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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.
3/10/2007 09:39:00 PM

Whatever You Do, Don't Get Punked

Sindey Lowe has his Wolfpack one more upset away from an NCAA berth.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Sidney Lowe's Red Coat Express cannot be stopped in the ACC tournament. First an upset of Duke on Thursday. Then Virginia on Friday. And now Saturday's magic, a 72-64 win over Virginia Tech. On what would have been the 61st birthday of late N.C. State coach Jim Valvano, Lowe -- a player on Jimmy V's 1983 national championship team -- has piloted the 10th-seeded Wolfpack to within one win of an automatic NCAA tournament bid. And the fact that he's done it while wearing a red blazer straight out of the Valvano wardrobe, well, that's only made it more special for the N.C. State family.

As heartwarming as this story is -- an 18-14 team making an improbable run in March with historic implications -- it's undoubtedly driving fans of Illinois, Stanford, Drexel, Kansas State, Purdue and Texas Tech nuts. Why? Because Lowe's Wolfpack are on the verge of singlehandedly shrinking the NCAA tournament bubble. Sunday's ACC final is suddenly full of intrigue, with Carolina fighting for a No. 1 seed in the dance and N.C. State potentially playing spoiler for a host of at-large candidates.

Ultimately, what may stick with me the longest from the Wolfpack's run is not the red-coat craze, but rather the pregame speech Lowe gave his team at the outset of the ACC tournament. As much as the first-year coach is willing to talk about the Valvano stuff -- "The way we're doing it right now is very similar to what our fans saw in 1983," Lowe said -- he's not into quoting the guy. Needless to say, the words Don't ever give up have yet to find their way into Lowe's motivational arsenal.

Instead, junior guard Gavin Grant said this was the message Lowe gave the team in its Thursday-morning meeting before taking on the Blue Devils:

Don't let anybody come out and punk you. Don't let anybody push you around. It's a basketball game. What's the worst that can happen? You aren't going to get in any fights.

Even if N.C. State doesn't make the Dance -- and I get the feeling it won't, since the ACC final with be its fourth game in four days, and it's against the deepest team in the country -- I think that Lowe's rhetoric has legs. If I'm a coach of a potential Cinderella in the NCAA tournament, I'd crib from Sid. No modern-day player wants to get punked. And if the runts on some No. 16 seed are reminded that they won't literally get their asses kicked by a No. 1, well, who knows what could happen?

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3/10/2007 05:21:00 PM

Why the Mask Matters

Tyler Hansbrough, who averaged 18.4 points a game during the regular season, is down to 7.5 ppg wearing a mask.
Doug Benc/Getty Images
TAMPA, Fla. -- With every turbo-boosted fastbreak and Brandan Wright dunk here in central Florida, North Carolina is bringing itself closer and closer to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Bracket projections all over the Internet have the Tar Heels unanimously on the No. 2 line -- even more unanimously than Tyler Hansbrough was an All-ACC pick -- but if the regular-season ACC champs win the conference tournament, that designation surely will have to change. Can the selection committee really keep the team that swept the No. 1 league in the RPI from being a No. 1 seed, even if it's at the expense of a streaking Kansas squad or one of the Big Ten's twin titans, Ohio State and Wisconsin?

Boston College (20-11, 10-6) finished just one game behind UNC (27-6, 11-5) in the ACC standings but the gap between the two teams in Saturday's conference tournament semifinal appeared much, much larger. In a 71-56 victory, the Tar Heels won the rebounding battle 41-25, with Hansbrough grabbing 13. Tywon Lawson held Eagles point guard Tyrese Rice, who had scored 32 points against Miami on Friday, to just five on 1-of-9 shooting. And Wright, our topic from yesterday, racked up 20 points on eight dunks, most of them served up on a silver platter by Lawson.

There was only one thing missing from the Tar Heels' arsenal. And it was the same thing that was glaringly missing from yesterday's win over Florida State.

Tyler Hansbrough's offense.

