Racket in the Brackets
The upsets and buzzer beaters of the opening rounds augured
perhaps the most exciting NCAA tournament ever
by Alexander Wolff
Posted: Wed March 18, 1998
Immediate occupancy. Tournament Towers, 1998 March Madness
Boulevard, Suite 16. Spartan accmdns w/all cmfrts of Homer.
Husky dogs, 'Cats O.K. Pking 4 Rams. You see LA; no prairie vu.
Michigan was gone, beaten 85-82 moments earlier by UCLA in the
second round of the NCAA tournament, as Bruins seniors Toby
Bailey, J.R. Henderson and Kris Johnson made their way down a
hallway in Atlanta's Georgia Dome on Sunday night. Just outside
the interview room the three players caught the image of Rhode
Island coach Jim Harrick on an overhead TV monitor. Harrick, who
had guided UCLA to an NCAA title in 1995, was 750 miles away at
the Midwest subregional in Oklahoma City just then, leading the
Rams to an 80-75 upset of top-seeded Kansas. "Look," Johnson
said. "There's Coach."
No, someone reminded him, Steve Lavin is now the Bruins' coach.
"I think that's why they created the word surreal," Lavin would
say of the moment. "That's art imitating life, or life imitating
artor something like that."
Beastly battles for boards marked UCLA's win over mighty Michigan.
Or something not at all like that, for the first week of this
NCAA tournament seemed to be derivative of absolutely nothing.
There have been other NCAAs in which a No. 1 seed failed to
reach the Sweet 16. (It has happened five times during the
1990s, twice now to Kansas.) There may have been a year in which
more early-round upsets racked the bracket and times when there
were surprises more seismic than these. There may even have been
tournaments with more subregional buzzer beaters. But never have
so many of the things that make for a delicious NCAAs come
together at the same time. Eight double-digit seeds won their
first-round games, and threeNo. 13 Valparaiso, No. 11
Washington and No. 10 West Virginiasurvived into the second
week. Eleven games in the first two rounds were decided by three
points or less, five by a single point. Four games needed
overtime, and only a few were never in doubt.
You usually need bricks to erect a building, but Tournament
Towers is wrought of the gossamer of soft jump shots, the
jury-rigging of deflections and loose balls, even a play so
preposterous that it seemed incapable of springing from its
blueprint. Our building would be a short drive from Sunset
Beach, what with the Pac-10's four entries winning all eight of
their games. There would be a fun house mirror in the lobby; how
else to explain Princeton's pressing and shooting down UNLV, of
all teams, with a 20-0 run, and then getting backdoored by a
Michigan State crew that outpassed, outshot and outassisted the
Tigers in a 63-56 victory? For a lease on Suite 16, anyone would
be willing to take out a loan. Washington guard Donald Watts,
who scored 17 points and set up teammate Deon Luton for the
game-winning jumper in the Huskies' 69-68 upset of Xavier, is
the son of former Seattle SuperSonics star Slick Watts. The
senior Watts, now proprietor of an industrial-cleaning business
called Slick and Clean, follows his son so devotedly that he's
$22,000 in debtand counting. "I ain't got no money," he said
after the Huskies qualified for the East Regional in Greensboro,
"but I'm going to Carolina."
Some prospective tenants tried their best but could claim only
temporary residency. Illinois State beat Tennessee when forward
Dan Muller sank a layup with 1.8 seconds left in OT, only to
fall hard to defending champion Arizona two days later.
Richmond, the 14th seed in the East, survived an errant
in-the-lane runner by South Carolina guard BJ McKie in the dying
seconds of its first-round upset of the third-seeded Gamecocks,
but the Spiders could turn away few of the point-blank shots of
Washington's monument, 7-foot Todd MacCulloch, who had 31 points
and 18 rebounds in round 2. Even Indiana's first-round defeat of
Oklahoma, a game in which the Hoosiers held a 19-point lead with
13:07 left, went to OT before the Hoosiers won - only to be
ousted two days later by the No. 2 seed in the East, UConn,
whose own first-round victory over 15th-seeded Fairleigh
Dickinson wasn't assured until the final minute.
Consider Cincinnati guard D'Juan Baker. With 3.6 seconds
remaining in the Bearcats' first-rounder with Northern Arizona,
he secured a 65-62 victory with a cold-blooded three-pointer.
But such were the standards for this tournament that two days
later the bar for heroism had been raised. This time Baker made
a three from virtually the same spot with 7.0 seconds to play,
giving No. 2 seed Cincy a 74-72 lead over West Virginia - but
leaving just enough time for the Mountaineers' Jarrod West (no
one but West Virginia could suit up a Jarry West) to fling one
When the Bearcats' defender, Ruben Patterson, tipped the ball,
it could do only one thing: thud half dead off the backboard and
through the hoop - perhaps because said hoop, at the east end of
Boise State's pavilion, is the one locals know as Edney's Hole,
for it's the basket through which another 5'10" guard, UCLA's
Tyus Edney, dropped the winning shot against Missouri during the
Bruins' championship run in '95. The final score after both
Edney's and West's heroics was 75-74. "Did he tip it in?" West
said, repeating an interrogator's question about Patterson's D.
"I think God knocked it in."
Under the watchful eye of Dad (left, arms folded), Drew launched
his last-second three against Ole Miss. Then the celebration began.
(David E. Klutho)
In fact, West earlier had made a sort of pilgrimage to the
altar. As the teams gathered for the opening tip, West left
midcourt for a moment to jog to the goal that would be so
merciful 40 minutes of play later. He jumped up, slapped the
glass with both hands and then returned to center court.
Unlike Muller and Baker, most of the first round's most
resourceful shotmakers survived the second. Syracuse's Marius
Janulis is a stubborn 6'5" guard from Lithuania who, when asked
once whether he could dunk, snapped, "When dunks are worth three
points, I'll work on my dunking." In the Orangemen's opener with
Iona, he sank a game-winner twice over. The Gaels led 58-57 with
under a minute to play when Janulis bottomed out a
three-pointer, only to watch Iona point guard John McDonald
throw in an off-balance three of his own that gave the Gaels the
lead anew with :24 left. That set up Syracuse's last possession,
in which Todd Burgan had his shot blocked; after regaining
possession, he looked up to catch a glimpse of the clock.
Janulis happened to be in his line of sight. Three seconds was
just enough time for Burgan to find him with a pass and for
Janulis to sink another three.
Issue date: March 23, 1998