In the belly of the madness: A bar on the trendy South Side of Pittsburgh, host city to one of the NCAA tournament's eight subregionals. A wall full of beer taps, a menu flush with colossal sandwiches to soak up the hops and a bank of three televisions staring back at patrons from above the bar. It is Friday evening, and the 2012 tournament has finally begun to gather momentum. After a long, quiet Thursday in which the only real emotion came from Syracuse's narrow escape against 16th-seeded North Carolina--Asheville, No. 15 seed Norfolk State has shaken the nation by confidently taking down No. 2 seed Missouri. The Spartans are the first 15th seed to win a game in 11 years. Now, the patrons at the bar—after cramming to learn about Billikens and Bobcats and bookmarking analytics websites they can barely decipher—are hungry for more. They want to see more high-seeded blood spilled.
This is an article from the March 26, 2012 issue
Most eyes are on the screen to the left, where No. 13 Ohio, the Mid-American Conference tournament winner, is in control against fourth-seeded Michigan. In the middle, Saint Mary's and Purdue are playing a seven-versus-10 game to a relative lack of interest. But then the screen on the far right suddenly owns the room. "Duke is getting beat," barks a guy. A buzz builds as diners abandon their forks and stream into the bar area to watch 15th-seeded Lehigh, from the Patriot League, hold on against the mighty Blue Devils. Sodden roars go up with each Lehigh basket and each Duke miss until the 75--70 victory is secure, and then quickly the crowd disperses into the night, as if they are players and they have another game the next day. Which, of course, they are. And they do.
The madness can't begin until a very high seed has been toppled by a much lower seed. Until a powerhouse college with a football team that plays its games in a stadium the size of the Pentagon loses to a college that doesn't have a football program at all. Or until a team whose best players are televised more than the Real Housewives is beaten by a team whose stars were overlooked by recruiters and thus now have something to prove on the biggest possible stage.
And America needs these upsets, because without them, college basketball becomes much less cuddly. Without it, you only have games like last Saturday's round of 32 East Regional matchup of two power-conference teams that each had a key player recently declared ineligible (Syracuse sophomore center Fab Melo, reportedly for an academic issue on the opening day of the tournament; Kansas State senior forward Jamar Samuels, whose former AAU coach reportedly wired him $200 for "food" on March 12 because the Wildcats' athletic scholarships apparently don't include the customary meal plans or stipends). Or any game in which No. 1 overall seed and prohibitive favorite Kentucky trots out a raft of players doing their gap year before entering the NBA.
The upsets cleanse the event and make it safe for the power-on-power weekends that often follow. Upsets like Norfolk State's 86--84 win over Missouri, in which the Spartans rode the 26 points and 14 rebounds from 6'10" senior Kyle O'Quinn, who didn't play organized basketball until his junior year at Campus Magnet High in New York City (the same building in which Bob Cousy played, when it was called Andrew Jackson High). After the shocker O'Quinn ran into the locker room yelling, "We messed up some brackets! We even messed up my bracket."
Or like Lehigh's defeat of Duke, in which the Mountain Hawks from Bethlehem, Pa., were led by junior guard C.J. McCollum, who once dreamed of playing for North Carolina. Upon seeing Tar Heels forward Harrison Barnes before the game (UNC was in the same eight-team subregional in Greensboro, N.C.), McCollum advised him, "Tell your fans to stick around; I'm about to put on a show," and then dropped 30 on Coach K's boys. Only four No. 15 seeds had won a game since the NCAA field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985 and none since 2001. Never had it happened twice in the same year, let alone on the same day, in a span of about three hours. Both the Spartans (crushed by Florida 84--50) and the Mountain Hawks (ousted by No. 10 seed Xavier 70--58) were gone on Sunday, but that didn't matter. They had served their purpose: By killing the title hopes of Missouri and Duke, the fiesty 15s had brought the tournament to life.
As Sunday turned into Monday and the tournament at last took pause, all four No. 1 seeds had reached the Sweet 16, though they arrived with varying degrees of promise.
Kentucky, bidding to win its eighth title and its first since 1998, rolled through two games close to home in Louisville, first drilling No. 16 Western Kentucky by 15 and then pushing aside Iowa State 87--71, so frustrating the Cyclones that √ºbercool coach Fred Hoiberg drew his first career technical. The closest thing to a crisis for Kentucky came on the Wednesday before the subregional, when Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni resigned and the Wildcats' John Calipari took to Twitter about 45 seconds later to shoot down any rumors that he'd be interested in returning to the NBA. "I have the greatest job in basketball at any level," tweeted Coach Cal. In Atlanta the Wildcats will play Indiana, which on Dec. 10, handed Kentucky one of their two defeats this season. Young and unfiltered, the Cats see a clear path to New Orleans. "This is a scary team, if you ask me," said 6'7" freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist after the Iowa State win, sitting at his locker amid the wild, rock-star vibe that surrounds Kentucky, especially in March. He will be asked again.