The mask -- the after-effect of being bludgeoned by Duke's Gerald Henderson on March 4 -- is killing Hansbrough's ability to score. Over the course of the ACC tournament, Hansbrough has probably grabbed the nasal portion of the mask, wincing, 100 times. He has readjusted the elastic straps on the mask, while grimacing, at least 25 times. But the number of memorable offensive moves he's made is zero.

On Friday against Florida State, his first game behind plastic, Hansbrough had just six points on 3-of-7 shooting. On Saturday he had nine on 4-of-10 shooting. He came into the ACC tournament averaging 19.2 on 51.5 percent shooting. North Carolina, far more than most teams, has other offensive options. It has Wright, and Wayne Ellington, and Lawson and Reyshawn Terry, and a bench that goes 12 deep. But how long can the Tar Heels survive in the dance without getting their full load of points from Psycho T?

UNC coach Roy Williams was thrilled that Hansbrough asserted himself on the glass against BC, but had serious concerns over what happened on the other end. "You can look at [Hansbrough's] stats over the course of the year and until these last two games he always shoots a great percentage," Williams said. "That mask is bothering him a great deal, and it still bothers me because he's the victim and no one is worried about him."

Williams was addressing the lack of sympathy -- from Duke and much of the rest of the nation -- for his star, but there are those who are worrying about Hansbrough for other reasons. His point guard is one of them. "There were a couple of shots today that he normally makes -- I mean, 100 percent -- and he's not making them right now," Lawson said of Hansbrough. "It's because of the mask. He's gotta get adjusted to it; I don't know how, but he has to. It'll probably be 2-3 games before he's all right."

Hansbrough, according to Williams, is most limited in the department of peripheral vision. "A post player gets the ball with his back to the basket, and as he turns to shoot, he's gotta find the rim quickly," Williams said. "And now you've got these obstacles on your face that make it more difficult to do that. Every day, I'm hoping it will get better."

One gets the feeling, talking to Hansbrough in the locker room after Saturday's win -- and this is saying a lot, given how fierce of a competitor he is -- that getting rid of the mask is higher on his agenda that even winning the ACC tournament. Because if he doesn't ditch the plastic, he can't truly play like Psycho T. And without a fully functioning Hansbrough, it's doubtful UNC will be able to win a national title.

"I don't think I'll ever get used to this [mask], man," Hansbrough said. "I'm just trying to get my nose to heal ... so I don't have to wear it the whole time in the NCAA tournament."

As of right now, the doctors are taking a cautious approach: wear it for the whole ACC tournament, and then revisit the issue before the NCAAs. If the docs say it stays on, though, Hansbrough doubts he would overrule them.

"I could, but I wouldn't want to," he said. "I wouldn't want my nose to end up on the side of my face."

As second options go, that one is as unappealing as it gets.

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3/10/2007 12:57:00 PM

Saturday Afternoon At The ACC

The view from press row, one hour before tipoff of UNC-Boston College. Is this the day Jared Dudley finally breaks through against Tar Heels?

Jared Dudley
Luke Winn/SI

On the way back to the hotel from St. Pete Times Forum last night, I took a picture of what has to be the loneliest tent in Tampa. Maryland, it appears, got stuck with the bill for the whole weekend.

Maryland's Empty Tent
Luke Winn/SI

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3/09/2007 11:23:00 PM

The Red Coat is Coming

Sidney Lowe is not hard to find on the NC State sideline.
Doug Benc/Getty Images
TAMPA, Fla. -- As NC State coach Sidney Lowe made his way toward the exit of St. Pete Times Forum on Friday night at around 9:50 p.m., the top item on his agenda was finding a dry cleaner. The bright red blazer he was wearing had been saturated with sweat during 10th-seeded Wolfpack's 79-71 win over second-seeded Virginia, and if he was going to sport it again in Saturday's ACC tournament semifinals, it needed to be laundered.

