The other surprise team from the SEC is as whiskered as Pat and the Piglets are young. None of Georgia's eight seniors had been to the NCAAs until this season; hence the disappointment felt by one of them, starting point guard Pertha Robinson, when he was felled by the flu and had to remain in his hotel room for the Dawgs' first-round game with Clemson. "I wanted to cry," he would later say. "To finally get here and not be able to play...."
To make matters worse, the game was not on local TV, and a buddy had to phone Robinson every few minutes with updates on Georgia's 81-74 victory. Inasmuch as Robinson hadn't eaten for two days and was hospitalized briefly for dehydration, it was understandable that he failed to reach double figures on Saturday in the eighth-seeded Dawgs' 76-69 ousting of No. 1 seed Purdue. But every other Georgia starter did so, which left Boilermakers coach Gene Keady fuming and snarling on the sideline.
If the Southeast was the region of fallen champions (UCLA, Duke and Indiana all lost there in the opening round), and the West was proverbially wild, wild (that's where Purdue fell and where Drexel took out Memphis), then the Midwest Region was the Hot Zone. Viruses slowed that bracket's two marquee players, Wake Forest's Tim Duncan and Utah's Keith Van Horn, yet their teams advanced just the same. The Utes won, thanks to 6'11", 260-pound Michael Doleac, a doughy sophomore biology major. With foul trouble keeping Van Horn, who had been too sick to play in Utah's tournament opener, on the bench for most of the second half of the Utes' 73-67 second-round victory over Iowa State, Doleac—a.k.a. S.S. Doley, Baby Huey and Cranium—went for a career-high 23 points. "Everybody's always calling me something," says Doleac, who called his own number, grabbing six of his 12 rebounds from the offensive glass.
Louisville point guard DeJuan Wheat wasn't ill, but a severely jammed right middle finger played havoc with his shooting stroke over the last month of the season. Wheat first taped the distressed digit to his index finger, only to shoot 0 for 9 in his next game. Then he taped it to his ring finger and went 2 for 16. Finally Wheat's aunt, Rosemary Easley, stole into his bedroom one evening and, as DeJuan was napping, said a prayer while rubbing his finger with some unidentified ointment. Perhaps that explains Wheat's 33 points, including 6 of 11 from beyond the arc, in an 82-80 overtime defeat of Tulsa, and his 19 points, including a jumper and two free throws in the final minute, as the Cards turned back a late Villanova run and eliminated the No. 3 seed 68-64.
Texas Tech forward Darvin Ham had a little support from his family, too. "Bring the backboard back for me," his brother DeRonnie had told him on the eve of the Red Raiders' second-round game with North Carolina. Tech trailed 16-14 when Ham rose to follow-dunk a miss by teammate Jason Sasser and came down with more than a mere two points. "I just wanted to run around the court and do backflips," said the Tech senior of the shot that (with apologies to Darryl Dawkins) might hereafter be known as the Wham Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Ham Jam. "I can't wait to go home and watch it on SportsCenter."
Ham's demolition of the backboard touched off much chest bumping (Sasser with Ham), high-fiving (Carolina's Jeff McInnis with Ham) and rubbernecking (by Georgetown's Allen Iverson, who bolted from his postgame interviews to admire the wreckage). It also caused a 27-minute delay, during which several players showered to remove shards of glass that had rained down on them. After play resumed the Red Raiders scored 10 unanswered points and, ultimately, a 92-73 victory. Tar Heel coach Dean Smith later referred to the incident as "that backboard thing," as if Ham's slam were some monster risen from the muck. To be sure, there was something vaguely supernatural about the result: It was the first time Texas Tech had ever reached the Sweet 16, and only the second time in 16 years that Carolina had failed to do so.
As the Red Raiders and the soon-to-be-defunct Southwest Conference ride off with some satisfaction into the sunset, the football-fixated SEC is enjoying a basketball boom-let, having won all eight of its games in the first two rounds. That league provided a top seed (Kentucky) and knocked off another (Purdue, beaten by Georgia), and will take its shots at the Yankee No. 1's—UMass (which will face Arkansas) and UConn (which takes on Mississippi State)—in the regional semifinals. "We play in a weak league," State coach Richard Williams said sarcastically last weekend. "Kentucky and the 11 dwarves."
As the Wildcats snarl menacingly at the Midwest field, the SEC's three supposed also-ran representatives are strategically deployed in the other regions of the draw, poised to do next week at the Meadow-lands what the Big East did when it invaded SEC country in 1985 and filled three of the Final Four in Lexington. Arkansas has won 13 of its last 14 NCAA tournament games under Richardson's guidance. With his light but wise hand, Georgia coach Tubby Smith, who took Tulsa to the Sweet 16 in '94 and '95, has given his team's eight seniors a new sense of purpose. But the team with the best shot at joining Kentucky in East Rutherford may be Mississippi State, which defeated both the Cats (in the SEC tournament final) and Princeton in the space of a week, each at its own game.
Meanwhile, only three Big East teams, two ACC teams, one Big Eight team and one Pac-10 team survived the tournament's opening weekend. And the Big Ten should be ashamed of itself. Its champion, Purdue, barely beat 16th-seeded Western Carolina and then gave up 48 points in the first half of its loss to Georgia. Adding to the conference's woes, its Player of the Year, Brian Evans of Indiana, went 2 for 14 during the Hoosiers' 64-51 loss to Boston College. And the icon among its coaches, Indiana's Bob Knight, not only was defeated in the first round for the fifth time (and by a lower seed for the fourth time) in 11 years but also brazenly taunted the NCAA about the $30,000 fine it had assessed him for obscenely berating a functionary during last season's tournament.
Let the record reflect that current Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, when he was a member of the NCAA's basketball committee in the late 1980s, was one of the power brokers who wanted to turn the automatic bids from several "weaker" conferences over to at-large representatives from the "stronger" leagues. Of course the haughty haves will always look better on those computer power ratings that the tournament committee regards as holy writ, because the elite teams play clubby intraconference schedules and made-for-TV power meetings while refusing to visit the campuses of lower-profile Division I schools. But crunch this number: No team finishing lower than fourth in its league reached the Sweet 16 of these NCAAs. Would it have really been so terrible to have had Davidson (which was 25-4 but lost in the Southern Conference tournament, thereby missing out on an automatic bid) or the College of Charleston (a 24-3 team that finished first in the Trans America conference but couldn't win the automatic bid because it hadn't been a league member for three years) in the field instead of, say, Clemson (which finished sixth in the ACC with a 7-9 record)?