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Let the Madness Begin
Alexander Wolff
March 20, 2000
Forget trying to figure out who's going to win. With every team suffering from some weakness, let us tell you how all but a final four will lose
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March 20, 2000

Let The Madness Begin

Forget trying to figure out who's going to win. With every team suffering from some weakness, let us tell you how all but a final four will lose

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Gonzaga might have gone to the Final Four last year had Matt Santangelo not shot 1 for 9 in the Zags' loss to UConn in the West Regional final. Santangelo has moved to the point this season, but now Richie Frahm is Gonzaga's bellwether shooter. He sank 46% from beyond the arc when the Zags won this season but only 32% in their eight losses. Tennessee, too, is vulnerable to one player's frosty touch: The Vols rely on guard Tony Harris, who went 2 for 11 in a 30-point loss to Southwest Missouri State in last year's NCAAs. Others who mustn't go cold: Desmond Mason of Oklahoma State, Khalid El-Amin of Connecticut and A.J. Guyton of Indiana, who has been splendid in almost every one of the Hoosiers' 20 victories, but whose worst games—he missed 16 straight shots against Indiana State and disappeared down the stretch against Illinois, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State and Purdue—coincided with their seven regular-season defeats.

Because they don't have a go-to guy. Egalitarianism is all well and good, but not necessarily when matters get down to the short strokes. There's a rule: If you have to ask who a team's go-to guy is, that team probably doesn't have one. A go-to guy's teammates instinctively know his identity. Michigan State is loaded with talent, and its best player is Morris Peterson, but the Spartans all know that Mateen Cleaves gets the ball at the end of a close game, for even if he won't take the last shot, he'll make the right play.

This season Kansas is plagued by the lack of a go-to guy; no Jayhawk is averaging more than 26 minutes or 11 shots a game. St. John's blew a 10-point lead in the last three minutes in a loss to Ohio State and was outscored 17-2 at the end of a loss to Notre Dame. Also looking for Mr. Goodbasket are Kentucky, Stanford and Florida.

Because they draw the wrong team. Stanford's plodding 1998 team lost badly in the regular season to two versatile, speedy opponents, Arizona and Connecticut. But the Cardinal lucked out, dodging a bad matchup until the national semifinals, where Kentucky's thoroughbreds galloped to victory. Though Stanford is now better equipped to run or walk, it still lost twice this season to a faster Arizona team. The South region could provide several fascinating stylistic studies: Tulsa essentially starts four guards, and Cincinnati with Kenyon Martin might have overpowered the Golden Hurricane. But speedy Tulsa won't be as vulnerable against the Bearcats now that Martin is out. Nor will Ohio State have much of a size advantage if the Hurricane reaches the regional semifinals, for the Buckeyes start three guards. Only Stanford's size in the half-court figures to tame Tulsa.

Could there be a more problematic matchup for impatient Fresno State than Wisconsin, which, if anything, suffers from an overabundance of patience? And pity poor Samford, the Princeton knockoff from the Trans America. "We want to play someone from outside the Northeast who's unfamiliar with Princeton's offense," coach Jimmy Tillete said before Selection Sunday. Alas, the Bulldogs drew an unusually disciplined Syracuse squad, 17-point victors over Princeton earlier this season.

Because the zebras turn dangerous. The little guys finally get to play the big guys on neutral floors—and with neutral officials. The conference most endangered by unfamiliar referees is the Big Ten, whose inability to put more than one team in the Final Four between 1994 and 1998 was at least partly attributable to its ponderous, bruising style. This season the league has been as physical as ever; Michigan State coach Tom Izzo even had the Spartans practice once in football gear. After his team lost a scrumfest to Wisconsin on Jan. 26, Purdue coach Gene Keady bemoaned the permitted mayhem. "Is this style going to help the Big Ten play better in the NCAAs?" he asked. Probably not. With two key reserves, Aloysius Anagonye and David Thomas, hampered by stress fractures, Michigan State could suffer from foul trouble if prospective games with Syracuse or Iowa State are tightly called.

Another team that doesn't want to hear a quick whistle is St. John's. The Red Storm was 20-0 in games in which none of its players fouled out; it was 4-7 when someone did.

Because injury or illness strikes. For some reason that two generations of Meyers are still trying to figure out, DePaul's Mark Aguirre decided to take his only charge of the season late in the Blue Demons' already-secure 1979 regional-final upset of UCLA. This act of needless valor sent Aguirre reeling backward into the knee of teammate Curtis Watkins, who wound up hobbling through coach Ray Meyer's second—and last—trip to the Final Four. The tournament annals are full of such ill-timed injuries, from Ohio State star Jerry Lucas's sprained left knee in the '62 national semifinals, which smoothed the way for Cincinnati's title victory; through Phil Ford's knee injury suffered a few days before North Carolina's first-round loss to Alabama in '76; to the torn ACL that Kansas's spidery Archie Marshall suffered at the '86 Final Four. Illness, such as Bobby Hurley's diarrhea just before UNLV's 30-point blowout of Duke in the '90 final or Keith Van Horn's flu on the eve of Utah's regional final against Kentucky in '97, can be just as capricious and debilitating.

Perhaps Martin's broken leg is the sacrifice that will keep the basketball gods satisfied this season. But even if infirmity doesn't strike again, a team can be gassed or wobbly by tournament time. In 1987 Missouri went into the NCAAs having swept three teams in three days to win the Big Eight tournament. The Tigers drew Xavier on Thursday at noon, and their heavy legs showed during a 70-69 loss. This year, keep an eye on Auburn, whose three games in three days in the SEC tournament will be followed by a Thursday first-round date (at 11:30 in the morning, no less) against Creighton in Minneapolis. Duke has only six regulars, a limited rotation for the nation's highest-scoring team, and freshman forward Mike Dunleavy only recently fought off mono. Arizona was just getting ready to welcome back forward Richard Jefferson when it lost center Loren Woods, who missed the last five games of the regular season and whose availability is still in question for the tournament. Other teams who hope their Atlases don't shrug include Iowa State, which relies on Big 12 player of the year Marcus Fizer ("We just saddle him up," confesses coach Larry Eustachy), and Temple, which has been concerned all season about the tender ankles of its floor leader, Atlantic 10 MVP Pepe Sanchez.

Because they expect too little of opponents—or too much of themselves. "In 1994 we beat Cal because even though their coaches respected us, their players didn't," says Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett, who was then at Wisconsin-Green Bay. "Before they realized we could play, they were down 15." Duke, which beat a seemingly invincible UNLV team in '91 by forcing the Runnin' Rebels to execute in an unaccustomedly close game, wound up playing the Vegas role a year ago in the final against UConn. There was a lot of pressure on us," says the Blue Devils' Chris Carrawell of last year's tournament. "People were calling it the Duke Invitational, and we were just expected to win."

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