Three phenomena have defined the first two days of this event in Tampa. The first has been the success of underdogs, with NC State notching two of the tournament's five upsets by knocking off Duke and Virginia on back-to-back days. The second sensation has been Tyler Hansbrough's mask, which we've already covered. The third, and perhaps most talked-about, item is Lowe's red coat. A gaudy, sideline fashion statement has become the symbol for the Wolfpack's improbable surge from a 5-11 conference finish to the verge of stealing an NCAA tournament bid.

Lowe, who wanted to make it clear that he is changing everything else ("I've got four pairs of pants, got four shirts, got ties, and my undergarments"), had the coat made for him by Cary, N.C., tailor George L. Saunders. It was initially intended as "a one-time thing" to wear during NC State's home date with third-ranked UNC on Feb. 3, in which the Wolfpack pulled off a mammoth, 83-79 upset. After that, Lowe said, "I figured I should wear it in the ACC tournament, for the first game ... and then we won, so I thought I'd wear it again."

At this point -- as long as he can get it cleaned -- Lowe has no choice but to keep wearing it. And his team, as crazy as it would have sounded at the start of this week, has a legitimate shot of actually winning the ACC tournament. NC State swept its next opponent, Virginia Tech, during the regular season, and knocked off likely tourney-final foe UNC in the red coat's now-famous debut. In senior point guard Engin Atsur, the Wolfpack have a savvy veteran to keep an otherwise inexperienced team from crumbling under pressure. In sweet-shooting lefty forward Brandon Costner, the redshirt freshman who scored 30 points against the Blue Devils and 22 more against the Cavs, State has an inside-out threat who's been a matchup nightmare for 4s and 5s on the perimeter. (Costner, for the record, is no fan of the coat, but will tolerate it for the time being: "I don't really like it," he said. "It's kind of bright. But we're winning, so I'll let it go.")

Lowe's pick-and-roll-heavy offense has given Duke and Virginia headaches, mostly because the interior duo of Costner and the underrated Ben McCauley have been dominant forces. "The offense is designed to take advantage of mismatches," said guard Gavin Grant. "We know that Brandon is real mobile, and other 4s and 5s can't keep up with him, so we run a lot of screen and rolls with him going high and Ben going low." It clicked so well that NC State was able to shoot 73.9 percent in the second half -- including one streak of nine straight points by Grant -- and erase a 14-point halftime deficit.

What Lowe has done, more than anything, is make his team believe that its season doesn't have to end in the NIT. He was last at an ACC tournament in 1983, as a player under Jim Valvano -- the coach whom the red coat honors -- and the event served as the Wolfpack's springboard to a storybook national title run. "I told them that, every year in this tournament, something magic happens, whether it's a player that no one expected suddenly emerging as the MVP, or a team that surprises everyone," said Lowe. "I said to our guys, if it's going to be a team, then why not us?"

Indeed, why not NC State? With that kind of inspiration, this red coat craze might just carry on all the way into the NCAAs.

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3/09/2007 05:20:00 PM

The Definitive Mask Post

Tyler Hansbrough
Doug Benc/Getty Images

The mask's post-game resting place on Friday, following UNC's win over Florida State.
Luke Winn/SI
TAMPA, Fla. -- This Tyler Hansbrough mask story isn't going to die just yet. He scored just six points in 27 minutes with it on; the ACC tournament media horde swarmed him afterward to ask about it; he's still going to be wearing it Saturday against Boston College; and he still hates it. "I don't like anything on my body," said Hansbrough. "I'm not even a guy that gets taped."

The Tourney Blog, in its effort to bring you the best mask coverage possible, did some canvassing of the UNC locker room after Friday's 73-58 win over Florida State. (If the New York Times' blog is covering bow ties at the Big East tournament, surely I can cover plastic facial guards in Tampa.) While Hansbrough sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by a large pack of middle-aged men holding cameras and notebooks, his mask lay neglected in his locker. It was gracious enough to pose for one photograph, which appears at right.

