WITH HIS braidedcornrows and thick Baltimore accent, Memphis senior forward Joey Dorsey looksand sounds a lot like a character from HBO's crime drama The Wire. But unlikeDorsey's favorite TV show, the NCAA tournament doesn't have to be a Greektragedy, its actors doomed by the cruel Fates. And so, in the days before lastweek's games in North Little Rock, the notoriously downbeat Dorsey ignored thenegatives—his February swoon, the Tigers' two straight Elite Eight exits, hisbackfiring smack-talk toward Ohio State's Greg Oden in last year'stournament—and at the behest of his coach, John Calipari, wrote his ownfairy-tale script in the pages of a blue spiral notebook.
This is an article from the March 31, 2008 issue
Needless to say,it had Memphis, the South's No. 1 seed, advancing to its first Final Four since1985. "It relieved a lot of pressure," says Dorsey, the mercurial bigman whom teammate Chris Douglas-Roberts calls the Tigers' most importantplayer. "All my life I've been told, 'You can't do this.' But I could justsit down and write the story on my own."
That's the beautyof the NCAA tournament: Nothing is inevitable. The first step in achieving anygoal is to imagine it, history and conventional wisdom be damned. It's apowerful idea, and the newly optimistic Dorsey—Proposition Joey, if youwill—isn't the only figure aiming to reverse his checkered past this week andreach the Final Four in San Antonio.
To win TheChip—Joakim Noah's felicitous phrase for the national title he claimed twice atFlorida—it helps to have a chip on your shoulder. And in a round of 16 thatfeatures only one player with a Chip on his résumé (North Carolina guardQuentin Thomas, a veteran of the Tar Heels' 2005 victory), the brackets arefilled with up-and-down performers who have something extra to prove this week.Stanford's junior guard Mitch Johnson hopes to erase the perception that theCardinal is nothing more than the 7-foot Lopez twins, Brook and Robin, and abunch of perimeter stiffs. Xavier guard Drew Lavender and Wisconsin forwardBrian Butch, two fifth-year seniors, want to show that patience has a place inan era of one-and-done college superstars. And it's hard to fathom that UCLA,Tennessee and Michigan State can make it to San Antone unless the Bruins' JoshShipp, the Volunteers' Chris Lofton and the Spartans' Drew Neitzel find theirlong-range shooting strokes after an inconsistent Week 1.
Fair or unfair,the NCAA tournament defines a college career, and while cuddly upstarts like10th-seeded Davidson (page 39) and 12th-seeded Western Kentucky can celebrateremarkable seasons even if they lose this week, the favorites enjoy no marginfor error. Few have as much at stake as Bill Self, the coach of Midwest No. 1seed Kansas, who's seeking to shed the title of Best Coach Never to HaveReached the Final Four. The 45-year-old Self, now in his fifth season with theJayhawks, has always been a golden boy: As a high school junior he predicted tohis family that he'd be a Division I head coach by age 30, which is exactlywhat happened when he took over at Oral Roberts in 1993. His first season withthe Golden Eagles, Self recruited a walk-on who was working behind a Subwayrestaurant counter, and ever since he has had success wherever he's gone, witha lifetime .716 winning percentage and Elite Eight runs at Tulsa, Illinois andKansas (twice). Yet he's never landed on the sport's biggest stage.
If the Jayhawkscan dispatch 12th-seeded Villanova on Friday, it would give Self the chance tofinally break through ... or become only the second coach (besides John Chaney)to make five Elite Eight appearances without a trip to the Final Four. Givesome credit to Self for being honest, though, about his Week 2 Whammy. "Ifyou get to that Elite Eight game, you probably had a pretty good season,"he says. "But in order to have great seasons at a high-profile place likeKansas, you have to punch the ticket from time to time, and we have not donethat."
While theJayhawks are perhaps the nation's most balanced team, Stanford entered thetournament as its most top-heavy outfit, not least because its twin-tower frontline produced more than half of its points. And though Brook Lopez did nothingto dispel the perception of Stanford as a two-man team, scoring 30 points andthe last-second game-winner in an 82--81 second-round overtime win againstMarquette, it was Johnson's school-record 16 assists, one turnover and calminghalftime speech (after coach Trent Johnson had been ejected) that showed theCard's guard stigma may be undeserved. "We were rattled," said forwardTaj Finger, "but Mitch is our vocal leader, and he was able to relaxeverybody."
