Hair was not an issue when Mount St. Mary's Jim Phelan and Michigan State's Jud Heathcote began their coaching careers four decades ago. Both bowed out in the first round, but only Phelan's departure (a 113-67 sacrifice to Kentucky) was expected. Heathcote couldn't hide his disappointment after his Spartans fell to Weber State—nor could departing back-court aces Shawn Respert and Eric Snow, both of whom were still in tears a full hour after the game—but the crusty Heathcote dutifully appeared at the NCAA-mandated press conference and, after taking a few minutes to collect his emotions once he had returned to the locker room, entertained questions from every last reporter who hung around there, too.
Contrast Heathcote's performance with that of Knight, who, given the opportunity to act like a horse's posterior, gladly accepted. Knight did not accompany his players Alan Henderson and Brian Evans to the podium for the session that followed a depressing 65-60 loss to Missouri in the first round in Boise. Knight showed up 15 minutes later, by which time Mizzou's Norm Stewart and his players were already taking questions, and then went ballistic when he found out that press conference moderator Rance Pugmire had told reporters that Knight wasn't coming. After the Missouri contingent was finished, Knight took the stage and used the opportunity to swear at and embarrass Pugmire. It was a pathetic performance, and next to the grace displayed by the players throughout the tournament, it was shameful.
Particularly graceful in the first two rounds was the overall play of the guards. On the backcourt menu were terrific trios, dynamic duos and superb solos. Heck, St. Louis, a first-round 64-61 OT winner over Minnesota, didn't even list a center in its starting lineup. Instead, the Billikens put down three G's. Anybody hear of the following backcourt combos before last weekend? Jeff Massey and Michael Hawkins of Xavier? They gave Georgetown all it could handle before falling 68-63 in the first round. How about Derrick Cross and Chris McGuire of Miami of Ohio? They attached themselves like ticks to Stoudamire, which explains Stoudamire's 6-of-18 shooting, and were just as aggressive against Virginia's Deane in Round 2 before falling 60-54 in overtime. Did you know of bosom-buddy backcourtmen Alvin (Pooh) Williamson and Shea Seals of Tulsa? They combined for 50 points—78% of the Golden Hurricanes' scoring—in Sunday's 64-52 second-round victory over Old Dominion.
And after watching Colgate's gunslinger of a shooting guard, Tucker Neale, go for 25 points during an 82-68 loss to Kansas in the first round of the Midwest Regional, one couldn't help but wonder how much difference there really is between his game and that of the Jayhawks' superb workaholic at that position, Jerod Haase. Neale doesn't wonder. "I see these guys on TV and say to myself, I'm as good as or better than any of them," he said. That sentiment was echoed by St. Louis's Scott Highmark, who had 22 points in the Billikens' 64-59 second-round loss to Wake Forest. "So many good guards never get the chance for major exposure or to play with great big men because we get a rap out of high school," said Highmark. " 'He's a step slow. He's not quite big enough to be a two-guard.' But, really, good guards are a dime a dozen."
That might be an exaggeration. At tournament time, though, most mid-major programs, lacking a Duncan or a Smith, must scramble the strategic eggs with their backcourt. St. Louis coach Charlie Spoonhour did it by allowing Highmark and fellow flingers Erwin Claggett and H Waldman to rain treys upon the heads of Minnesota and Wake Forest. Murray State's Edgar did it by turning loose his threesome of guards—Marcus Brown, William Moore and Vincent Rainey—on North Carolina. Murray's two starting frontcourtmen, Fred Walker and Dwayne Davis, finished with zero points while Brown, Moore and Rainey combined for 61 of the aptly anointed Racers' 70. Texas's Tom Penders did it by turning the game over to Terrence Rencher and Roderick Anderson, a back-court tandem that presses and yearns to be pressed. "When [we get pressed], I don't have to call as many plays and I can just let those two work their magic," says Penders. The magic worked in a 90-73 first-round rout of Oregon but failed against the more formidable wizardry of Maryland's Smith, who had 31 points and 21 rebounds in the Terps' 82-68 victory.
Indeed, at tournament time even control-freak coaches are sometimes forced to sit back and let their quarterbacks call the plays. "A lot of what works in the tournament are breakdown plays," says North Carolina Charlotte coach Jeff Mullins, whose 49ers were themselves broken down by Stanford point guard Brevin Knight in a 70-68 first-round loss in the East. "Everyone is so well-scouted that the defense can disrupt a set offense and a guard has to freelance a little bit. That's why teams with consistent guard play advance." And keep in mind that freelance doesn't mean up-tempo. Tournament games are often in the hands of guards precisely because the action is more deliberate. "Players become conservative, and coaches quit experimenting," says Wake Forest coach Dave Odom. "Every possession is important." That's when good, strong-willed floor leaders come to the fore, and in Childress, Odom may have the best. "He's like a drill sergeant," says Demon Deacon senior forward Travis (Scooter) Banks.
But even Childress needs something more than a rude 'tude and his own skills, which were painstakingly constructed from hours of practice. He needs Duncan, the 6'10" sophomore man-child who almost flawlessly fills the middle for Wake Forest. Freshman forward Raef LaFrentz makes the point in a Kansas Jayhawk context: "You can pack it in against us and the outside guys will kill you, or you can guard the perimeter and we'll eat you up inside. It's a huge advantage in this tournament to have two solid forces."
Two solid forces. "Maybe we could've neutralized Childress," says Highmark. "But Duncan?" He shakes his head. "We just don't have one of those." Few teams have an Erick Dampier, either. He's a 6'11", 255-pound force of nature for Mississippi State, but his talents would not be nearly so formidable without the presence of guard Darryl Wilson. In Sunday's 78-64 win over Utah in the West, Dampier dominated the first half with 16 points; when Dampier started getting extra attention, Wilson found room to score 24 of his game-high 32 points in the second.
Probably the clearest example of a solid one-two punch is Oklahoma State's combination of Bryant Reeves on the inside and Randy Rutherford on the outside. Rutherford, in fact, might be the most underrated player in the tournament, as well as a somewhat more hip example of Okiedom than Big Country. Rutherford hails from Broken Bow, whose population of 4,000 makes it, as he is quick to point out, about 10 times the size of Reeves's native Gans. Rutherford shoots horseshoes in the summer and chews on a toothpick all the time, a habit that replaced an old obsession with chewing tobacco. "I eat with it," says Rutherford of his 'pick. "I sleep with it. I even have sex with it." All in all, tobacco might be less dangerous.
Can this countrified combo take the Cowboys all the way? Probably not. At the Sweet 16 checkpoint it's necessary to have still another dimension beyond LaFrentz's two forces. And who has it? In the West it's UCLA, which has the enthusiasm of youth in freshmen Toby Bailey and J.R. Henderson, and the stability of experience in Edney and star foward Ed O'Bannon. In the Midwest it's Kansas, which has a three-man forest of a front line to stop Arkansas's Williamson and a coach, Roy Williams, to counteract the karma of Thurman. In the East it's Massachusetts, which has an x-factor named Lou Roe at forward to complement the classic combo of caretaker point guard Derek Kellogg and graceful pivotman Marcus Camby. In the Southeast it's Kentucky, which has superior depth—nine players average double-digit minutes—and a manic bench jockey named Rick Pitino, who's ready to win it all. And, oh, yes, the Wildcats also have the Sweet 16's designated philosopher, a bruising frontcourtman named Mark Pope.