I asked senior guard Wes Miller, who was sitting a few lockers down from the mask, if any of the Heels had assigned Hansbrough new nicknames after the Gerald Henderson incident. Miller made the astute point that he didn't think a new nickname was necessary "because the mask just kind of fits into his personality anyways." Hansbrough was tugging at the mask all afternoon and had it ripped off within seconds of fouling out against the 'Noles, but really -- is there a player in the country who seem more fit for a mask than the reckless, rough-and-tumble Tar Heels star?

"Besides," added Miller, "Tyler's got so many nicknames anyway, he doesn't need anymore."

Turning to sophomore teammate Danny Green, Miller said, "How many nicknames does Tyler have? I can't even think of them all. We call him Psycho T, and T-Bone, and I just call him 'T' all the time."

"We call him Big Man, too," Green said.

"Oh, and Spaz-bro," Miller said.

Spaz-bro. That's the Blog's new favorite.

Meanwhile, it was discovered that junior point guard Quentin Thomas -- the author of the alley-oop mentioned in the Brandan Wright post -- did see fit to add to the Psycho/T-Bone/Big Man/Spaz-Bro arsenal with an ode to Gunnar Hansen. "At practice this week, I thought he looked like the guy from Texas Chain Saw Massacre, so I called him Leatherface," Thomas said. "I'm not sure if Tyler heard me, but if he did, well, Psycho T is Psycho T."

Sophomore guard Bobby Frasor, Hansbrough's best friend on the team, said the mask was at least good for something: comic relief in their first workout following the Duke game. "The first time he had it on in practice, it was pretty funny," Frasor said. "He was trying to get used to it and he didn't like the strap in the back, so he put it on underneath like a chin-strap. We're trying to run our offense, and here's Tyler with a chin-strap mask on. We were all just laughing at him."

Considering how UNC's last meeting with Boston College went -- a 77-72 Tar Heels win at Conte Forum that was never in doubt -- I welcome any and all appearances of the chin-strap mask. Both for amusement and future blog material.

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3/09/2007 04:11:00 PM

Is Wright Ready To Pounce?

Don't be surprised if Wright emerges as the top freshman in the tournament.
Kevin C. Cox/WireImage.com
TAMPA, Fla. -- It does not take much to outscheme Florida State, a haphazard team full of highly touted recruits that is only occasionally cohesive. It does take a lot, however, to make the Seminoles look athletically inferior -- and yet North Carolina freshman Brandan Wright was able to do that on multiple occasions Friday in the second round of the ACC tournament.

The two most spectacular Wright Moments occurred during the second half of the Tar Heels' 73-58 win. The first came at the 12:06 mark, when Wright used his 7-foot-4 wingspan to pin an Uche Echefu layup attempt on the backboard, then had the presence of mind to tip the ball to teammate Reyshaun Terry, who converted that gift into a resounding righty dunk on a 1-on-none fastbreak. The second occurred nearly three minutes later, when Wright was running the break with backup point guard Quentin Thomas, who threw an underhanded alley-oop that wasn't so much of a pass as it was a plea to be credited with a turnover. The ball was thrown wide of the backboard on the left side, and there was one Seminole, guard Jerel Allen, between Wright and the rim.

For the 6-9 Wright, this did not pose the slightest of problems. He leapt, caught the ball midway up the backboard with his left hand, and redirected it into the rim to put the Heels up 59-40.

"I got bug-eyed watching that," said UNC guard Bobby Frasor, who was looking on from the bench. "With any other guy, that's a turnover, but Brandan saves plays. Coach [Roy Williams] was saying that it was a risky pass [by Thomas], but if you have Brandan there, why not try a risky pass since he can save you?"

Wright, who finished with 11 points and three blocks, is not the face of UNC (that's currently masked man Tyler Hansbrough), nor is he their sparkplug (that's freshman point Tywon Lawson) or their most skilled scorer (that's super-smooth rookie Wayne Ellington). In the Tar Heels' inside game, Wright is the beautiful complement to Hansborough's more-publicized brawn.