Syracuse, meanwhile, escaped 72--65 against Asheville and then punished a decent Kansas State squad that had been left too thin by the loss of Samuels. Few teams could weather the departure of a defensive force like the 7-foot Melo (whose absence is illustrated by an empty spot in the Orange's sneaker suitcase, a massive black road bag with bins for each player's kicks). But Syracuse is exceptionally deep. "I've done something this year in practice that I've never done before," said coach Jim Boeheim after the 75--59 win over Kansas State. "I have two full first teams, five on and five off." They play against an exhausted group of walk-ons and deep reserves. Senior point guard Scoop Jardine rarely sits, however, and he scored 16 points with three key three-pointers in the round of 32, as the Orange continued to weather turbulence—sexual abuse allegations against former assistant Bernie Fine (which he denies), reports of former players' failed drug tests, Melo's abrupt departure.
Michigan State reached the final 16 by quelling a late Saint Louis rally when sophomore guard Keith Appling made a three with 1:34 left off a drive-and-dish from 6'7" senior Draymond Green, who is trying to reach his third Final Four in four years. Green had 16 points, 13 rebounds and six assists against the Billikens and at halftime got in Appling's face, willing Appling to bury five of seven attempts after the break in a 65--61 victory. "I was yelling at him to shoot the ball," said Green. "If Keith don't hit those shots, we don't win."
North Carolina's position is far more precarious. The Tar Heels, whose brilliant freshman class from a year ago returned after losing in the regional final to Kentucky, were severely diminished midway through the second half of Sunday's 87--73 win over Creighton when sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall took a hard foul and broke a bone in his right (nonshooting) wrist. Marshall had surgery on the wrist on Monday in an attempt to be able play in the next round. The Tar Heels' postgame locker room was as somber as after a defeat. "I've never had a serious injury before," Marshall said. "I twisted my ankle once my junior year in high school and played through that."
If Marshall can't play, which seems likely, coach Roy Williams has few options. Former starter Larry Drew II quit a year ago when Marshall became the primary floor general. Dexter Strickland's season ended with a torn right ACL in January. (Leslie McDonald had already been lost last summer to a torn right ACL.) Freshman Stilman White, a late signee who was reportedly recruited by only Brigham Young and Utah State, could be one option as the emergency replacement for Marshall, but he has played only 4.3 minutes a game and dished out just 19 assists, total. "When you go to the Sweet 16," said Williams, "it's supposed to be a lot more fun than this."
Other teams are having plenty of fun. There are four representatives each from the Big Ten and the Big East, and an unprecedented foursome from one state (Ohio, Ohio State, Cincinnati and Xavier, the latter two having come all the way back from their embarrassing intracity brawl on Dec. 10, an event that neither team discusses much with the media), 13 former national champions (only Baylor, Ohio and Xavier have not claimed titles) and three double-digit seeds. It's not quite as wild as in 2011, when No. 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth and No. 8 Butler reached the Final Four. But then again, there's still a week to go.
Perhaps it will be Ohio that follows in the footsteps of Butler, which played in—and lost—consecutive national championship games, an absurd accomplishment for a mid-major program. Ohio coach John Groce overlapped with Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens for a season at Butler in 2000--01 (Stevens was then the director of basketball operations) and two years ago led the No. 14 Bobcats to a first-round blowout upset of Georgetown behind then freshman guard D.J. Cooper's 23 points.
Now the 5'11" Cooper remains the backbone of Ohio's attack, in tandem with 6'3" junior Walter Offutt, a transfer from Ohio State who scored 21 points on Sunday in a 62--56 victory over South Florida. While Groce coached, his wife, Allison, sat in the stands with their son, Conner, 6, on her lap, hiding her face behind the boy when the Bobcats shot important free throws. Conner, who wore a green RULE THE COURT Ohio T-shirt, was just a year old at his last Sweet 16, in 2007, when Groce was an assistant at Ohio State. The Bobcats will be at the Midwest Regional in St. Louis, where they will face a potentially diminished North Carolina.
