It's Knockout Time

March 27, 2011

UPSETS ABOUNDED IN A SLAM-BANG OPENING WEEKEND FILLED WITH GREAT NAMES—HELLO, KYRIE, JIMMER, SHAKA AND BUZZ—AND TENSE GAMES. DID YOU EXPECT ANYTHING LESS?

At first the big guy sat on his stool and stared at the carpet between his feet in the dead-silent locker room. Then he stood and leaned into his cubicle, supporting his full 250 pounds with two outstretched hands gripping the framework. Gary McGhee, a 6'11" senior center, had just played his 120th game for Pittsburgh last Saturday night, at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., and it was not supposed to be his last. After a long time he pulled his white number 52 jersey over his head, walked three steps and tossed it into a pile in the middle of the floor while wearing the grimace of the unexpectedly beaten, so familiar in March. McGhee will not be putting on the jersey again.

The NCAA basketball tournament is orchestrated by a committee of neatly groomed college athletic administrators (many of them former coaches or players) who volunteer their time and act with presumably the best intentions. They select 37 of the 68 teams (the rest qualify automatically) and then seed the entries by using tools on the cutting edge of technology. Analysis of their work follows swiftly, when millions of bracket-pool players receive guidance not only from a small army of televised and published would-be experts, but also from fascinating and instructive digital programs in the growing field of analytics that distill something as amorphous as a basketball game into an easily digestible series of numbers.

The teams are dispatched to arenas where all advertising signage is shrouded in funereal black and the wooden floors are identical from site to site, except for the name of the city stenciled in blue block letters beneath the basket and the logo of the host college in a corner of the playing surface. Players drink from matching water bottles, mop their sweat with matching towels and affix matching NCAA patches to their game jerseys. They are uniformly called "student-athletes" at press conferences, even if they have already ceased attending classes while awaiting the NBA draft.

It is a model of order and efficiency that might produce a predictable and uninteresting tournament, except for this: The games are played, coached and officiated by human beings whose very unpredictability in the crucible of the one-and-done Big Dance—especially on the first weekend—becomes the soul of the event. They will not be ordered. They will not be computerized. They will not be governed by arithmetic or expectations.

Human beings like junior guard Shelvin Mack, senior forward Gilbert Brown and junior forward Nasir Robinson.

Last Saturday in Washington, D.C., eighth-seeded Butler ran a razor-sharp inbounds play that resulted in senior guard Shawn Vanzant's feeding sophomore center Andrew Smith for a layup and a 70--69 lead over the No. 1 seed, Pitt, with 2.5 seconds remaining. But in those 2.5 seconds there would be three possessions. Mack would inexplicably foul Pitt's Brown on a 45-foot shot, Brown would make just one of two free throws and Robinson would (even more inexplicably) foul Bulldogs senior forward Matt Howard after Brown's miss from the foul line, 90 feet from the Butler basket, with 0.8 of a second left.

Howard hit the first free throw to give the Bulldogs a 71--70 victory. That made two game-winning scores in a total of one second of game time for Howard: Two days earlier he had scored the decisive putback in a 60--59 win over Old Dominion with 0.2 of a second to play. It also left Robinson gutted as only the tournament can. "I'm smarter than that," he said, choking back tears in the Panthers' locker room. "I blame myself."

That wild finish sent Butler back to the Sweet 16, one year after the mid-major (enrollment: 4,640) advanced to the national title game in its hometown of Indianapolis before losing to Duke in an epic final. Then, the Bulldogs, who hadn't lost since December, were miscast as Cinderella. This year a three-game losing streak dropped them to 14--9 in early February and left them for dead to most bracketologists. That's when professorial coach Brad Stevens, 34, showed his players video of their worst defensive performances, with precious little narration. "It was right there for all of us to see," says extroverted junior guard Ronald Nored, who plays with metal rods in both shins, inserted during surgery last June to alleviate chronic pain. Now Butler has won 11 straight.

