The early rounds of the 1995 NCAA basketball tournament produced talk of ponytails and shaved heads, of toothpicks and Nirvana T-shirts, of sad swan songs (goodbye, Jud Heathcote) and fantastic flameouts (good riddance to the Big Ten, whose six teams were gone by the end of the second round), and yet another unseemly incident involving that train wreck of a human being named Robert Montgomery Knight. And that was all before Scintillating Sunday, a glorious seven hours of heroics, heartbreak and history.
Consider all that happened between the Georgetown-Weber State tip-off at noon in Tallahassee, Fla., and the Arkansas-Syracuse spine tingler that ended at 7:15 in Austin, Texas: Georgetown's Don Reid did a Lorenzo Charles, UCLA's Tyus Edney did a Danny Ainge, and Syracuse's Lawrence Moten did a Chris Webber. And as for Arkansas's Scotty Thurman, all he did was a Scotty Thurman.
And what had all this wrought? Well, there was, during Rounds 1 and 2, much muscle flexing and even a little earthshaking from some of those fill-ins on your office draw sheet—the Old Dominions, the Manhattans, the Miami of Ohios. Only one top seed, Kentucky in the Southeast, made it through to the Sweet 16 comfortably. Two No. 2 seeds, Arkansas and North Carolina, are lucky to be alive, and three No. 3's, Michigan State, Purdue and Villanova, will be at home this weekend adjusting their sets and boning up on the background of Boubacar Aw, the Hoya forward from Senegal.
The cause of college geography was served by all this, incidentally. Before Miami of Ohio, led by a dreadlocked warrior named Devin Davis, chewed up Arizona 71-62 in the first round of the Midwest Regional, Wildcat All-America Damon Stoudamire was only vaguely aware that Ohio even had its own Miami. And we now have a better fix on the location of Weber (pronounced WEE-ber) State, which toppled Michigan State 79-72 in Round 1. "I tell everybody it's 150 miles east of Wendover, Nevada," says center Jeff Lentfer. Oh.
Yet sort it all out, and this indisputable fact remains: This year's Sweet 16 looks strikingly like a congregation of college basketball's rich and famous. For all the talk of parity this season, the lowest seeds to make the quarterfinal field were a trio of sixes, Tulsa, Georgetown and Memphis, whose contribution to Scintillating Sunday was David Vaughn's last-second putback to beat Purdue. And none of those three schools is exactly Slippery Rock. In each of the previous five NCAA tournaments there had been one 12th-seeded interloper in the Sweet 16, but no Cinderellas advanced this year. In the 11 years since the field was expanded to 64, only the 1989 tournament had a stronger stack of high seeds, and even that group included a No. 11, Minnesota.
Chances are, then, that the national champion crowned on April 3 in Seattle will not be a major surprise. Then again, it rarely is. Year after year, lesser-known teams produce a handful of upsets in the first round of the tournament but can't do it again 48 hours later. The reason? They have terrific backcourt players, and they have an imaginative game plan that utilizes those players and "stretches the game out," as Murray State coach Scott Edgar put it after his team scared the tar out of North Carolina in an 80-70 first-round game that was much closer than the score indicated. But what they don't have is a frontcourt of concomitant talent and effectiveness.
It can work the other way, too, of course. Alabama sophomore center Antonio McDyess, possibly the tournament's biggest individual surprise, could have sued for nonsupport from his back-court after the Crimson Tide fell to balanced Oklahoma State 66-52 in a second-round game in Baltimore. But generally the half-a-loaf teams in the NCAAs lack a formidable department of the interior, and that's why guards on those teams will be home watching on TV as Wake Forest's backcourt master, Randolph Childress, teams up with Tim Duncan, Maryland's Johnny Rhodes works with Joe Smith, and Virginia's Harold Deane feeds off Junior Burrough in the Sweet 16.
And, oh, the pain that some of those viewers will feel. Like Ruben Nembhard, the splendid Philadelphia-born, Bronx-raised Weber State guard whose Wildcats were beaten in Tallahassee when Reid followed up Allen Iverson's air-balled jumper at the buzzer with a teetering tip-in that gave the Hoyas a 53-51 victory in overtime. The play conjured up memories of Charles's follow shot, which gave Jim Valvano and North Carolina State the NCAA title in 1983 and which Reid said he had watched on an NCAA anthology show on ESPN just the night before his own heroics. Missouri's bullnecked shooting guard, Paul O'Liney, is another sad soul. His 23 points against UCLA were wasted when Edney, in a play reminiscent of Ainge's mad full-court dash through Notre Dame in Brigham Young's 1981 East Regional semifinal victory, threaded his way through the Tigers in 4.8 seconds for a buzzer-beating basket that gave UCLA a 75-74 win in the West Regional in Boise, Idaho. And it was perhaps most painful for Moten, who, with Syracuse leading 82-81 and in possession of the ball with only 4.3 seconds left, called a timeout the Orangemen didn't have (a la Michigan's Webber, in the Wolverines' 1993 final-game loss to North Carolina) and thus incurred a technical foul. Thurman went to the line to shoot the two free throws and made one to put the West Regional second-rounder into overtime. In the extra session the Hogs rode Thurman's clutch touch, as they did so many times during last season's title run, to a 96-94 victory. Yes, Sunday's events will be long remembered.
And so should some of the lesser subplots of Rounds 1 and 2. There was, for example, the ponytail that blew freely in the breeze during St. Peter's 68-51 loss to Massachusetts in the East Regional. "It's part of me," said Mike Frensley, the Peacocks' point guard, shrugging. As is the white T-shirt bearing a likeness of the late grunge-rock idol Kurt Cobain of Nirvana that Frensley wore to one press conference. Still, it was a Led Zeppelin CD that was spinning on Frensley's portable player after the loss to UMass. No stairway to heaven this year, dude.
Less hair, not more, was the style for Old Dominion, which pulled off the biggest first-round shocker by beating Villanova 89-81 in triple overtime in the East. Every one of the Monarchs shaved his head before the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, including guard Petey Sessoms, who outplayed Big East player of the year Kerry Kittles with 35 points in 53 minutes in the thriller against the Wildcats. Four North Carolina players, starters Jerry Stackhouse and Jeff McInnis and backups Ed Geth and Shammond Williams, also scalped themselves as a good-luck gesture before the first game in Tallahassee, joining guard Donald Williams, who had already adopted the bald look. Tar Heel heartthrob Dante Calabria, however, was not asked to participate. "We'd have all the girls at Carolina ready to kill us," said Stackhouse.