Pick a name. How about Chris Webber? In March 1993 he was a 20-year-old basketball star, a member of Michigan's √ºbercool Fab Five, playing in a second straight NCAA championship game. Then he panicked in a noisy corner of the Superdome against North Carolina and called a timeout when the Wolverines didn't have any left. Seventeen years later—after a long NBA career and a prominent role in a scandal that vacated both of the Fab Five Final Fours—Webber is still most remembered for putting his hands together on a Monday night and hurriedly forming an infamous T.
Another one. How about George Mason? In March 2006 it was just a sprawling commuter college outside Washington named for an obscure Founding Father, with a basketball team seeded 11th in the Big Dance and seemingly destined for a brief spin. Then the Patriots took down four straight favored opponents and reached the Final Four as the ultimate Cinderella. Four years later George Mason is a symbol for beating tournament odds, a title to aspire to—as in, Who will be this year's George Mason?
After the play-in game, the NCAA men's basketball tournament lasts just 19 days, from the first Thursday tip-off at noon EDT, until confetti falls from the roof of a domed football stadium—this year Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis on April 5—on the first Monday night in April. Over these frantic 64 games, careers will turn, legacies will be defined, new jobs and lucrative contracts will be won and lost. For nearly every team, coach and player, these 19 days (or far fewer) will be the most memorable—and most remembered—of their lives.
After those 19 days you will know if freshman John Wall of Kentucky will be the 2010 version of Carmelo Anthony at Syracuse in 2003, a one-and-done force of nature who leads his team to the national title and departs for the NBA with the blessing of fans who are thankful for the banner he leaves behind. You will know if Mike Krzyzewski has returned the championship hardware to Duke for a fourth time in 20 years, nine seasons after the Blue Devils' last title and one long year after Villanova embarrassed the proud Dookies in the round of 16.
March 21, 2010
Maybe West Virginia forward Da'Sean Butler, who led the Mountaineers to the Big East tournament title, will steal the spotlight. Maybe it will be less heralded Montana guard Anthony Johnson, who scored 42 of his team's 66 points to help the Grizzles clinch the Big Sky's tournament berth. Maybe it will be somebody who has yet to make a substantial mark. But there is no mistaking the breadth of the stage and there is no exaggerating the worth of the moment. What occurred before is prelude; what occurs beyond is postscript.
Don Haskins won 719 games in 38 years as the coach at UTEP, but none of them defined him like the 1966 national championship game, in which the school then known as Texas Western, with five black starters, defeated all-white Kentucky 72--65. Pete Carril labored for 30 years at Princeton, building not just teams with overachieving players but also an offensive system that prospers today at all levels of the game. Yet his due only came in his last victory, a 43--41 first-round upset of defending national champion UCLA in 1996—a victory that came after several near misses, prompting Carril to once say that he had received far too much acclaim for "failing closely."
The image endures of Jim Valvano making his exuberant postgame sprint after his North Carolina State team upset Houston and Phi Slamma Jamma in 1983; Houston coach Guy Lewis, a man whose teams won 592 games in 30 years, is remembered as the confused, forlorn figure, taken apart and beaten on the same night.
Players stamp their careers over the tournament's three weekends. Jack (Goose) Givens earned a permanent place in Kentucky lore when he scored 41 points to lead the Wildcats to the 1978 national title; he lasted just two years in the NBA. The nation first met Michael Jordan in a big way when he made the jumper from the left wing that beat Georgetown to give North Carolina the national championship in 1982. (And on the other side of that same coin, Hoyas guard Fred Brown is remembered in perpetuity for inexplicably passing the ball to the Tar Heels' James Worthy on the possession following Jordan's J.)
Keith Smart was a junior college transfer helping Bob Knight rebuild Indiana when he made the fallaway baseline shot that gave the Hoosiers the '87 national title; for that he is one of the most revered names in IU basketball history. A year later Danny Manning carried Kansas on his shoulders to the national title for peripatetic coach Larry Brown; neither of them won another title at any level, but each found a moment in March.
A slender guard named Bryce Drew labored in relative anonymity while playing for his father, Homer, at Valparaiso University in '98. Then in the first round, Bryce nailed a flat, running, three-point shot off a clever inbounds play to beat No. 4 seed Mississippi. Two days later 13th seeded Valpo—that was the name on their jerseys—beat Florida State to reach the Sweet 16. A decade later it was another skinny guard, Davidson sophomore Stephen Curry, who took his 10th seeded team even further, into the Elite Eight. Both Drew and Curry were subsequently selected in the first round of the NBA draft, flush with the memories of March.
Soon there will be another like them. Or another like Webber. Stars will rise, pretenders will be exposed. Some coaches will ride on the shoulders of improbable success, others will shuffle away beaten. Nineteen days and counting.
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During these frantic 64 games over 19 days, careers will turn and legacies will be defined