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Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/18/2006 11:11:00 PM

Saturday Night 'Special'

Darrel Mitchell
Darrel Mitchell finished with 16 points on 5-of-13 shooting against the Aggies.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- What do you do when you're down two points with 14 seconds left in the second round of the NCAA tournament, and your clutch guard has shot just 1-of-7 on the day from beyond the arc? If you're No. 4 seed LSU, and No. 12 Texas A&M has you on the ropes, 57-55, this is what you do: Let assistant coach Butch Pierre call a play named "special," which you've barely used the entire season, and intend to put the ball in the hands of senior Darrel Mitchell -- because his nickname is the Silent Assassin, and 1-of-7 be damned, the kid has made his living hitting big shots, drilling game-winners against West Virginia and Arkansas this season. "When it's crunch time," said forward Glen Davis, "we want the ball in Darrel's hands."

Then, you watch as the play unfolds: The rock is inbounded to guard Garrett Temple, who passes to Mitchell in the backcourt, who runs off a screen from Davis, steps back with Davis' switching defender, Antanas Kavaliauskas, in his face, and -- as assassins are supposed to do -- pulls the trigger. From 23 feet out. Bang -- down go the Aggies, and Mitchell, a 5-foot-11 mite landing behind the 6-10 Kavaliauskas, doesn't even see his kill-shot fall through the net with 3.9 seconds left.

Mitchell saw the crowd erupt, though, and he knew that his stat line had been upgraded to 2-of-8 from long distance. "I made the one that counted," he said, and the final scoreboard read: Tigers 58, Aggies 57.

Was "special" even the right name for this play, which called for Davis to set a flash screen to free up the Tigers' lone senior? Maybe "momentous" instead? Mitchell's word for what happened on the court was simply "unexplainable." What happened off it was just as crazy; pandemonium broke out in the LSU section, and Temple's father, Collis Jr., a former LSU star, climbed up on the ledge separating the fans from press row and triumphantly held his hands in the air ("I was excited, brother," Collis said later). The Tigers then forced A&M's Josh Carter into a turnover on the final possession, and booked their first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2000. The team they'll face there? Top-seeded Duke, which cruised past George Washington earlier in the day.

As many holes as LSU was perceived to have heading into the tournament -- no true point guard, and wildly athletic forward Tyrus Thomas at less than 100 percent -- the Tigers are now looking like a serious threat to the top-seeded Blue Devils next week in Atlanta. Duke defends the perimeter better than any team in the nation, but LSU beat A&M despite making just two treys all game.

Pierre, explaining the abnormality of his final play call, said, "most of the time, we're just trying to feed off Glen [Davis] in the post." The Big Baby, who finished with 21 points (including the penultimate basket) and eight rebounds against the Aggies, will once again be the focal point, and he should be licking his chops at the list of lesser big men who have had field days against the Dukies, such as Indiana's Marco Killingsworth, N.C. State's Cedric Simmons and North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough. Add in the two freshmen forwards, 6-9 Thomas and 6-7 Tasmin Mitchell, to that equation, and an upset in Atlanta seems very possible.

The Blue Devils should still be the favorite. But LSU has the Big Baby to counter All-America forward Shelden Williams, and Thomas to create problems for Josh McRoberts. And most of all, the Tigers know they have the vital ingredient for a deep run in March Madness -- an assassin who can hit big shots with his team's season and the end of his career on the line. Duke has J.J. Redick. LSU has Darrel Mitchell. "Darrel's hit seven or eight of those in his career," Tigers head coach John Brady said of Mitchell's game-winner. The question now is, how many bullets does Mitchell have left in the chamber?

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3/18/2006 07:42:00 PM

Life Of The Party

Joakim Noah
Joakim Noah has 33 points, 15 rebounds and 14 assists in two games.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Florida's Joakim Noah had just stuffed a shot by Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Boo Davis with 2:57 left in a second-round NCAA tournament game that was already well out of hand -- and would finish as an 82-60 Gators rout -- when a fan stood up in the UF cheering section and yelled, "How did you get so good, Noah?"

And really, who expected at the season's outset that Florida's first run to the Sweet Sixteen since 2000 would be powered by this lanky, 6-foot-11 sophomore with the huge, bushy ponytail -- who played a total of two minutes in the Gators' two-and-done NCAA tourney trip in 2005? Who came to coach Billy Dononvan's hotel room after their first-round escape over Ohio, crying, because he wasn't playing, and didn't feel like he was good enough to contribute? Noah, who averaged 3.5 points and 2.5 rebounds in 2004-05, and 13.9 points and 6.7 boards this season, has exploded into a postseason star, an ultra-athletic blend of talent and raw energy who is leading UF's transformation from a lethargic, tournament underachiever to what's now looking like a passionate Final Four contender.