In the opposite half of the Midwest bracket lies another of the surviving surprise teams: North Carolina State, which sat precariously on the bubble on Selection Sunday and advanced by knocking off No. 6 seed San Diego State and No. 3 Georgetown. In the 66--63 win over the Hoyas, 6'5" guard C.J. Williams, the only senior starter for first-year coach Mark Gottfried, had 14 points, including a key first-half tip-in and a three-point basket as the Wolfpack took the lead. Williams's performance came after he talked with his father, Wendell, on Friday night at the team hotel in Columbus after C.J. scored just six points against San Diego State. "We were with my mom, and he pulled me off to the side," C.J. said on Sunday. "We talked about things me and him saw in the gym late at night, when other people were sleeping. He said to stay confident in your game." The Wolfpack will play No. 2 seed Kansas (left), which rallied very late to beat Purdue and end the five-year, injury-marred career of Purdue senior Robbie Hummel, who scored 26 points.
In the West Regional at Phoenix, Michigan State's path back to New Orleans is blocked first by Louisville and junior point guard Peyton Siva, who could play a role similar to that of the brilliant Kemba Walker of UConn a year ago. Like the Huskies, who bowed to Iowa State in the first round, Louisville stockpiled momentum by winning the Big East tournament, and like Walker, Siva has become better later in the season.
The 6-foot guard, who was MVP of the conference tournament and is one of three Cards who practice with MMA-style protective helmets after suffering concussions, benefited from a session earlier this month with coach Rick Pitino in which they screened footage of Steve Nash. "[Coach Pitino] showed me how to maneuver and not be so out of control," said Siva over the weekend. "It really helped me see the court better." Siva, who is of Samoan heritage and was raised in Seattle, estimates that he had 50 friends in attendance at the subregional in Portland. The Cardinals' Sweet 16 matchup with Michigan State, like Kentucky's with Indiana, will provide an opportunity for payback; the Spartans knocked Louisville out of the 2009 tournament in the Elite Eight.
Opposite that matchup in Phoenix, No. 7 Florida will run into the muscular force that is Marquette and 6'6", 235-pound senior forward Jae Crowder, the Big East player of the year. On his way to the Golden Eagles from Villa Rica, Ga., Crowder stopped at two junior colleges, transforming himself from what his father, onetime Jazz and Spurs forward Corey Crowder, calls "a little fat kid" into a chiseled, relentless forward who can defend every position. "I am so happy that he took the journey and the path that he did," says Corey of his son. "Had he come out and been labeled a McDonald's All-American and everyone just glad-handed him, he wouldn't have been worth a hill of beans. Get me a kid that's been beaten down, that's been overlooked, that's been underappreciated, and you'll get me somebody that's gonna be successful in the end."
There's little to underappreciate at the East Regional in Boston. Three of the top four seeds (Syracuse, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 4 Wisconsin) will be there along with No. 6 Cincinnati, which sent Florida State home on Sunday with a rugged 62--56 victory.
Wisconsin could be considered a surprise, yet the Badgers have quietly played in 14 consecutive NCAA tournaments, including the last 11 under coach Bo Ryan. (They haven't reached the Elite Eight since 2005, when they were beaten by eventual national champion North Carolina, and have not made a Final Four in the Ryan era.) Their style is unadorned and often unexciting but highly effective. It's called the Wisconsin Way, and it's epitomized by Badgers who enter a game giving a towel to the man they replace. "We do that for a reason," says assistant coach Greg Gard. "It forces players to communicate with the player they are replacing. The message is, I don't give this towel to you until I know who you are guarding, what we are running and anything else I need to know."
Wisconsin has long won with defense, not just with Ryan but with Dick Bennett before him. In beating Vanderbilt 60--57 to reach the Sweet 16, the Badgers held Commodores wingmen Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins, two of the best scorers in the country, to just 3 of 14 three-point shooting. Vital to this effort was guard Josh Gasser, who played 24 minutes of strong defense on Jenkins despite being up sick all Friday night with the flu and requiring an IV before the game.
The Badgers will see familiar faces in Boston; after they play Syracuse, Big Ten rival Ohio State will take on Cincinnati. With the possible exception of Kentucky, no team was more likely to reach the Final Four this year than the Buckeyes. They were knocked out by Kentucky a year ago in the Sweet 16, and when 6'9", 280-pound center Jared Sullinger returned to Columbus for his sophomore year—with classmate Aaron Craft at point guard, senior William Buford on a wing and sublime sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas, arguably the best of the bunch—there was only one goal.
Thomas expressed it last Saturday afternoon after the Buckeyes finished off Gonzaga 73--66. "It's like William [Buford] says," said Thomas, sitting on a folding chair in the winning locker room. "We're here to make history."
So it is true of all 16. Chasing another game and another week.