Wright is hardly the most hyped freshman in the country, either; those honors go to Texas' Kevin Durant and Ohio State's Greg Oden. But whereas Durant has the ability to take over games on the offensive end, and Oden changes games defensively, Wright's impact is felt on both ends of the floor. And since I have a feeling that the Tar Heels (26-6, 11-5 ACC) will be standing longer in March than the Longhorns or Buckeyes, I wonder if Wright will actually be the freshman who has the most effect on the NCAA tournament.

The stars that end up defining the dance are rarely the same players who claim the spotlight during the regular season. Last year we endured four months of J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison ("RedMo," if you recall) and then the NCAA tournament turned out to be all about man-children like Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas . Wright's unbelievable athleticism -- "He has such long arms that he probably negated 8-10 points," FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said -- puts him in the same category, or even beyond, that of Noah or Thomas. UNC's big lefty is not operating under the radar, seeing that he's already projected as the No. 3 pick in the next NBA Draft, but he hasn't asserted himself consistently enough to be considered a true star in college.

Hamilton called Wright an "X-factor" on Friday, after Wright held first-team All-ACC performer Al Thornton to just 12 points, and forced Thornton to foul out with 6:48 remaining in the game. "[Wright] fits well with Roy [Williams'] defensive philosophy -- all the over-playing and pressuring," Hamilton said. "He makes up for a lot of the mistakes they make."

The freshman on clean-up duty for UNC is capable of playing a bigger role than X-factor in the NCAA tournament. In three weeks' time, the Year of Durant, Oden, Nick Fazekas and Alando Tucker will probably have ceded center stage to a new wave of stars. Wright could very well be among them.

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3/09/2007 12:19:00 PM

The Three Faces of Tyler Hansbrough

1. Groucho Marx Face (from the send-off gallery on UNC's official Web site)

Tyler Hansbrough
Jim Bounds/UNC Athletics
2. Pregame, Sans-Mask Face

Tyler Hansbrough
Luke Winn/SI

3. Mask Face

Hansbrough didn't don the plastic apparatus until minutes before game time on Friday, when UNC ran out for its final warmups. And he did not look comfortable wearing it. The mask may actually be obstructing his breathing, as he was removed from the Florida State game at the 16:41 mark for no other apparent reason.

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3/09/2007 11:49:00 AM

In the ACC, Unanimous is a Loose Term

Do you want to tell Hansbrough he wasn't an unanimous pick?
We have a scandal on our hands! Well, perhaps not a scandal -- but at least an interesting controversy in the All-ACC voting process.

Three players, Florida State's Al Thornton, UNC's Tyler Hansbrough and Boston College's Jared Dudley, were named "unanimous" first-teamers earlier this week. I use quotes around "unanimous" for a reason: Hansbrough wasn't actually unanimous.

Maryland beat writer Patrick Stevens wrote this in his Washington Times blog on Wednesday:

Funny thing is, I can confidently say Hansbrough was not a first-teamer on every ballot. Maybe every ballot but one. But not every ballot. Not mine.

Stevens e-mailed the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association to investigate if his ballot (one of 106) somehow hadn't been counted, and that was not the case. Hansbrough had received, at max, 105 of the 106 first-team votes. The ACSMA's John Justus wrote back with this explanation:

As has been done in the past with the Board's approval, if a particular player is one or two votes shy of being a unanimous selection, we have designated that player as being a unanimous pick.

And such was the case with Psycho T. A couple of ACC bloggers have already brought it to light, and I tracked down Stevens an hour before the tip of Hansbrough-Thornton (or FSU-UNC, officially) on Friday to find out more.

Stevens said he wrote back to the ACSMA expressing his concern, and showed me the e-mail:

I have to say, "unanimous" is a word that has a pretty specific definition and it's misleading to use it when it isn't true. That -- far moreso than having a vote count or not -- makes me uneasy, and I doubt I would be the only person covering the league to feel that way.

I've gotta side with Patrick on this one. It's too late to repeal the designation, but what's the point of using unanimous when it isn't the case?