The Bulldogs are hardly the only surprise in the Sweet 16: There are two teams from Richmond (Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth, located seven miles apart) and just two from the sprawling Big East, which started with a record 11 members in the field. One of those Big East teams is Marquette, which was seeded 11th, the lowest of any in the conference. The Golden Eagles' coach, Brent (Buzz) Williams, may call to mind Curly from the Three Stooges, but he alluded to both Robert Frost and Albert Einstein in his press conference on Sunday after eliminating No. 3 seed Syracuse—his third victory over the Orange this season—in the third round.

There are two guards with teams strapped to their backs—Connecticut's sublime junior Kemba Walker and Brigham Young's irrepressible senior Jimmer Fredette—and another with a question mark on his, Duke freshman Kyrie Irving, who returned unexpectedly last Friday after missing 26 games with a toe injury. Whether he makes the defending champions better remains to be seen. "We've only had Kyrie back for a few days, and that's why this next week of practice will be so important," said Duke senior forward Kyle Singler, the Most Outstanding Player in last year's Final Four. "We're getting more and more comfortable with him in the lineup. Hopefully the best is still to come for Kyrie."

There is Arizona, back to life after missing the tournament a year ago for the first time in 26 seasons. And there are two titans, Kansas and Ohio State, unthreatened thus far, looming over the field.

Of all the teams that survived last weekend, it is Virginia Commonwealth that best symbolizes the serendipitous side of this event. A year ago the NCAA decided not to expand the field to 96 or 128 teams, and instead added just three. But that change created the oddball First Four, de facto play-in games on the Tuesday and Wednesday nights of the opening week. To settle some of the debate over teams on the bubble, four of the eight play-in squads competed for No. 11 or 12 seeds in the tournament proper. The selection committee was widely ripped for including VCU, which had lost four of its final five regular-season games.

According to the Rams' players, coach Shaka Smart, 33, helped put an end to that slide by burning the February calendar page in front of the team. They went on to reach the Colonial Athletic Association championship game, where they lost to Old Dominion. By beating USC by 13 points on March 16 in Dayton, dumping Georgetown last Friday and crushing Purdue on Sunday, both by 18 points, VCU became the first team to reach the Sweet 16 with three victories.

At the heart of the Rams' run is relentless senior point guard Joey Rodriguez, who ripped the Boilermakers for 12 points and 11 assists on Sunday. The 5'10" Rodriguez was a productive sophomore (9.3 points per game) in 2008--09 but at the end of that season, coach Anthony Grant left for Alabama; Rodriguez had been especially close to Grant and decided to transfer to Division II Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., closer to his hometown of Merritt Island.

During that summer of 2009, teammates begged Rodriguez to return. Family members were more subtle. Rodriguez's father, Joe, says, "[Younger brother] Jeremy and I had a long talk with him and told him to take a little bit of time and think about things. Shaka had told me if Joey changed his mind, he'd be willing to take him back. We were sitting on the patio watching a Lakers game, and Joey came out and told us, 'Guys, I'm going back to VCU.' The whole family was jumping for joy."

In the Southwest Regional in San Antonio, the Rams will play 10th-seeded Florida State (which advanced by dismantling Notre Dame, 71--57) immediately after neighbor Richmond plays No. 1 Kansas, which won its first two games by a total of 33 points. The Spiders have lost just once since Jan. 29, a 73--53 thrashing by Temple in Philadelphia on Feb. 17; after that game, coach Chris Mooney, who had played for Pete Carril on Princeton's upset-minded teams of the early '90s, arranged for the team to play touch football as pressure relief. "That was a great moment for us after losing to Temple the way we did," says 6'10" forward Justin Harper. "By Coach allowing us to go out there, have some fun, was really refreshing for us as a team."

Marquette spent seemingly all of February on somebody's bubble watch before getting in with 14 losses, tied for most among at-large teams with Michigan State and Tennessee (which both dropped their opening games). When asked at a press conference during the subregional in Cleveland to describe his career journey, the 38-year-old Williams, whose nickname describes his hairstyle, spoke for more than 10 minutes. The transcript of his 1,500-word response could have been sent unedited to a publishing house.

