It was the perfect ending to a delightfully imperfect regular season. In one last shake of the cup, six of the top eight teams in the Associated Press poll came undone last Saturday. Kentucky ended Arkansas's four-week run as No. 1, and Connecticut blew its chance to succeed the Razor-backs by losing to Providence. The Pac-10's mighty three—Arizona, UCLA and California—all succumbed within hours of one another. Michigan mulled its chance for a Big Ten title by falling to Northwestern. And the NCAA tournament committee found itself announcing pairings Sunday night that could have been mistaken for the NIT's.
Tournament field? This looked more like a potter's field: One team, Missouri, received a No. 1 seed despite a 52-point loss in December. Another qualifier, Wisconsin, lost to Northwestern twice. And a third, Loyola of Maryland, had a 2-25 record a year ago. As a result of the weekend's convulsions, the AP made its ninth change atop its poll on Monday, replacing Arkansas with North Carolina, winner of the ACC tournament. At least there's symmetry to that: As the preseason No. 1, the Tar Heels bring a zigzag season more or less full circle.
To mark this year of the tumultuous Top 20, we've devised our own season-ending poll consisting of our Top 20 questions to ponder as the NCAA tournament gets under way.
1. Which is the strongest bracket?
The East and the Midwest are tough, but the Southeast is the toughest because it should have Purdue-Kansas and Duke-Kentucky in its semifinals.
2. That would make the weakest...?
Correct. Horace Greeley doesn't know baskets. The West has the weakest No. 1 (Missouri), a No. 2 with tournament baggage (Arizona) and a No. 3 with no bench (Louisville). Further, six of the region's top seven seeds are coming off a loss.
3. Is a loss in a conference tournament necessarily bad?
This is a question for the ages, right up there with, How come your nose runs and your feet smell? The answer is no. Oklahoma State beat Kansas in the Big Eight semifinals, which means only that the Jayhawks will probably reach the Final Four, since that's where they wound up the last three times they lost in the conference semis. North Carolina lost to Georgia Tech in last season's ACC tournament and then won a national championship. And the Tar Heels blew out Duke by 22 in the final of the 1991 ACC tournament, only to watch the Blue Devils win an NCAA crown three weeks later. "We learned we weren't as good as we thought we were," Duke's Grant Hill says of that defeat at the hands of North Carolina. Perhaps Arkansas, Connecticut, Missouri, Temple and Duke again—all losers last week—have learned the same thing this time around.
4. As the players reach a state of tournament readiness, how come the referees haven't?
A questionable call may have cost Colorado an upset of Missouri. Wake Forest sutfered through a string of dubious calls late in a loss to Carolina. Seton Hall's Arturas Karnishovas got flagrantly high-lowed in the closing seconds against Georgetown without a whistled peep. During conference-tournament weekend there are too many good games chasing too few good refs. Things should improve this week, however, because officials advance in the NCAAs according to how well they do their jobs.
5. How likely is a nothing-could-be-finer Duke-Carolina matchup at the Final Pour in Charlotte?
For a while the Tar Heels looked to be the less likely team to get there. Upon being removed from a game against Florida State late in the season, 6'11" freshman Rasheed Wallace refused to take a towel from a manager and stared at coach Dean Smith. But when Wallace met up with the Seminoles again, in the ACC tournament last Friday, he cheerfully contributed 17 points and 16 rebounds. Fellow frosh Jerry Stackhouse ended up being named the tourney's MVP. And shootin' fool Donald Williams, who sat out much of the season with a bum foot and a separated shoulder, began clicking again. Suddenly it's Duke that appears to be the longer shot: The Blue Devils may have to get past Kentucky and either Wake Forest—which has beaten them twice—or Purdue to earn a rematch with the Tar Heels in the semifinals. In Charlotte, faith evidently persists nonetheless. Choice seats at the Final Four are said to be selling for up to $10,000 apiece.
6. Who's most likely to pull off an upset?
Our favorites are teams with at least one sound scoring guard and a certain amount of momentum—Florida, Oklahoma State, Texas, Wake Forest and Washington State. Pay particular attention to Wake and its fearless floor leader, Randolph Childress.
7. And who's a likely upset victim?
UCLA, the fifth seed in the Midwest, must face No. 12 Tulsa, which took Arkansas to overtime early this season—in Oklahoma City. (If the Bruins win, they may have to play Oklahoma State in the same place.)
8. Is it just a coincidence that virtually every black coach on the bubble—Wisconsin's Stu Jackson, George Washington's Mike Jarvis, Tulsa's Tubby Smith, Georgetown's John Thompson—got invited?
Probably. But that didn't keep some coaches from wondering whether the NCAA, which is still in mediation with the Black Coaches Association (BCA) over a number of issues, was trying to be extra accommodating.
9. Will Indiana coach Bob Knight finally get his?
Hoosier freshman Sherron Wilkerson looked like he had a homicidal notion after being on the business end of a Knight head butt last week. Wilkerson restrained himself, but Gary Trent and Ohio U, the Hoosiers' first-round foes, may butt back. The 6'7", 230-pound Trent has led the Bobcats to 12 straight wins. Protective headgear recommended.
10. What are the most-intriguing possible second-round matchups?
Don't miss Temple-Indiana, the all-gluteus coach-off featuring John ("I'll Kick Your Ass") Chancy and Bob ("My Critics Can Kiss My Ass") Knight. Also intriguing would be UMass-Maryland, with freshmen pivot prodigies Marcus Camby and Joe Smith, respectively.
