An Insider's Guide to the NCAA's
This is not the-time of year for perspective. After Western Carolina earned a berth in the NCAAs by winning the Southern Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., on March 3, Catamounts coach Phil Hopkins asked the public address announcer to make a very public proposal to his girlfriend, Bronda Dedmon: Would she marry the coach? Hopkins's intended happily gave the Man-Albert response, but later the press popped a question of its own: Which was bigger, Coach, making the field of 64 or getting Bronda's assent?
"Well," Hopkins said, with less hesitation than the future Mrs. Hopkins could have liked, "I've been married before"
Ah, the first time. There's nothing like it—even if you're going up against No. 1-seeded Purdue, as the Catamounts are. Monmouth, North Carolina-Greensboro and Valparaiso will also get their first exposure to March Madness.
The results from last weekend's conference tournaments offered a foretaste of the chaos likely to besiege the sport over the next three weeks. Championship games in league tournament after league tournament—from the Big Hast to the Big Eight; from Conference USA, which needed overtime in its final, to the Big West and the ACC—were decided by a single point. Selection Sunday turned into Black Sabbath for the two teams that drew virtually every vote for preseason No. 1. First, Kansas saw its top seeding turn to rock chalk with a loss to Iowa State in the Big Eight final. Then fissures of vulnerability appeared in the armor of mighty Kentucky, a loser to Mississippi State in the SEC final. Suddenly the NCAAs began to take on the promise of the Indiana state high school tournament, that free-for-all in which even the tiny Milan Highs can win it all.
As you stare down your draw sheet, trying to sort out the Cinderellas from the evil stepsisters, we offer a compendium of what to look for between now and April Fool's Day. Forget midnight. We've entered that time of year when the bewitching hour comes at 12:15 p.m. EST, the starting time for the first opening-round games.
Kansas won't win this year's NCAA tournament. Neither will Georgetown or any of the mighty three from Conference USA, Cincinnati, Memphis and Louisville. That's because all are sub-par foul-shooters, and no team in 22 years has won an NCAA title while making free throws at a percentage below the national average, which this season was 67.3%.
Memphis at 62.2% and Georgetown at 64.1% are especially vulnerable, but Kansas and Arizona (at 64.5%), Louisville (65.5%), Texas Tech (66.1%) and Cincinnati (67.0%) aren't much better. The last team to win a championship while neglecting this critical aspect of the game was John Wooden's 1973 UCLA Bruins. (Curiously, only three of the 10 UCLA teams that won titles from 1964 through '75—all thought to be so fundamentally sound—shot fouls better than the national average. All of which might go to show how much more raw talent those Bruins possessed than their rivals.)
As for those teams with an advantage in tight games, Utah (the nation's best at 78.0%), Connecticut (73.7%), Iowa (72.4%), Marquette (71.6%) and Wake Forest (70.5%) are all well above average from the line. Wake ranks high even though its oft-fouled center, Tim Duncan, ashamedly confessed to coach Dave Odom a few weeks ago that he was the worst free throw shooter among the starters. "I knew it," says Odom, "but I wasn't going to tell him."