of Super Mario Bros. and Beverly Hills, 90210. West Virginia guard Mike Gansey spent the '90s growing up in Olmstead Falls, Ohio, which explained the 300 friends and family members who made the Wolstein Center in nearby Cleveland a de facto home venue last week for the Mountaineers, seeded seventh in the Albuquerque region. Gansey's mom, Gale, cooked a carbo-load dinner (and four pies) for the team before its 63--61 first-round squeaker over Creighton, and Mike had enough energy left over to score 19 of his 29 points after regulation in Saturday's classic 111--105 double-overtime takedown of No. 2 seed Wake Forest.
Gansey not only helped erase Wake's 14-point lead, but he also took over in the second OT after forward Tyrone Sally fouled out--and even drew the fifth personal on Wake star point guard Chris Paul, who never regained his mojo after going Andrew Golota and sucker punching N.C. State's Julius Hodge during the last game of the regular season. Someday the Demon Deacons will learn that they have to play some defense when it counts, a lesson that shouldn't be lost on another Final Four contender, Gonzaga, after the Bulldogs fell to West Virginia's next foe. Gansey, for one, couldn't wait to face a certain fellow Buckeye State native: "It's going to be so weird to see Bobby Knight. He's a great guy," Gansey said, as if the two men were planning to discuss the merits of bait-casting versus fly during the Mountaineers' regional semifinal showdown with Texas Tech on Thursday.
If you were looking for throwbacks to nonce heroes of the '90s, though, your man was Bucknell center Chris McNaughton, who channeled the ghost of Weber State's Harold (the Show) Arceneaux, the last hidden gem to lead a No. 14 seed to victory. A German with a Scottish surname and an American-born father, the 6'11" McNaughton banked in a jump hook over Kansas All-America Wayne Simien with 10.5 seconds left, dooming the No. 3 Jayhawks to a 64--63 first-round defeat last Friday against a team with three non-scholarship starters. "I don't care how it went in," McNaughton explained afterward in a Teutonic-inflected voice. "You always need a little luck in a game like that."
Then again, serendipity has linked Bucknell and McNaughton from Day 1. The Bison began offering athletic scholarships only two years ago--the Patriot League first allowed them in 1998--and C-Mac was one of only five scholarship holders on the team that sank the mighty Jayhawks. Having his $37,000-a-year education paid for made the difference when McNaughton finally decided between Bucknell and LaSalle. Even if pro hoops doesn't pan out, he can always get by with his 3.7 GPA in electrical engineering. Alas, like the Show in '99, McNaughton was a one-hit tournament wonder, bowing valiantly (10 for 14 shooting and 23 points) to sixth-seeded Wisconsin 71--62 on Sunday.
Yet the most welcome (and electric) feature of I Love the '90s (Tourney Edition) is the triumphant return of a lost art: pressure defense. In the late '80s and throughout the '90s, suffocating full-court presses ruled the land, inspiring so much fear that they earned nicknames in the same way that the Fearsome Foursome and Purple People Eaters once did on the gridiron. There was Nolan Richardson's 40 Minutes of Hell at Arkansas, of course, and young Rick Pitino's Mother-in-Law defense at Providence--so dubbed, said Slick Rick, because of its "constant pressure and harassment." Full-court defensive schemes won national titles for UNLV ('90), Arkansas ('94) and Kentucky ('96), but these days, says Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson, "they are almost like a dinosaur."
Why have coaches yelled, "Stop the presses"? Well, today's breed faces more job insecurity than ever--too much pressure, as it were, to run pressure. "There's a lot of risk involved," says Alabama-Birmingham coach Mike Anderson, the Richardson protégé whose 11th-seeded Blazers upset sixth-seeded LSU 82--68 in the first round by forcing 21 turnovers. "If you're going to commit to pressuring all over the court like we do, you're going to have to live with getting burned a time or two. Plus, coaches want to be in control, and full-court pressure puts a lot of control in the hands of the players." Even the best coaches can fall prey: Syracuse would surely have avoided its upset to Vermont had Jim Boeheim ordered up his stifling Hakim Warrick--fronted trap, which erased the Catamounts' five-point lead, earlier than at the seven-minute mark of the second half.
What's more, pressing is often a function of depth. Cincinnati's Bob Huggins and Florida's Billy Donovan, both second-round victims this year (to Kentucky and Villanova, respectively), have largely abandoned their 1990s-era gambling defenses. "We've tried a little bit," says Huggins, "but it's hard to press when you're shorthanded."
Press practitioners UAB and Iowa State, a ninth seed, saw both sides of the risk-reward coin last week, knocking off more highly regarded foes (LSU and Minnesota, respectively) before being drilled by the panic-free precision of No. 3 seed Arizona and top seed North Carolina. But other teams rode the press all the way to the round of 16. Villanova, No. 5 in the Syracuse region, made it for the first time since 1988, owing largely to a trap that loosed panic on New Mexico (17 turnovers) and Florida (19). "When we watched New Mexico, we couldn't get any tape of anybody pressing them," explained Wildcats coach Jay Wright. "Not that many people press Florida either. At least we knew it was going to be something a little different."
