HE is a seniorwithout a ring, the most desperate of NCAA tournament players, driven one lasttime to punctuate his career with a net draped around his neck and confetti inthe air. Four and a half years have passed since A.J. Price's life wasinterrupted. One day he was greatness in waiting; the next he was fighting forsurvival. As a freshman at Connecticut in the fall of 2004, he became gravelyill from a congenital abnormality in the blood vessels of his brain. He spenthis 18th birthday in the intensive care unit of a Hartford hospital,disconnected from basketball in the most terrifying manner.
This is an article from the March 30, 2009 issue
Last Friday hesat, elbows on knees, in a quiet corner of the UConn locker room at the NCAAtournament in Philadelphia. His teammates lounged at the other end of the roomon this off-day for them, watching on television as games were played atdistant sites during the tournament's chaotic opening round. His coacheschatted idly in a trainer's room, awaiting transportation back to the team'shotel.
Price's collegejourney ends soon. He is the soul of a very good Connecticut team that won twogames in Philadelphia by a combined 82 points to advance to the Sweet 16, andnow he can measure his appreciation—and his ambition—by those 14 days he spentin the hospital, of which he cannot remember a single second. "I lost twoweeks of my life," says Price. "Like it never happened."
Now he tries tosqueeze two weeks more from his career. They all hope for two weeks more.Sixteen teams survived the first weekend of the tournament, and there is afortnight left to find sweet redemption, to slip through a window in time or toseize one last chance after narrow misses and crippling disappointment. Theyare ringed in chalk—a record 14 of the top 16 seeds advanced; only Purdue (5)and Arizona (12) were exceptions—but they share Price's hunger as if they areall Siena, the fearless ninth seed that took out Ohio State (in Dayton) in thefirst round and threw a monster scare into top overall seed Louisville in thesecond.
Some are fightingdisrespect, either real (Arizona, widely criticized for its inclusion in thefield despite a mediocre regular-season record) or perceived (Memphis, whichbelieves its No. 2 seed is beneath contempt and that Conference USA deservesmention with the true power leagues). Some are trying to reward seniors with anoverdue title (North Carolina for Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green) and othersare seeking to end uncommon runs of postseason mediocrity (Duke) andfrustration (Pittsburgh). Still others are on quests framed against personalstruggles (Syracuse's Eric Devendorf, Purdue's Robbie Hummel and Kansas'sSherron Collins).
All of them arekindred souls with Villanova senior forward Dante Cunningham. After scoring 18points in an 89--69 thrashing of toothless UCLA on Saturday afternoon,Cunningham found Wildcats coach Jay Wright as they ran off the floor togetherand recalled 'Nova's run to the Elite Eight three years ago when Cunningham wasa freshman. "It's totally different this time," he told Wright. "Iunderstand how those seniors felt. I can see the clock ticking." The Sweet16 will separate fragile dreams from sturdy ones.
For the nextround Connecticut (29--4) will travel west, from where it launched nationaltitle runs in 1999 and 2004. In both of those seasons, Hall of Fame coach JimCalhoun also missed at least part of an early tournament game with some sort ofmedical problem. Last Thursday he missed the Huskies' opening game—a 103--47rout of No. 16 seed Chattanooga—and spent the night in a hospital gettingtreated for dehydration.
Calhoun used hissick leave to watch video of UConn's win—"They don't let you sleep in ahospital," he quipped—until 2 a.m. Then he quizzed nurses about the timeline facing his neighbor, a man who was awaiting a heart transplant. Whathappens when the heart arrives? Where do you keep it? When does he go tosurgery? The grilling distracted him from his team's delicate timing, which hadbothered Calhoun since explosive junior guard Jerome Dyson was lost for theseason with a knee injury on Feb. 11. In Philadelphia, UConn played its bestgames in a month. Calhoun has great affection for these Huskies, thick withlast-chance seniors like Price and Jeff Adrien and junior Hasheem Thabeet, whois expected to leave for the NBA. "Now it's about leaving a legacy atUConn," said Calhoun.
Few players leftin the tournament are performing better than the 6'2" Price, who had 27points, eight assists and five rebounds in his team's 92--66 win over TexasA&M in the second round. Surely no player has endured more adversity—someof it his own doing, most not. A year after his hospitalization (the officialdiagnosis was arteriovenous malformation, which led to bleeding in Price'sbrain and was alleviated by radiosurgery in February 2005), Price was suspendedfrom the team for another year for his role in the theft of four laptops fromdorm rooms (he was charged with felony larceny and ordered to do communityservice), delaying his college debut until the '06--07 season. That year's teamwon only 17 games and missed the NCAA tournament.
Last season UConnwent 24--8, but lost in overtime to San Diego in the opening round of theNCAAs, a game in which Price blew out his left ACL. "Right when I hurt myknee," says Price, "I was just about back to the player I had been whenI got here. But the knee injury was nothing. [During] my rehab after theillness my freshman year, I'd be exhausted after walking for 10 minutes. Theknee rehab wasn't even close to that." There are players on UConn's rosterwho were in eighth grade when Price was hospitalized in 2004. "I'm prettysure they know my history," says Price.