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3/08/2007 07:34:00 PM

Two Gerald Henderson Sightings

The only time you'll see the suspended Gerald Henderson on a basketball court today (photo taken between sessions of the ACC tournament, at 5:19 p.m.) ...

Gerald Henderson
Luke Winn/SI
... and here's where Henderson could be found during the Duke game against N.C. State:

Gerald Henderson
Luke Winn/SI

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3/08/2007 06:27:00 PM

The Maryland Question

Gary Williams' Terrapins had a seven-game winning streak snapped by Miami.
TAMPA, Fla. -- The ACC tournament is only five hours old, and already fifth-seeded Maryland has lost the desirable label of "nation's hottest team" and replaced it with a big, fat question mark. An ugly, 67-62 loss to last-place Miami has a swift way of altering how you're perceived by the rest of the nation.

The Terrapins (24-7, 10-6 ACC) arrived at St. Pete Times Forum this week with reason to be optimistic. A seven-game winning streak, which included two victories over rival Duke and one over North Carolina, had catapulted them off of the road to the NIT and into discussions over whether they'd be seeded third or fourth in the NCAAs. They had gone from left for dead after a 2-5 start in the ACC to being a popular darkhorse Final Four pick. And then somewhere in between their last victory -- a season-ending, 20-point rout of N.C. State on March 3 -- and the postgame locker room scene here on Thursday, with the exquisitely afroed Bambale Osby slumped over in his chair, sulking, and coach Gary Williams grimly fielding questions near the door, Maryland lost either its mojo or its motivation, or both.

"We thought we earned the right to win this game without going out and doing it," said Williams, whose team was outrebounded by a margin of 42-34. "We had to fight so hard to get back into the conference [race], and then once we got there, it was like we relaxed."

The nature of the loss to the 'Canes -- the fact that Miami only shot 35 percent, and committed 18 turnovers against four assists yet still managed to come out on top -- should be troubling for Terps fans. Maryland, which was an aggressive team during its streak, looked tentative against Miami's zone ("We had no patience whatsoever to attack it," Williams said) and settled for an inaccurate barrage of three-pointers, shooting 3-of-18 on the day.

In the big picture, what does this mean? For NCAA tournament seeding, it means that Maryland -- projected as a No. 4 heading into the day -- could drop down to the No. 5 line and miss out on getting a geographical advantage in the first and second rounds. (Goodbye, Buffalo; hello, Spokane?) For Williams, it means he'll have to refuel the fire that the Terps had on their seven-game run, which may not be all that hard to do, seeing that the Terps are only 11 days removed from their upset of the Heels, and eight days past their second beatdown of the Blue Devils. And for all the rest of us, who have brackets to fill out in three days, it means we now have to reconsider just how dangerous this darkhorse really is.

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3/08/2007 04:26:00 PM

It's All About Al

Al Thornton posted a 25-point, 11-rebound performance against Clemson.
TAMPA, Fla. -- The natural reaction, most of the time when one watches Al Thornton play for Florida State, is to be awed by his talent and sympathetic toward his situation. Thornton is the college equivalent of Kevin Garnett: a superhuman player whose fate is to be stuck on an underachieving team.

If the NCAA allowed trades, you'd beg for Thornton to be shipped to North Carolina or UCLA, just to see what he might do in a Final Four, instead of what he's doing now -- which is putting a 7-9 ACC team on his back night after night, and painstakingly dragging it toward one of the final at-large spots in the NCAA tournament. The 'Noles appear safe in most bracket projections after Thornton scored 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to carry them past Clemson in Thursday's ACC tournament opener -- a game that FSU still came dangerously close to blowing -- but it is not yet guaranteed to be dancing.

Thornton, a senior who averages 20.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, is a lock for the NBA lottery, and is the best current college player who has never been to the NCAA tournament. And he wants, desperately, to play in one before his career ends in Tallahassee.

