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The Year Cinderella Stayed Home
Alexander Wolff
March 27, 2000
A paucity of upsets and an undercurrent of turmoil combined to crush the storybook feeling of the opening rounds of the NCAAs
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March 27, 2000

The Year Cinderella Stayed Home

A paucity of upsets and an undercurrent of turmoil combined to crush the storybook feeling of the opening rounds of the NCAAs

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Both Big Ten teams in the West, Purdue and Wisconsin, advanced—surprises if only because the Boilermakers have pulled some early fades in March and the Badgers have long been a cipher. After defeating such NCAA-bound teams as Missouri, Ball State, Texas and Temple before New Year's, Wisconsin might have cracked the Top 25. Then the Badgers lost four of their first five Big Ten games, and caviling about coach Dick Bennett's grinding style flared on talk radio and the Internet. That Wisconsin consistently drew more votes in the coaches' poll than in the writers' is a testament that Bennett's half-court defense is a connoisseur's delight. Badgers point guard Mike Kelley spent three days early last week repeatedly watching a video montage of every offensive move Fresno State's All-America guard Courtney Alexander had made in his five previous games, then slipped himself like a glove over Alexander in the first round, holding him to 11 points on 5 of 19 shooting. Against Arizona, foul trouble forced Kelley to the bench for much of the first half, but in two games he still had 15 points, 11 steals and 10 assists.

Bennett has vagabonded around the state of Wisconsin's university system, imparting his high-tech defense along the way. He led Wisconsin- Stevens Point to an NAIA title game with future NBA star Terry Porter, and then moved to NCAA mid-major Wisconsin-Green Bay before alighting in Madison five years ago. "Those NAIA days were really fun," he said last week. "It's not as much fun at this level sometimes, because of the pressures and expectations."

If even the coach at Wisconsin is bemoaning "pressures and expectations," what's the point of this whole joy-free exercise? Well, strictly speaking, to choose a national champion. With that in mind, expect LSU and Michigan State to emerge from the West and Midwest, respectively, and meet in the national semifinals. The Tigers' Swift turned in the play of the second round, a cold-blooded block of a two-handed dunk attempt by Chris Mihm, Texas's 7-foot All-America, with LSU leading by a basket in the final two minutes. "I've never seen a bigger block at a more crucial time," LSU forward Brian Beshara said. "You could see them sink." Meanwhile the Spartans responded emphatically to a second-round challenge from Utah, which held a three-point lead at the half. To prod lethargic forward Morris Peterson, coach Tom Izzo wrote NOT DRAFTED on the locker room blackboard at halftime—proving anew that, in Bracketville, money is an all-purpose motivator.

On the other side of the draw, with Stanford and Temple bounced from the South and East, respectively, look for Tulsa and Duke to survive. The Golden Hurricane is tied for the most wins in the nation, with 31. Its trapping defense forces more than 20 turnovers a game and its six double-figure scorers include four starting guards, an inestimable advantage in March, when backcourt play becomes critical.

The Blue Devils, who may have lost the NCAA final a year ago because they never had to develop a knack for winning close games, have won six of their last seven that were decided by five points or fewer, including Sunday's 69-64 second-round defeat of Kansas. A prime reason for that record is Duke tri-captain Shane Battier, who excelled as the Devils fought off the Jayhawks, another group of blue-chippers suddenly cast in the role of upstart. Battier scored 21 points, had eight rebounds and blocked a career-high eight shots, but he also spent time over the weekend reflecting on his role as chairman of the Student Basketball Council. "The rigidness of the NCAA has given college basketball a black eye," he says. "The more money that enters the equation, the more the game suffers. Too many players use college just to audition for an NBA contract, and too many coaches squeeze players dry for their talent without much interest in helping them graduate. It degrades the game."

Probably true, and certainly well put. But while endorsing much of that message, Temple junior Mark Karcher had a quarrel with the messenger. "It boggles my mind that guys from places like Duke and Stanford are running this," said Karcher, who spends most of a $1,500 monthly Pell grant on his two children, including a daughter with sickle-cell anemia, and is almost certain to turn pro this spring to better support them. "They're not like me. I didn't have parents. My grandma raised me, and I've struggled through my whole life financially. With something like [the SBC], you should have guys who have really experienced those problems, not guys that can talk good about it and see it from the outskirts."

Apparently, Bracketville has its suburbs. It has its inner city—and it has squabbling among its insurgents, even before the insurgency has been mounted.

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