"Theydon't," says Calhoun. "They know he's a great player, and maybe theyknow he had knee surgery. That's it."
Like Calhoun,Price is driven by urgency. "You look around," he says. "Andthere's just too much talent on this team."
IN THE WestRegional, Price and the Huskies meet Purdue. The Boilermakers fulfilled theirpreseason prophecy by winning the Big Ten tournament, but only after strugglingto find rhythm through December and January while the 6'8" Hummel firstrested and later adjusted to painful fractures on both sides of his L5vertebra. He stood up during classes because sitting for long periods wasunpleasant. "In basketball I couldn't get down in my stance," saysHummel. Fans offered strange cures—such as eucalyptus oil—which Hummel politelydeclined.
Hummel is one ofthree sophomores—along with 6'10" center JaJuan Johnson and 6'3" guardE'Twaun Moore—who came to Purdue together and now are the team's three leadingscorers. The Boilermakers are one of just two Big Ten teams (Michigan State isthe other), of a surprising seven that were selected, to survive thetournament's first weekend. The Big East, meanwhile, also had seven teams inthe field but validated a year's worth of superlatives by sending atournament-record five of them to the Sweet 16.
Among those isSyracuse, for whom Devendorf, a 6'4" junior guard, is a fearless attackeron offense and a sound defender on the top of the Orange's befuddling 2--3zone. He is the team's most accurate three-point shooter (39.4%), althoughjunior Andy Rautins has made more (and sophomore Jonny Flynn is the mosttalented of the three guards). In the quarterfinals of the Big East tournamentit was Devendorf who hit the barely disallowed three-point shot at the end ofregulation that led to Syracuse and Connecticut's six overtimes.
Yet Devendorf mayalso be the most reviled player in the NCAA tournament. After being accused ofstriking a female student with the heel of his hand in an off-campusaltercation on Nov. 1, Devendorf was temporarily suspended from the universityand ultimately ordered to complete 40 hours of community service before he waseligible to return as a student and member of the team. Among the glaringcontradictions in his life, an athlete punished for striking a young woman alsohas a nine-month-old daughter, Madelyn. Her name is among the 12 tattoos thatcrisscross his body.
Devendorf missedtwo games in December and returned to a greeting of ceaseless bile fromopposing fans. "The things that I've heard said to him are so foul that Iwon't repeat them," says Rautins.
Devendorf shrugs."Everyone hates me, and that's fine," he says. "I love to be hated.It gets me going."
On Sunday he ledSyracuse with 21 points in its 78--67 second-round win over Arizona State. Thevictory sent the Orange into a matchup with Oklahoma and powerful center BlakeGriffin in Memphis on Friday, with the winner to face either North Carolina orGonzaga. One of the games that Devendorf missed during his suspension was a72--65 win over Memphis on the same FedExForum floor where the South Regionalwill be played. "I felt like I let my team down by not being with them inMemphis," Devendorf said on Sunday as he walked down a hallway in the bellyof American Airlines Arena in Miami after the second-round win. "But Ilearned a lot during that time. I did my community service at a rescue missionin Syracuse. To see people come in there on Christmas [Day] makes you feelblessed for what you have."
He could walk inMother Teresa's footsteps and he would still get his wish in Memphis: He willbe hated by many, a redemptive character whose saga is not easy to embrace.Kansas's Collins, who fed Mario Chalmers for the game-tying three-point shotwith 2.1 seconds left in regulation in the national title game last April,presents a similar issue: Last June a woman who claimed Collins exposed himselfto her in a campus elevator filed a civil suit against him, and a Kansas judgeinitially ordered Collins to pay $75,000 in damages because he had failed tofile a response. The suit ultimately was dismissed because of insufficientevidence.
Memphis, whichlost that championship game 75--68 in overtime, carries indignation west toplay Missouri in Glendale, Ariz., on Thursday. After Memphis rallied late todispose of No. 15 seed Cal State Northridge 81--70 in the opening round, theirsensitive buttons were pushed by Maryland guard Greivis Vasquez, who had saidthe day before, "If [Memphis] played in the ACC, they'd have a losingrecord in the league.... The ACC is too tough."
Less than 24hours later, as the Tigers were disposing of the Terps, 89--70, Memphis fansbegan chanting, "ACC! ACC!" with more than four minutes to play."People will say what they want to say," says Tigers junior forwardPierre Henderson-Niles. "But we showed them last year with what we did toMichigan State, Texas, UCLA. It's not about the conference, it's about who youhave on your team, who has heart."
MEMPHIS HASproven itself dangerous once again. Coach John Calipari survived losing DerrickRose, Joey Dorsey and Chris Douglas-Roberts to the NBA after last year's titlegame, and his team's matchup with frenetic Missouri should be one of the mostheated in the Sweet 16. (Mizzou, under third-year coach Mike Anderson, is noslouch in the redemption category either. The Tigers are one year removed froma spate of off-court issues that contributed to a 16--16 season.) But in factMemphis's quest is about the reputation of its league too. The Tigers were theonly team from Conference USA to earn a spot in the tournament. And despiteVasquez's braggadocio, the ACC has been largely a bust: Among the sevenconference teams selected to the tournament, only warhorses Duke and NorthCarolina remain.
