Only in its dreams does a school without athletic scholarships knock the defending champs out of the NCAA tournament with a backdoor layup. Wishful reverie, nothing else, would allow a freshman to misplace his shoes and socks and still help shoot a No. 12 seed past a five and then a four. Only daft fantasy puts Tumbleweed Tech from a going-out-of-business football conference 25 points up on North Carolina in the second half, and brings a backboard crashing down on the Tar Heels to boot.
First conceive it, then achieve it. Come the NCAA tournament, matters are sometimes that stark and simple. "Wasn't that just perfect?" said Princeton's sophomore guard Mitch Henderson, pulling his head up suddenly from the box score in the aftermath of the Tigers' 43-41 upset of UCLA. "A backdoor pass to win the game. A backdoor!"
If there really is a hoop heaven, the house band would be Princeton's, troubadours in straw hats who played the theme from Underdog late in the Tigers' victory. Sitting in with them would be Drexel's Malik Rose, who had 21 points and 15 rebounds in the 12th-seeded Dragons' 75-63 first-round defeat of No. 5 seed Memphis, for he was an all-state player in high school—an all-state tuba player. As for All-Americas, of the schoolboy basketball variety, Duke had five on the floor at one point during its game with Eastern Michigan and still lost 75-60.
Princeton, Drexel and Eastern Michigan were all one-hit wonders that failed to survive the second round. But other dreamers stepped in to trump them with figments of their own, sometimes involving faraway places. Georgetown forward Boubacar Aw, who used to get up at four in the morning to watch the NCAA championship game on TV in Senegal, yearns to reach the Meadowlands this year because only the Final Four is aired at home. "My mother and I have not seen each other for a long time," says Aw. "If we get to the Final Four, she will be able to watch and say, 'Look, there is my son on television.' " Massachusetts point guard Edgar Padilla grew up shooting at an empty paint can hanging from a fence in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico; last week, seated on the bench late in the Minutemen's first-round defeat of Central Florida, he turned to his deaf father, Mariano, in the stands, and the two made postgame plans in sign language. And to Doron Sheffer, Connecticut's Israeli floor leader, the Huskies' winning it all would not be so wild a dream, for in 1993 Sheffer led Galil Elyon to an Israeli national championship over Maccabi Tel Aviv, which to that point had won 23 straight titles.
Shortly after Sheffer and the Huskies ended Eastern Michigan's run and Syracuse halted Drexel's, Mississippi State brought to a close the 30-year college coaching career of Princeton's Pete Carril. The Bulldogs have a dreamer of their own in junior forward Dontaé Jones, a high school dropout so devoted to the sport that once, when a bench-clearing brawl broke out during one of his school's games, he came out of the stands, where he had been sitting because of an injury, picked up the game ball and began shooting jumpers while the fight continued. "Fists were flying everywhere, and I'd just be ducking around them, practicing my moves," he says. After Northeast Mississippi Community College coach Mike Lewis spotted him in a Nashville midnight-basketball league two years ago, Jones picked up his high school equivalency diploma, enrolled at Northeast Mississippi and then bagged 36 credit hours over the summer to become eligible for the Bulldogs. "I burn for the game," says Jones, who singed Virginia Commonwealth and Princeton with a combined 24 points.
Georgia Tech sophomore forward Matt Harpring, who in the Yellow Jackets' two NCAA wins over Austin Peay and Boston College scored 47 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and added six assists, four steals and a blocked shot, has had to be every bit as persistent as Jones. Plus, at a press conference last Saturday he had to listen to a pissant freshman—well, O.K., it was Tech teammate Stephon Marbury, who had his best game yet as a collegian in the Yellow Jackets' 103-89 defeat of BC—call him "not very talented." Harpring almost wound up at Duke or Northwestern on a football scholarship because his efforts to wheedle a basketball grant-in-aid out of Tech coach Bobby Cremins were going nowhere. Only after Yellow Jackets assistant Kevin Cantwell all but threatened to quit and malcontent forward Martice Moore transferred to Colorado did Cremins relent. Over the summer Harpring, who had made the ACC's all-freshman team, added six inches to his vertical leap and 25 pounds to his frame. "Last year he played into you," says Cantwell. "Now he plays over you."
Harpring's mix of motion, spot-up jumpers, putbacks and other scavengings—"call it a snowflake game," he says, "a lot of little things that add up to something big"—helped Tech rebound from a 6-7 start to win the ACC regular-season title. "I'd be miserable," Cremins confesses, "if he were playing someplace else."
Unlike Harpring, Wake Forest guard Rusty LaRue didn't give up his football career when he reached college. In fact, LaRue, a Deamon Deacon senior, balances the demands of basketball, football (as Wake's starting quarterback, he's the holder of eight NCAA passing and total-offense records), baseball (he's a pitcher), marriage (to Tammy, his sweetheart since his freshman year in high school), fatherhood (son Riley was born at 4:08 a.m. on Jan. 31, only hours before dad scored seven points in a win over North Carolina State) and school (he had a 4.0 grade point average as a computer science major last fall). After Deacon floor leader Tony Rutland sprained his knee in Wake's victory over Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament final, LaRue assumed the additional duties of point guard. During the Deacons' 65-62 second-round triumph over relentless Texas, he played 37 minutes, scored 14 points and had seven rebounds. "I enjoy everything I do," LaRue said afterward. "But I'm not used to playing point guard, and I'm really tired."
On Selection Sunday, Arkansas was the most astonishing team to receive a bid, slipping into the draw as the 12th seed in the East after a season of losses, academic suspensions and injuries that left coach Nolan Richardson starting four freshmen in the NCAAs. Yet the Razorbacks advanced, thanks in part to the unlikeliest of Hogs. Pat Bradley is a Massachusetts kid who knocked down four three-pointers in a 65-56 second-round defeat of Marquette. Then he had to fly back to Arkansas wearing sneakers with his best suit because he had mistakenly shipped off his shoes, socks and underwear with the equipment manager.
"Normally I've got them taught, and all I have to do is coach," said Richardson. "But this year it was all teach, teach, teach." After the SEC tournament, figuring he had done as much teaching as he could, Richardson told his team to quit playing walk-it-up and implement the 40 Minutes of Hell style that had led to the Hogs' playing on the first Monday night in April each of the past two years.