Noah finished Saturday's win over the Panthers with 17 points, seven rebounds, six assists and four blocks; following up a 16-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist, five-block effort on Thursday against South Alabama. No player in the entire tournament has strung together two more complete stat lines thus far -- and Noah does all that while also playing with the same unrestrained emotion (screaming, and pumping his arms) that his French father, Yannick, did as a pro tennis star, as well as the swagger that earned him the nickname The Noble One this summer in Harlem's Rucker Park. "He brings the positive vibe to our whole team," point guard Taurean Green said of Noah.

Noah also brought moves to the floor that a scrappy, 11th-seeded UWM (22-9) team -- which upset the nation's top rebounding squad, Oklahoma, on Thursday -- could not handle. With 16:57 left in the second half, Noah had 6-7 Panthers forward Adrian Tigert pinned on the left block; Noah faked left and spun right with such velocity that Tigert was helpless as the Gators big man took one step toward the hole and threw down a monster slam. "That was sexy, huh?" Noah explained of the move afterward, which he said was unplanned. "It was just instinct. Have you seen me do that before? I don't think so."

The other part of Noah that fans saw -- that of the team's ex officio cheerleader -- was nothing new. Minutes before the block of Davis, he was leading the Florida crowd in its "Gator Bait" clap, and earlier in the game he blew a kiss to the UWM band, which, he said, was heckling him all afternoon long. "Hey, if I was them, I'd do it too," Noah said. But when the postgame conversation turned to Florida's chances of going beyond the Sweet Sixteen, he was all business. "Those two games were special, but we can do something even more special," he said. "You might think that's greedy, but we want more, man."

For the kid who has injected life into the third-seeded Gators -- a team that didn't make it past the first weekend in 2005 -- it hardly seems like an unreasonable desire.

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3/18/2006 07:35:00 PM

The Milwaukee Pipeline

A quick one for the coaching rumor mill ... First-year Wisconsin-Milwaukee head coach Rob Jeter responded to a couple of questions outside the locker room about his interest in the Iowa State job, which he has been linked to after Wayne Morgan was fired earlier this week. ISU athletic director Jamie Pollard was previously employed by Wisconsin, where Jeter formerly served as an assistant under Bo Ryan.

TV Reporter (paraphrased): The word on the street is that you're a candidate for the Iowa State job.

Jeter: I haven't been out on the street. I've been in this locker room, so I wouldn't know what the word on the street is. I'm Milwaukee's head coach, and I'm proud to be Milwaukee's head coach.

TV Reporter (paraphrased): If Iowa State came ringing, though, what would happen?

Jeter: I'm just proud to be with these guys. That's all I'm concerned about right now. Just to make sure these guys continue to take care of their grades, continue to build this program. That's what I'm committed to.

Jeter faces an interesting dilemma -- does he want to stay in Milwaukee and rebuild a team that will be losing seven seniors (including its entire starting lineup), or attempt to capitalize on his highly successful head-coaching debut by interviewing for a major-conference gig?
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3/18/2006 02:55:00 PM

Watch Out For The Man

JACKSONVILLE -- Florida faithful are descending here en masse for today's second-round game against Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and tickets are scarce outside Veterans Memorial Arena. Some potential buyers, like this man, decked out in his best fan-wear -- a vintage Gators windbreaker and a "We Be Jammin': St. Thomas, U.S.V.I." polo shirt -- were offering fistfuls of cash:

Ticket Scene
Luke Winn/SI

His strategy of flashing the Jacksons (not Benjamins) rather than holding up a "need one" finger works, luring in a possible seller ...

Ticket Scene
Luke Winn/SI

... who turns out to be a cop with a checkered, velcro wallet. Or just the guy's friend, pulling a prank. We report, you decide.

Ticket Scene
Luke Winn/SI
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3/18/2006 01:28:00 AM

The Scariest Year

Tyler Hansbrough
Tyler Hansbrough and the Heels were in danger of being knocked out by Murray State.

Nearly every high seed that played Friday had a nerve-racking experience. And that is a very good thing for the NCAA tournament. From Kansas losing to Bradley, Iowa falling to Northwestern State, and UConn, Villanova, Ohio State and UNC all surviving scares, it is becoming very clear: The gap between the little guys and the big dogs in the first round of the dance is shrinking.

Albany's scare of the Huskies -- which ended in a 13-point UConn win -- ensured that this tournament featured the smallest margin of victory (14.5 points) between 1s and 16s this decade. We dug out all six brackets since 2000 to take a look at the average margins of victory for Nos. 1-3 seeds:

Sds.   2000   2001   2002   2003   2004   2005   2006 

1/16 25.0 39.5 28.8 24.5 25.0 15.5 14.5
2/15 14.5 12.5 11.0 15.5 24.0 10.8 18.0
3/14 21.3 5.3 12.8 9.3 10.3 9.8 8.3