If the NCAA tournament has taught us one thing over the last few years besides the most annoying way to telestrate a skip pass (freeze that!), it is that the Final Four almost always includes an Unexpected Final One (or UFO). There was Cincinnati last season, Kansas the year before, Seton Hall in '89 and Providence in '87. All were unranked at the beginning of the year, but aided by a timely coalescence and often abetted by a fortuitous draw, they soared from off the charts to have a shot at the crown in the finals. Which interloper will make that run this season? Here, with an eye to UFO sightings past, are the possibilities to consider.
Like Kansas's balanced '91 team, which featured the steady play of Mark Randall, some UFOs are piloted by an established frontcourt player. Foremost among these is Wake Forest, which has junior forward Rodney Rogers. At 6'7" and 245 pounds, Rogers is a pro vision—some suspect he will be the first player taken in the 1993 NBA draft—who is looking to provide even more offense after averaging 20.5 points on only 14 shots a game in 1991-92. "I had a good year," he says, "but it could have been better." Let the backboards beware.
A high school pitcher, Rogers has set aside his 90-mph fastball to focus on hoops. Not so 6'7" senior guard Scott Burrell of Connecticut, who is a pitching prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays' farm system. With Husky forward Donyell Marshall at his side, Burrell should last until the tournament's late innings. Illinois power forward Deon Thomas can now concentrate on one court rather than two. His case against ex-Iowa assistant coach Bruce Pearl, who taped a 1989 conversation in which Mini assistant Jimmy Collins allegedly offered Thomas $80,000 and a Chevy Blazer, has been thrown out of legal court. On the hardwood court Thomas (19.4 points, 6.9 boards last season) will get some outside help from 6'6" shooter Andy Kaufmann, an academic casualty last season who averaged 21.3 points in 1990-91.
After carrying Utah to a 30-4 record in 1990-91, multitalented forward Josh Grant is back, too; he was sidelined last season by a knee injury. Also returning to action is 6'6" Jarvis Lang of North Carolina Charlotte, who in 1990-91 became only the third player to lead all freshmen in both scoring and rebounding (the others: Iona's Jeff Ruland in 1976-77 and Oklahoma's Wayman Tisdale in '82-83) but then broke his left wrist two games into '91-92.
Oregon State will pose a double threat to defenders, with forward Chad Scott and center Scott Haskin working the low post. The gifted Scott was averaging 17.8 points and 8.3 boards per game last year when he was declared academically ineligible 13 games into the season. Then in April he really got into trouble when he robbed a Domino's delivery man at gunpoint—swiping only the pizza, not the cash—and was sentenced to three years of supervised probation. If Scott can stay out of trouble, academic and otherwise, he will join Haskin (an 18.0-ppg scorer who already holds the Beavers' career record for blocked shots) On the foremost front line in the Pac-10.
Missouri has had the past two Players of the Year in the Big Eight—first Doug Smith, then Anthony Peeler—and 6'9" junior Jevon Crudup (15.3 points, 8.2 rebounds) may join them before he's done. At Southwestern Louisiana forward Todd Mill is the offensive hub, but defense will fuel the Ragin' Cajuns. Expect improvement from New Orleans's 6'11" Ervin Johnson, who has bulked up 16 pounds, to 240. Like magic, Johnson has blossomed in just four years from a 6'3" grocery-store clerk and walk-on into a bona tide shot-swatting terror.
Other schools will hitch a ride on stars whose monikers are slightly less familiar. Parrish Casebier of Evansville has a game that's as exotic as his name. At 6'3" and 220 pounds, wide of shoulder, broad of hip and slight of conscience about his shot selection. Casebier averaged 25.4 points (Kith in the nation) and 9.5 rebounds as a sophomore last season; in a 74-56 defeat of Notre Dame he scored 41 points while holding 6'8" LaPhonso Ellis to eight. Idaho has 6'7" Orlando Lightfoot, who moved to Moscow from Hiwassee (Teen.) Junior College and averaged 21.8 points last season. Though 6'8" Ashraf Amaya of Southern Illinois is polite and soft-spoken—he went through four years of high school answering to the name Andrew before straightening things out—he weighs in with 230 pounds of double-double trouble (19.4 points, 10.3 rebounds) for the Salukis.
A radically altered crew can propel a UFO as well; witness juco-laden Cincinnati last season. No team will get a bigger boost from new arrivals than Purdue will from Glenn Robinson, a 6'9" fusion of toughness and touch, and 6'9" juco transfer Kenny Williams. Among the nation's top schoolboys in '91 at Gary (Ind.) Roosevelt High, Robinson sat out last season when he failed to make Prop 42 requirements, then was the talk of Europe—vraiment!—when he led a team of all-stars in scoring and rebounding this summer. "We've always said that we didn't have an impact player," says Boilermaker coach Gene Keady, whose teams are famous for making early exits from the tournament in March, "so now maybe we'll have one and see if that's the answer."
Georgia coach Hugh Durham will mold a red-clay recruiting class of five in-state freshmen, among them 6'8" strongman Carlos Strong, who is one of the nation's top-rated prospects, and 6'6" swingman Shandon Anderson, who is the brother of ex-Bulldog and current San Antonio Spur Willie Anderson. With freshmen Duane Spencer and Othella Harrington (page 68), Georgetown will keep its legacy of twin towers alive. George Washington coach Mike Jarvis, meanwhile, is giddy about the arrival of 7'1", 265-pound Yinka Dare (pronounced DAH-ray) of Nigeria. "Are you more excited driving a Cadillac or a Ford?" asks Jarvis, who knows a little about riding in luxury. He coached Patrick Ewing at Rindge & Latin High in Cambridge, Mass.
BYU will have to wait another year for 7'6" center Shawn Bradley to return from his Mormon mission in Australia, but among the 10 returning lettermen in Provo this year is 6'7" forward Mark Durrant, who was on his own mission in Kentucky for the last two years. He'll team up on the front line with Cougar center Gary Trost, who performed a near miraculous deed at a crash site while on vacation in Idaho in August. He helped pull a family of seven out of a van two minutes before it burst into flames. Trost and his wife, Sheri, had aided accident victims twice before. "If it happens again," he says, "I'm going to drop basketball and become an emergency medical technician."