Williams has slept at nine college addresses since 1990, beginning with Navarro College, a two-year school in Corsicana, Texas—and that doesn't count the time he dozed in his car before begging for a job at Texas-Arlington in '94. He didn't even reach the outskirts of the big time until 2004, when Billy Gillispie hired him as a recruiting coordinator at Texas A&M.

Williams has built the Eagles with players from his roots—junior college transfers Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom, who drilled the go-ahead three-pointer to topple Syracuse. It was while sitting at a press conference alongside his three juco players that Williams channeled Frost: "These three guys and myself—we took the road less traveled." (College basketball historians might see a connection between Williams and Marquette legend Al McGuire, who could also talk endlessly and recruited players that others might not have. McGuire, of course, was pure Brooklyn. Williams is pure Texas.) In Newark on Friday night, the Golden Eagles will face a team that could not be further from Williams's common-man roundball roots when they take on second-seeded North Carolina.

Marquette's only Big East brother still alive in the tournament is Connecticut, another team—like Butler and Virginia Commonwealth—that seemed destined to watch the tournament from home or exit from it swiftly. The Huskies have seven freshmen on their roster and a coach, Jim Calhoun, who will be 69 in May. Yet they started the season with stunning efficiency, going 10--0 and taking the Maui Invitational. They also won six of their first seven games in the Big East before losing seven of their last 11.

Calhoun, who in February was hit with a three-game NCAA suspension for his part in recruiting violations committed four years ago, grew characteristically impatient. Assistant coaches George Blaney and Kevin Ollie worked on him. "They told me we were getting better," said Calhoun, long past midnight on Saturday, after his team had beaten Cincinnati, another Big East rival, 69--58 to advance to the West Regional in Anaheim, where the Huskies will play San Diego State on Thursday. "I thought they were talking about getting better far away from now, and I didn't want to accept mediocrity. But this"—Calhoun pointed to the joyous locker room— "is what they were talking about."

While the freshmen were growing up—in particular, willowy 6'5" guard Jeremy Lamb, who scored a combined 30 points in two games in Washington, D.C., but, says Calhoun, "couldn't guard a chair at the beginning of the year, and now is a pretty good defender"—Walker was arguably the best player in the country, averaging 23.1 points and providing an always-reliable endgame option. Asked if Walker, who scored 33 against Cincinnati, had carried the Huskies more than any player in Calhoun's 25-year career at UConn, Calhoun said, "He's had to carry the team more."

But no more than Fredette, whose credentials for player of the year are roughly equal to Walker's but whose profile, thanks to his epic scoring binges, is higher. Even before 6'9" sophomore forward Brandon Davies was suspended on March 1 for violating the school's honor code (he reportedly had premarital sex with his girlfriend), Fredette was BYU's star, but his leadership role has intensified. The nation's leading scorer, Jimmer accounted for 44.3% of the Cougars' field goal attempts in the first five games after Davies's suspension, though that number dipped to 40.0% in the first two NCAA games (wins over Wofford and Gonzaga), during which Fredette poured in a total of 66 points. As BYU prepares to play a tall, quick Florida team in the Southeast Regional in New Orleans, the 6'2" Fredette remains by far the player in the tournament on whom his team depends most.

In December the same could have been said of Irving. The Blue Devils, who lost point guard Jon Scheyer to graduation, seemed to have dramatically upgraded the position while tearing through their first eight games. Irving was electrifying in the same way that John Wall was for Kentucky a year ago, and he averaged more than 17 points and five assists. Duke seemed to be building a case as the national championship favorite. But a torn ligament in his right big toe kept Irving out until he returned to score a team-high 14 points in an opening win over No. 16 seed Hampton.

Irving had just one field goal (and nine free throws) in Sunday's 73--71 victory over Michigan, but it was a vital mid-range floater that gave Duke a three-point lead with 33 seconds to play. "They were really good without me," Irving said on Saturday. "Now that I'm back, I just want to contribute the best I can."