The son of formerNBA All-Star forward John Johnson, Mitch still bounces passes off histeammates' shins at times, but his junior-season stats are up from last year'sin assist-to-turnover ratio (1.7 to 2.4) and three-point shooting (32.1% to39.7%). This week, however, he'll face his greatest challenge yet. "Theteams we play now, it's going to take more than two big guys to beat them,"Johnson says, and a South Regional showdown with D.J. Augustin, Texas'sAll-America point guard, on Friday in Houston will prove whether themuch-maligned Johnson has the chops to make a difference.
THEN AGAIN, ifthe NCAA tournament has taught us anything over the years, it's thatconventional wisdom is often a synonym for hooey. What was supposed to be thesecond straight Year of the Freshman came to a quick end as Michael Beasley ofKansas State, O.J. Mayo of USC and Eric Gordon of Indiana were all eliminatedby last Saturday. Moving on instead were a pair of carbon-dated seniors wholong ago were labeled busts. Xavier's 5'7" Lavender and Wisconsin's6'11" Butch are so ancient, they both played in the 2003 McDonald's HighSchool All-American Game alongside LeBron James, Chris Paul and Luol Deng. Butfive years later they're reigning over college basket ball, happily scoffing atthe snap judgments that rendered them failures when they struggled early intheir college careers.
The operativeword is career, and the lesson is that it's still possible to have a long anddecorated one in the college ranks. (If you measure a college player solely byhis pro potential, then you're probably better off skipping March Madnessaltogether.) No little man may leave a bigger footprint this week thanLavender, who watches tape of the Charlotte Bobcats' 5'5" Earl Boykins forinspiration and regularly hears taunts referring to him as Webster or GaryColeman from opposing fans. "It makes me laugh. I know I'm short andeverything, but I've been getting it since the first day of college," saysLavender, whose family members all came to last week's Xavier games atWashington, D.C.'s Verizon Center wearing T-shirts silk-screened with the SItournament-preview cover featuring his likeness.
Lavender playedfor two seasons at Oklahoma, but he transferred to Xavier in 2005 and took hishard-partying reputation with him—at least until Musketeers coach Sean Millerarranged an intervention of sorts in the spring of '06 that included Lavender'smother, Shirlene Howard. "It was really emotional," Xavier assistantJames Whitford says. Lavender choked up while revealing his grief over thedeath of Bruce Howard, his AAU and high school coach in Columbus, Ohio. Thecoach died from liver failure in '03, which deeply affected Drew, who saysHoward "was everything to me."
Lavenderrededicated himself to hoops, and he's no longer a fixture on the party scene."When he's playing at his very best, we can beat anyone in thecountry," says Miller, whose Muskies will need a top performance from theirpoint guard against West Virginia on Thursday in Phoenix (and even more in apotential West Regional final against top-seeded UCLA).
Like Lavender,Butch suffered the emotional strain of a loved one's illness—his mother, Nancy,battled breast cancer, now in remission—a year after he shocked the Badgersfaithful by deciding to redshirt his freshman season to gain strength for therough-and-tumble Big Ten. The result: Butch didn't earn a starring role untilhis fifth year in Madison. "The development I've had is what [collegebasketball] is all about," he says. "[Redshirting] definitely paid offin the end. I would have been able to help the team [as a true freshman], butnot as much as I'm helping now." Underrated all season, the Big Tenchampion Badgers can return to their first Final Four since 2000 with wins thisweek over Davidson and either 12th-seeded Villanova or, more likely, top-seededKansas, one of the few teams that can match Wisconsin's size.
As Butch andLavender know, for seniors in the NCAA tournament the phrase time running downon the clock takes on a whole new dimension. That's especially true this weekfor three up-and-down senior sharpshooters whose teams' fates may wobble ontheir (not always squared-up) shoulders. But who's to say they can't make likeMemphis's Dorsey and write their own happy ending?