When the 'Noles were shut out of the tourney last season, Thornton boycotted the telecasts, because, he said, "I could not watch." A few days after scoring 21 points and grabbing eight rebounds to beat Duke at Cameron Indoor last month, Thornton took a black Sharpie and wrote "NCAA '07" on the toe of his left shoe -- but with point guard Toney Douglas injured, FSU lost five straight and found itself on the precipice of the NIT. With 45 points and eight rebounds in a win over Miami last week, and 24 points in the first 39 minutes against Clemson Thursday, Al had nearly, and almost single-handedly, rescued them. "He's brought this team a long way," Douglas said of Thornton. "He deserves to go to the tournament, after everything that's happened."

But in the final minute of Thursday's game, the 'Noles (20-11) seemed to be headed for the most depressing ending imaginable. With 1:39 left, Thornton had driven baseline, blowing by the Tigers' Cliff Hammonds for a dunk that tied the game at 66 -- a play Al made because, he said, "the game was getting out of hand, and I felt like I had to impose my will."

Over the course of the day, Thornton roused a sleepy Tampa crowd by scoring on driving dunks like that one, follow-dunks, mid-range jumpers and beautifully arcing three-pointers ... but when the 'Noles got the ball for what was presumably their final possession, with 54 seconds left, the score still frozen at 66-66, and the crowd in a frenzy, it never got the ball to Al. Coach Leonard Hamilton's play (which was of questionable design) fell apart, and as freshman forward Ryan Reid -- a 2.8-points-per-game scorer -- had his shot stuffed by Clemson's Trevor Booker to run out the shot clock, all you could do was shake your head. That, and feel sorry for Al, who, the nice guy that he is, walked over to Reid and gently patted him on the head.

It was then that the basketball gods intervened. A perfectly fine pass slipped out of Hammonds' hands with eight seconds left and created a backcourt violation -- divined amends for a season in which Thornton was robbed of the ACC MVP honors, losing it to Boston College's Jared Dudley by 15 votes ("There's not a player better than Al in this league," Douglas said); and a career in which he had toiled in relative obscurity. FSU was getting the ball back, and Thornton had to get the ball this time, right?

Thornton's defining characteristic -- more so than his versatile athleticism or unconscious scoring ability -- is his cold-blooded stare. It's reminiscent of the one K.G. so often flashes in tense moments; Thornton's head lowers, his eyes narrow, and his mouth closes over his braces, forming an emotionless expression. We saw it in the first half when Thornton chose to violently discard his headband ("When I get aggravated," he said, "the headband kind of just comes off") before going a scoring run that left him with 18 points at the break. We saw it on the dunk that tied it at 66-66, after which walked directly up to a ref, silently, and scarily, pleading for a foul. (Al does not argue, he only stares.) And we saw it when he rightfully got the ball on the 'Noles' final final possession, drove into the lane, and drew a controversial foul on the Tigers' K.C. Rivers with 1.5 seconds left. "I was kind of shocked that I got that call," said Thornton, who found himself on the free throw line with a chance to shoot Florida State off of the bubble.

But in a season where nothing has come easy for Florida State, neither would the perfect ending. Thornton clanked the first free throw off the back rim.

"I was kind of nervous," Thornton said. "I've never been in that type of situation before. The pressure was on."

He took a deep breath. Relaxed. The cold Thornton stare left his face for a moment. He knocked down the second shot. Clemson missed a futile, last-second heave. "It was a do-or-die game," Thornton said. "If we would have lost, it was no-way; NIT bound."

After the buzzer sounded, Thornton was smiling (flashing the braces) and pointing with both hands toward his parents, who were looking on from the first row. There were plenty of reasons to be sympathetic for Al Thornton this season -- and there will probably be another one tomorrow, when FSU runs into top-seeded North Carolina -- but his career looks as if it will not end in the NIT. Thursday, he was the biggest feel-good story in all of college hoops.

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3/08/2007 11:48:00 AM

Morning At The ACC

St. Pete Forum
Luke Winn/SI
It's the opening morning of the ACC tournament ... and all the scalpers look like my grandparents.

Silver Foxes
Luke Winn/SI

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