11. Which teams will be toughest to prepare for?
Temple, when the Owls are on D. Massachusetts beat Temple three times because the Minutemen have seen the Owls' matchup zone often enough to dope it out. But Drexel and Indiana will discover firsthand why Temple is ranked second nationally in both field goal and scoring defense. On offense, Nebraska's centerless, three-point-shooting attack defies scouting. The Huskers' bombardiers are Jaron Boone, Jamar Johnson, Erick Strickland and Big Eight tournament MVP Eric Piatkowski.
12. Will perennial March flameouts Purdue and Arizona reverse their fortunes?
Yes. The decision of Boilermaker coach Gene Keady (NCAA record: 5-9) to move Purdue's postseason banquet up from its usual date in April to March 14—he admitted he didn't want a tournament loss to taint the taste of the rubber chicken—wasn't exactly the stuff of Norman Vincent Peale. But Purdue does have a Big Ten title, a No. 1 seed and the top player in the land in Glenn Robinson. Arizona won eight of its last nine games by an average of more than 20 points, and in Khalid Reeves and Damon Stoudamire the Wildcats have the sine qua non of the postseason, superb guards. Coach Lute Olson (NCAA record the last two years: 0-2) shouldn't have to listen to any more jokes like the one about how his team is like a guy in a crowded Irish bar on St. Patrick's Day. The punch line: One round and you're out.
13. Which is the most ideologically interesting matchup?
As an '80s icon, the Reverend Jerry Falwell was an apologist for South Africa's apartheid regime. Last week, as president of Liberty University, he was cutting down the nets after Peter Aluma, a 6'10" center from Nigeria, led the Flames to the Big South title. With liberal Democrat Dean Smith and North Carolina as a first-round opponent, Liberty will praise the Lord and pass the ball to Aluma.
14. Is Penn as dangerous as Princeton?
Maybe more so. The Quakers aren't your average Ivy team. Their guards, Jerome Allen and Matt Maloney, hardly play prep-school pantywaist defense. And the Quakers haven't lost a league game in two years. Consider Nebraska and Florida forewarned.
15. Can Lefty Driesell turn James Madison into the Santa Clara of the East?
He probably can't win his first-round game, as the Broncos did last spring, but five years after arriving in Harrisonburg, Va., the Sinistral One finally draws a bid, and with it, a bead on Florida. With Driesell's former employer, Maryland, also making the field for the first time since 1988, the ghost of Len Bias can finally rest.
16. Whom will NBA scouts be studying the closest?
Perhaps North Carolina's Eric Montross, who failed to make first team All-ACC (that honor went to Maryland's Joe Smith). If he plays well, he might climb back into the lottery; if not, the first Tar Heel 7-footer chosen this June could be Kevin Salvadori.
17. Which of the 64 teams should we root for?
There are a few appealing underdogs to choose from. Committee members nearly dislocated their shoulders patting themselves on the back—deservedly so—for passing over major-conference mediocrity Georgia Tech and granting the College of Charleston, 24-3 in only its third Division I season, an at-large bid. Pepperdine has a coach, Tom Asbury, who had to bury both his father and eldest daughter within a few months last fall. But the most astonishing story may be that of Loyola, upset winner of the Metro Atlantic. During the first week of preseason practice, co-captain B.J. Pendleton, musing on what mutts the Greyhounds had been the previous season, declared that the pain would fade "if we win the league, win the tournament and make the NCAAs. It's payback time now." It seemed like improbable bluster when he said it, but the Hounds delivered.
18. Who's best in the field on the bass line?
Scotty Thurman of Arkansas and Malik Rose of Drexel. Both—oompah-pah—play the tuba.
19. Can a single player take a team all the way to a title?
In 1988 Danny Manning carried Kansas to the crown, and on Sunday, Keady likened his Purdue team and its star. Robinson, to those Manning-led Jayhawks. Everyone, refs included, tends to stand back in awe of a great tournament performer. Larry Brown still marvels at how rarely he had to work the officials on Manning's behalf during Kansas's six-game run. But even if Big Dog gets it going, Keady will probably work the refs anyway.
20. Did Bill Clinton influence the draw?
The President's half brother, Roger, has scheduled his wedding to Molly Martin for March 26 in Dallas. Arkansas figures to be there for the Midwest Regional on the 25th and the 27th, which means the President could be both best man and First Fan over the same weekend. What's more, the chalk would put longtime FOB Eddie Sutton and Oklahoma State at Reunion Arena. And even if disaster were to strike and Arkansas were to lose in the second round, Georgetown—Clinton's alma mater—could very well be in Dallas instead. Did the committee get a nudge from the White House on this? "None," says committeeman Bob Frederick, the Kansas athletic director. "Zero. Trust me."
No, sir. This season, we trust nobody, we trust nothing.
Tournament defeats, like Arkansas's (left)-and UConn's, could help the losers.
[See caption above.]
Coach Ricky Birdsong was sky-high about Northwestern's win over Michigan, but what did it say about the Wolverines' chances?
JOHN GRIESHOP/SCHWARTZMAN PHOTOS
Nebraska's three-point bombs can loosen up a defense and lead to easy buckets for the Huskers.
After being treated cavalierly in the ACC semis, can Duke reach a Final Four showdown with Carolina?
Reeves and his splendid backcourt mate could help Arizona celebrate St. Paddy's Day with another round.