Both advancedfrom a friendly sub-regional in Greensboro, N.C., and both find themselvesreaching to match their own high standards. The Blue Devils, who have won threenational titles since 1991 under Mike Krzyzewski, last played in the Final Fourin 2004 and have now made their first Sweet 16 since '06. Within the team, asubtle psychological dance has unfolded. The players live with an acuteawareness of the frustration of losing early: Duke went out in the first roundof the '07 tournament and then in the second round a year ago, when currentjuniors Jon Scheyer and Gerald Henderson walked off the floor after losing toWest Virginia 73--67 in Washington, D.C., only to watch painfully as Purdue waswarming up to play Xavier. Before Duke's 74--69 second-round win over Texas onSaturday, Henderson said to Scheyer, "Don't forget about last year and whatwe saw."
Meanwhile,Krzyzewski has taken the opposite approach, constantly coddling his team'spsyche. "Every day he's telling us, 'Now's our time' and 'Live in thismoment,'?" says Scheyer. "Coach has been doing a good job of makingsure we don't feel that extra pressure and that we're just playing for thisyear." The Blue Devils, who rely on offensive spacing and three-pointshooting to get the most from their relatively modest skills, will need a fullcomplement of emotional weapons against Villanova on Thursday in Boston. TheWildcats have powerful and dangerous starters at all five positions, led byCunningham, and have three strong reserves, including explosive sophomore guardCorey Fisher. If Duke can knock off 'Nova, the Blue Devils would probably meetPittsburgh, an even tougher team with a mission of its own—to get past a Sweet16 roadblock that has halted the Panthers for 35 years.
North Carolina'squest is self-evident: To deliver a championship to core seniors Green and,most of all, Hansbrough, the 6'9" forward who in the Tar Heels' 101--58opening-round win over Radford became the leading scorer in ACC history. Thegoal became vastly more realistic when gifted junior point guard Ty Lawson, whomissed the ACC tournament and the opening-round NCAA gimme with a jammed rightbig toe, returned to score 23 points last Saturday in an 84--70 win overLSU.
UnlikeKrzyzewski, North Carolina coach Roy Williams has not minimized his team'squest, which matches the Tar Heels with Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 on Friday. Asthe Heels struggled with LSU in the second half, Williams screamed during atimeout, "Is this how you want your careers to end? Then continue to playlike this."
Arizona, the lonedouble-digit seed remaining, needs no such motivation. The Wildcats' verypresence in the tournament is a gift they have embraced. They lost four oftheir last five games to end the regular season and then bowed out in the firstround of the Pac-10 tournament. Two hours before NCAA selections wereannounced, they ran through a brutal practice at the McKale Center in Tucson."It was the most intense practice of the year," says sophomore guardZane Johnson. "It was like we had all this nervous energy. Honestly, Ididn't think we were going to make the tournament. None of us did."
They watchedCBS's Selection Show alone as a team and celebrated only with one another whenthey were picked. They endured near unanimous trashing by college hoops nation,which held the Wildcats up as emblematic of the NCAA's power-conference bias.Then they won two games, taking down overmatched (and overseeded) Utah andupstart Cleveland State, answering the criticism on the floor. Their minirunhas served as sweet satisfaction for two people more than others. Interim coachRuss Pennell was given the job when Lute Olson suddenly retired for healthreasons in October, and Pennell now finds himself nearing the game's grandeststage despite the fact that he is unlikely to be retained. "You never knowwhat life is going to deal you," says Pennell. "I had no idea thiswould happen the way it did."
Junior forwardChase Budinger, maligned for subpar performances in Arizona's first-roundlosses the last two years, scored 35 points in the two wins. Now the Wildcatsmeet Louisville in Indianapolis. "We've had hard times," says Budinger,"but all that matters is where we're at now." Here is where they are:Alive, playing late March basketball with house money. And, like the rest ofthe Sweet 16, convinced of their destiny.
Double-double machine lifted controversial Cats.
The senior guard (12), who missed two full seasons because of alife-threatening illness and a suspension—and then tore up his knee—led UConnin a rout of Texas A&M.
The veteran guard steadied his callow team.
The junior forward had 24 points—and hit three late, clutch free throws—as theBlue Devils got the best of Texas in a hard-fought 74--69 thriller and advancedto the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2006.
Although he was bloodied by several Michigan defenders, the presumptive playerof the year dished out his own punishment—with 33 points and 17 rebounds—in theSooners' 73--63 win.
Can the burly sophomore take the Panthers where they've never gone?
The subject of endless vitriol from opposing fans, the junior guard made acritical pair of three-pointers in less than a minute to snuff out an ArizonaState run and rally the Orange to a 78--67 win on Sunday.
Dwayne Anderson, Reggie Redding
Anderson (22) and Redding (15) combined for seven steals as the Wildcats usedtight defense and sharp shooting to end UCLA's bid for a fourth-straight FinalFour.