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Big Shots
Alexander Wolff
March 24, 1997
Underdogs showed plenty of fight, but the top seeds prevailed to reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAAs
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March 24, 1997

Big Shots

Underdogs showed plenty of fight, but the top seeds prevailed to reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAAs

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If you've already crapped out of your office pool, if Coppin State and the College of Charleston tantalized you with their valiant bids to reach the Sweet 16, if you desperately want to follow a team for love and not money, we would be pleased to make things easy for you.

Rule out eight of the schools to survive the first week of the NCAA tournament, for they've already won national titles. Providence and Texas may be surprising survivors as 10th seeds, but they're from the big-time Big East and Big 12, respectively, and Cinderella is supposed to be a charwoman, not a dowager. Besides, the Friars and the Longhorns have already been to a Final Four, as have Arizona and Iowa State. That leaves Clemson, Minnesota and St. Joseph's—except that the first two are from pedigreed basketball conferences, and the last is from Philadelphia's similarly storied Big Five.

So it's settled. Tennessee-Chattanooga thanks you for your support. The Mocs are the first team from the Southern Conference to survive the tournament's first two rounds since 1976 and are the first 14th seed to make it that far since Cleveland State did so 11 years ago. With star forward Johnny Taylor, who shares a name with the man who recorded the hit Disco Lady, the Mocs are high-steppin' gate-crashers at a society ball. And the school even has a celebrity fan, actor Dennis Haskins, who plays Mr. Belding on Saved by the Bell and keeps a Mocs' team picture in his office on the show. Granted, he's not exactly Bill Cosby. And "saved by the bell" and "the clock strikes midnight" are sort of at cross-purposes metaphorwise. But we can't be too picky when Cinderella needs a date.

Chalk 'n' Chattanooga was the story of the first week of an NCAA tournament in which No. 1 seeds Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota and North Carolina all survived. But the first two rounds also offered several lessons:

•You perform in the tournament as you do in the regular season. "It's hard to turn it on and off, but we have the guys to do it," said Cincinnati center Bobby Brannen after the Bearcats beat Butler in the first round. "We can get it together when we have to." Wrong. Cincy went 5-6 during the regular season against teams in the tournament, and Iowa State took out the Bearcats 67-66 in the second round. Maryland, a loser to the College of Charleston on Thursday, and Wake Forest, eliminated by Stanford on Sunday, staggered in late February and barely made it to the middle of March. Huge Villanova, vulnerable to speed and pressure all season, lost to a California team that was comparable in size and a little bit quicker. Duke couldn't rebound the entire season and lost 98-87 to Providence. If you're a Devil, it's tough enough on a Sunday going up against God—Friars point guard God Shammgod—you don't need to get outrebounded 43-24 as well.

•Upsets don't happen from behind. Coppin State knocked off second-seeded South Carolina 78-65 in the first round by racing to an early lead and holding on; two days later the Eagles caught but couldn't pass Texas, which survived a final Coppin State possession to secure an 82-81 victory. Tennessee-Chattanooga jumped out to a 20-2 lead against third-seeded Georgia and held on for a 73-70 triumph. Afterward Bulldogs coach Tubby Smith recalled being on the other end of such a game three years ago, when his Tulsa team beat UCLA in the first round. "We were right on UCLA—boom!—and they didn't know what hit them," he said. "That's what happened today."

•The Pac-10 is every bit as strong as it appeared to be this season. Four of the conference's five entrants survived the first weekend, including Arizona and Stanford, unusually young teams that between them play only two seniors regularly. Stanford, which starts four sophomores under the baton of 5'10" senior Brevin Knight, let Wake's All-America center, Tim Duncan, get his—"because he always does," Cardinal coach Mike Montgomery explained—but won 72-66 by locking up everyone else. By halftime Duncan had 14 of the Demon Deacons' 19 points and 15 of their 17 rebounds, but guards Tony Rutland and Jerry Braswell were a combined 0 for 9 from the field.

Neither Cal nor UCLA looked likely to prosper in the postseason when they suddenly changed coaches last fall, but both teams used the turmoil as a tempering experience. The Bruins haven't lost since Feb. 8, when they avenged a 48-point loss to Stanford and shortly thereafter learned that interim coach Steve Lavin, who replaced fired coach Jim Harrick during preseason practice, had been given the job on a permanent basis. "The more we go through, the deeper the bond I feel with these guys," said guard Cameron Dollar. In the first rounds of the tournament, UCLA cruised past Charleston Southern and Xavier.

"We've made adjustments all year," said Cal coach Ben Braun, who took over for the ousted Todd Bozeman in September and then had to replace guard Ed Gray, the Pac-10's top scorer, who broke a bone in his right foot with three games left in the season. "I've adjusted to my players. They've adjusted to me."

After leading the Bears past Villanova 75-68 and taking a seat at the press conference podium, Cal forward Tony Gonzalez held up a camera to capture the members of the media who were capturing him. It was a gesture that underscored how, come tournament time, everybody takes his shot.

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