Tennessee'sLofton was a preseason All-America and has made more three-pointers (429) thanall but two players in NCAA history, but his yo-yoing senior season continuedin wins over American and Butler last week when he shot a combined 4 for 18(and 3 for 12 from beyond the arc). Sophomore forward Tyler Smith has takenover as the Vols' go-to guy, but Lofton will have to stretch defenses with hisoutside shot this week for Tennessee to have any chance of beating Louisvilleand potentially the East's top seed, North Carolina (whose star forward TylerHansbrough is seeking his first Final Four—the last, indisputable argument forhis player-of-the-year worthiness). "I've had two bad games," Loftonsaid on Sunday, "but we still survived and advanced, and that's what thistournament is about. I'm going to get some rest and then get back in the gym.That's all I can do."
Even colder isUCLA's Shipp, who admits "it would be hard" for the Bruins to win anational title if he can't shake the worst shooting slump of his career. Shippscored 18 points in last year's Final Four loss to Florida, but he ended the'07--08 regular season on an 8-for-47 bender from three-point range. In UCLA's51--49 second-round win over Texas A&M, Shipp missed all four of his fieldgoal attempts, passed up several open shots and finished with zero points. TheBruins may be able to beat 12th-seeded Western Kentucky without a thirdcredible scorer behind Kevin Love and Darren Collison, but "that won'twork" in a potential regional final against Xavier or West Virginia, Lovesays, and he's right.
Michigan State'sNeitzel is just as important to the Spartans' fortunes. If it seems as ifNeitzel was born to play college basketball, that's not a stretch: His father,Craig, a high school coach, stuck a tiny goal and foam ball in his crib, andDrew learned to eat and brush his teeth with both hands, one reason he's anambidextrous shooter. But Neitzel sometimes struggled to score with either handthis season—after winning the Big Ten player of the year award as a junior, hisproduction slipped from 18.1 points a game to 14.1—and his team failed to win aBig Ten championship for the fourth straight year. "It seemed like thosedreams started falling away," says Spartans coach Tom Izzo. "I toldhim, 'You've quit dreaming! You have to keep dreaming!'"
AND SO, on theeve of Friday's South Regional semi against Memphis, Neitzel is thinking bigagain. "Going to the Final Four would be huge," he said after endinghis scoring skid (just five points on 2-for-11 shooting in Round 1 againstTemple) with 21 points in a gut-check 65--54 second-round win over Pittsburgh."I want to leave it all on the floor because every game could be mylast."
One of Neitzel'sbest friends in college hoops happens to be Memphis's Dorsey, his teammate onlast year's U.S. Pan American Games team, who says he likes to call Neitzel"L'il Vin Diesel." When their teams meet on Friday in Houston, theresult may well hinge on Dorsey's fragile psyche. "If he shows up we're agreat team. If he doesn't...," Douglas-Roberts says, shrugging hisshoulders like a weary parent. Indeed, Dorsey is an inscrutable presence amongthe Tigers. During last week's first media session, he lay on the locker roomfloor with a towel over his head and refused to speak with reporters, claiminghe was catching up on his sleep.
It was justanother of his infamous mood swings. "Joey's one of those guys, when it'sreally going good, that's when he's at his worst—that's when he reverts andgoes [to nightclubs]," says Calipari, who still shakes his head recallingDorsey's actions at a Memphis club last fall, when he sparked a brawl thatended with the arrests of teammates Jeff Robinson and Shawn Taggart. "Joeylikes to go out and be with people and have them stroke [his ego],"Calipari adds. "I'm like, 'Go to the movie theater! Go to the mall! Go buya dog! Because dogs love you.' But to go out at three in the morning? It's toget stroked. I'm telling you, there are other ways to do it."
And, as Caliparihas discovered, there are other ways to motivate his sensitive big man. Thusthe decision last month to have Dorsey start writing his own story line inpreparation for every game. That included visualizing his individualhighlights, the crowd's reactions and the response of his teammates. "Whenhe's in a positive frame of mind," Calipari says, "there's not a moredominating player." Sure enough, Dorsey showed up in Sunday's 77--74 winover Mississippi State, producing 13 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks.
"I was thegood Joey today," a beaming Dorsey explained afterward. After all, PropJoey knows as well as anyone: If he can follow the script for just two moreweeks, it will be one scary proposition for the rest of the field.
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