Best of all, 12th-seeded UW-Milwaukee used an even purer full-court trap on Saturday to dump No. 4 seed B.C. (22 turnovers) 83--75, two days after bamboozling fifth-seeded Alabama 83--73 by forcing 19 giveaways while committing only seven. SEC teams never would have been caught unprepared for the press during the heyday of Arkansas and Kentucky 10 years ago, but times have changed. "It helps a mid-major in the NCAA tournament to have a special system," says Panthers coach Bruce Pearl, "whether it was Dick Bennett when they held the ball at Wisconsin--Green Bay or Pete Carril and his back-cutting at Princeton. Or using full-court pressure defense in our case."
Pearl's 1-2-1-1 zone press is a direct descendant of the scheme he learned in 14 years as an assistant to Tom Davis at Boston College, Stanford and Iowa. "In every football game the commentators say, 'This will be won and lost on turnovers,' but you don't hear that as much in college basketball," Pearl says. "It's not just turnovers, it's where those turnovers occur. It's field possession." The Panthers' press doesn't have a suitable nickname yet, but you can bet it will if they topple top-ranked Illinois on Thursday in the Chicago region semifinal. (Monster of the Midway, perhaps?)
Even Pearl allows that the tempo created by pressure defense is often more important than creating turnovers, and in that regard he has slowly growing company. Michigan State, which meets No. 1 seed Duke in Austin this Friday, adopted less-risky, man-to-man pressure over 94 feet this season for the first time under Tom Izzo. "We're doing it because we have more depth, but we're not trapping because [if you do] you're always giving up layups," Izzo says. "We're trying to wear you down and get one or two turnovers. You think about the NCAA tournament, and three or four points can make the difference."
If the 2005 tournament had a soundtrack, the lineup would feature '90s giants Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. The Seattle sound of Washington, the Albuquerque region top seed, may be more speed-metal than grunge, what with the Huskies' constant half-court perimeter pressure. U-Dub's unyielding vise had exactly the desired effect in a 97--79 second-round win over eighth-seeded Pacific on Saturday: The Tigers turned the ball over six times in the first eight minutes as Washington contested every pass. "Am I in your head yet?" ace defender Bobby Jones kept saying to Pacific star forward Christian Maraker, and apparently he was. Maraker scored 12 points in the first half, most of them coming when Jones was on the bench, and failed to score at all after the break.
It may have taken the decade since Kevin Garnett's landmark jump from the preps to the pros, but college hoops' season-long renaissance (SI, Jan. 17) has restored a sense of equilibrium to the game, to say nothing of its crown jewel. You can see it in the modified RPI, which (by rewarding road performance) helped level seedings that had been stacked for years in favor of the power-conference schools. You can see it in the crisper fundamentals that have made the games more entertaining to watch. (CBS's first-week tournament ratings shot up 7.3% over last year's and were the highest since '93.) And you can see it in the fearlessness of Davids in the face of so many Goliaths. Hadn't Bucknell already won at Pittsburgh? Hadn't Vermont already played at Kansas and North Carolina?
You can see it most of all in the impact of seniors, that once-rare commodity that returned to elite college ball this season in numbers not seen since the 1990s: Guys like Arizona guard Salim Stoudamire, who singed UAB for 28 points; Kentucky forward Chuck Hayes, who willed the second-seeded Wildcats to a 69--60 victory over Cincinnati; Oklahoma State forward Ivan McFarlin, whose tournament-high 31 points helped beat Southern Illinois; Wisconsin forward Mike Wilkinson, whose 23 points and nine boards turned back upset-minded Bucknell; and N.C. State swingman Hodge, who slashed past freshman Rudy Gay for a layup with 4.3 seconds to play to bounce Connecticut.
With his receding hairline and self-described "Jack Sikma moves," Hodge only seems to have been playing for the Wolfpack since the '90s, but at the Carrier Dome on Friday against Wisconsin he'll lead N.C. State into its first Sweet 16 game since the Jim Valvano era. "It's been a long time," Hodge said on Sunday, "but it feels good to be on the way back."
The same could be said for his sport.
FINAL FOUR REVISION
After last week's upsets, SI's Grant Wahl revisits the Road to St. Louis
CHICAGO: ILLINOIS. Nation's No. 1 slips past Oklahoma State in a classic.
ALBUQUERQUE: LOUISVILLE. Cardinals master tempo game to unseat Washington, West Virginia.
SYRACUSE: NORTH CAROLINA. Surging Tar Heels decimate weakened bracket.
AUSTIN: DUKE. Savvy Blue Devils maintain spell over Michigan State and sink callow Kentucky.
POTENTIAL UPSET: OKLAHOMA STATE. Cowboys, who should've been a No. 1 seed, could knock off Illini.