The burden still lies heaviest on Duke's veterans. Senior guard Nolan Smith moved to the point when Irving was hurt, improved in almost every offensive category (scoring, assists, rebounding) and was named a first-team All-America. "It's been a challenge, but I've really enjoyed it," said Smith in February. "We were one team with Kyrie and we're another team now." The usually reserved Singler became more vocal with younger players like guards Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins and the 6'10" Plumlee brothers, Mason and Miles, who were unaccustomed to big-game pressure. In theory, any strength gained in Irving's absence remains a strength upon his return, but Duke struggled to beat the Wolverines. His reacclimation remains a work in progress, posing considerable risk.

The Blue Devils will play Arizona, which put together a comeback season for second-year coach Sean Miller but eliminated Texas on Sunday, 70--69, only after the Longhorns were whistled for a five-second violation while trying to inbound under their own basket with 14.5 seconds to play. Texas freshman Cory Joseph asked for a timeout, but referee Richard Cartmell signaled that five seconds had elapsed even though it appeared that only slightly more than four seconds had gone by. The Longhorns were not alone in wondering if imperfect officiating had terminated their tournament; Washington, Memphis and Louisville (which was stunned in the first round by No. 13 seed Morehead State) all landed on the wrong side of agonizingly close endgame calls (or non-calls).

Ohio State, the top overall seed in the tournament, has not wobbled even for a moment in beating No. 16 seed Texas--San Antonio and eighth-seeded upstart George Mason (playing without forward Luke Hancock, who had a stomach virus) by an average of 30.5 points. Late on Friday night in Newark the Buckeyes take on fast-improving Kentucky (which eliminated West Virginia) in the most high-powered matchup of the Sweet 16. Fifth-year senior swingman David Lighty, playing in his hometown of Cleveland, was Ohio State's leading scorer with 25 points in the win over George Mason. That wasn't his best work of the week. On Thursday night Lighty turned in the last exam of his academic career—the final in a class called Quantitative Methods in Consumer Affairs—and on Saturday morning, in a small ceremony at Quicken Loans Arena, he received his diploma alongside three other Buckeyes seniors. He says he got a B plus on the test. The first weekend of the 2011 tournament, graded on drama alone, got its customary A.

THE GAMES ARE PLAYED, COACHED AND OFFICIATED BY HUMAN BEINGS WHOSE VERY UNPREDICTABILITY IN THE ONE-AND-DONE CRUCIBLE BECOMES THE SOUL OF THE EVENT.

THERE ARE TWO TITANS, KANSAS AND OHIO STATE, UNTHREATENED DURING THE FIRST WEEKEND OF THE TOURNAMENT, LOOMING OVER THE FIELD.

"THEY WERE REALLY GOOD WITHOUT ME," SAID DUKE'S IRVING AFTER HIS RETURN. "I JUST WANT TO CONTRIBUTE."

MARCH MADNESS ON DEMAND

For live streaming coverage of every NCAA tournament game, go to SI.com or download the free NCAA March Madness on Demand app from the iTunes store.

WINNING BLOG

For Luke Winn's up-to-the-minute coverage of the NCAAs, and his Sweet 16 Power Rankings, go to SI.com/tourneyblog

GATEFOLD

TURN THE PAGE FOR SETH DAVIS'S SWEET 16 NCAA BRACKET

PHOTOPhotograph by JOHN BIEVERKICK STOP Ben Hansbrough (23) and Notre Dame got booted from the Big Dance by Okaro White (10) and the 10th-seeded Seminoles. PHOTONICK LAHAM/GETTY IMAGESPITT AND THE PENDULUM Mack (left) thought he had ended Butler's season with a foul on Brown, but the junior would be bailed out a second later by an even more untimely Panthers foul. PHOTOROBERT BECKCINDERELLA MEN In a meeting of the upset-minded with a regional berth at stake, the Spiders' Kevin Anderson (14) and Darien Brothers (3) ensnared Lamont Austin and Morehead State. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERRAM TOUGH The 5'10" Rodriguez, who almost transferred after his sophomore year, helped down the Boilermakers with 12 points, 11 assists and no turnovers in a 94--76 win. PHOTO PHOTOGREG NELSONPATH TO GLORY With three double-digit seeds advancing in the Southwest region, Tyshawn Taylor (10) and No. 1 Kansas became prohibitive favorites to reach the Final Four after beating Illinois.

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