It was Valparaiso guard Bryce Drew who threw in a three to cap the week's most baroque buzzer-beating play, and his father, Crusaders coach Homer Drew, who called it. The play, named Pacer after the NBA team from which the elder Drew lifted it, might be familiar to football fans as a sort of hoops hook-and-ladder play. Valpo had practiced it so often that Bryce spoke for all the Crusaders when he asked Homer, "Why are we working on this? We never use it."
They hadn't, that is, until their first-round meeting with No. 3 seed Mississippi. Valparaiso trailed by two points with 4.1 seconds to play when the Rebels' Ansu Sesay, the SEC's player of the year, missed two free throws. A scramble for the rebound left the Crusaders with possession 94 feet from the basket; now only 2.5 seconds remained. Drew and two of his teammates, senior forward Bill Jenkins and senior guard Jamie Sykes, knew what they would run.
Sykes, the inbounder, is only 5'11", while Keith Carter, the Ole Miss swingman who guarded him, stands 6'4". "I pump-faked [to get Carter to move], because all I could see was his face, he's so tall," said Sykes, who's an outfield prospect in the Arizona Diamondbacks' system. "Then I saw Bill. Our eyes met. It was magical."
Sykes threw his strike. Jenkins, a sort of Frenchy Fuqua in Homer Drew's Immaculate Conception, leaped. ("It's the highest I've ever seen Bill jump," the coach would say.) He snared the ball and, while still airborne, flicked a lead touch pass to Drew, who after faking upcourt toward Sykes was now cutting unchecked down the right sideline. Drew caught the ball, stopped and—in the grand tradition of the heretofore most celebrated citizen of the northwest Indiana city of Valparaiso, Orville Redenbacher—popped. "I felt like it was short," Bryce would say after the 70-69 victory. Said Homer, "God had an angel direct that ball over the front of the rim."
Bryce's mother, Janet, and sister, Dana, were watching from the stands. Dana was an Academic All-America at Toledo; as a senior she made a key shot in the win that put the Rockets in the 1995 NCAAs. Thousands of times in the backyard she and Bryce had played a game called four-three-two-one, in which they counted down the seconds before launching imaginary buzzer beaters. As Sesay toed the line, Dana turned to Janet. "Don't worry, Mom," she said. "Remember: four-three-two-one."
It was not a by-the-numbers tournament for Dean Smith disciples. The travails of Smith's former aides might have left him grateful to be in retirement. By the end of the first weekend, teams coached by Roy Williams and Eddie Fogler were upset victims. Fogler, whose Gamecocks lost to underdog Coppin State a year ago, insisted that he wasn't going to prepare any differently for Richmond this season. "If we get beat," he said, "that'll be a real bright statement, huh?"
A third former Smith assistant, Bill Guthridge, was luckier. His top-seeded Tar Heels, in their first encounter with neighbor UNC Charlotte, were taken to the barricades of overtime by hoops revolutionary Diego (Trey) Guevara, who tied the game with a final-seconds three-point volley from the hills. Only flawless free throw shooting—the Tar Heels made their last 17 in a row—saved Carolina from elimination.
There were sound basketball reasons for Kansas's sudden departure, a couple of them echoes of the Jayhawks' loss to Arizona a year ago: the ability of Rhode Island guards Tyson Wheeler and Cuttino Mobley, who combined for 47 points, to drive against Kansas's half-court pressure; the top seed's haste down the stretch; and All-America forward Paul Pierce's failure to sink any of his seven three-point attempts. Yet Williams, just as bleary-eyed in defeat as he was a year ago, didn't want to get into them. "If I talk too much about them it will sound like I'm blaming the players," he said. "I never want to do that. I'd rather you say the dumb old coach messed up."
It would be simplistic to reduce Kansas's elimination to that. But in Oklahoma City last week came two stark examples of one of the game's truisms: Nothing drawn on a clipboard will work as well as what's writ on a coach's face. At one point in the second half, with the game still winnable, Williams screamed, stomped and flung his sport coat to the ground when the Jayhawks failed to respond to a defensive call he made.
A year ago Williams had described Kansas's loss to the Wildcats as devastating. Now, having failed to reach the Elite Eight for the fourth time with a team seeded No. 1, how would he describe this one? "I told the players I was sorry if I caused them problems by openly talking about my desire for a national championship," he said. "I know one thing. I'm tired of grading these kinds of effects, these hurts." A coroner examining the remains of another 35-win season prematurely ended might conclude this: Williams's Jayhawks won't win their now decade-in-coming national title until after Williams takes elimination with such equanimity that the stakes the following season won't seem dauntingly high.