Stanford's Casey Jacobsen is a first-team All-America. Marvin O'Connor of St. Joseph's has a name that could have been confused with those of thousands of St. Patrick's Day revelers. But as O'Connor sprang for 37 points in a second-round NCAA tournament game last Saturday night, he made Jacobsen look as inert as the Tree, the Cardinal's arboreal mascot. After O'Connor's fifth foul had assured top-seeded Stanford's 90-83 passage to the round of 16 in the West Region and more than 11,000 spectators in Cox Arena in San Diego had come to their feet to honor O'Connor's effort, Jacobsen pulled the Hawks' star aside, and this is what he said: "It was a pleasure being on the same court with you today."
It certainly was big of the NCAA tournament committee to have permitted the two to share that court at all. Even as the lower seeds in these NCAAs launched an unprecedented assault on their putative betters—not since the tournament went to a 64-team field in 1985 had so many higher seeds (13 of 32) lost their first-round games—the committee was launching an assault of its own: on the mid-major, small-time, non-Division I-A-football-playing schools that save the NCAAs from terminal charmlessness.
In the words of the Brothers Grimm: "She had no bed to go to, and so had to sleep by the hearth in the cinders. And as on that account she always looked dusty and dirty, they called her Cinderella." Virtually every decision rendered by this year's tournament committee seemed calculated to keep the charwoman from the ball. The committee reserved an unprecedented 35 bids for the six most powerful leagues: the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC—the same conferences that participate in college football's Bowl Championship Series (BCS). The committee established the patronizing "opening-round" play-in game, which required two small-conference champions to swap what had been automatic passes into the field of 64 for in-through-the-kitchen invitations. And it assigned inflated seedings to the big boys and suspiciously low ones to the mid-majors and smalls, discrepancies that can be explained only by an overreliance on the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), a measure of schedule strength that serves as a kind of protective tariff for teams from the Big Bowl Six.
St. Joe's may not have the most obscure basketball pedigree in the field, but the Hawks are from the Atlantic 10, not the Big Backscratch Conference. So even though St. Joe's won the A-10 regular-season title, went 10-4 on the road and wound up with a 25-6 record, it could snag no better than a No. 9 seed. "I don't want to get on my soapbox again, but college basketball was served," Hawks coach Phil Martelli said after his team nearly took out Stanford two days after beating eighth-seeded Georgia Tech. "We saw college basketball the way it's supposed to be, and it's not about RPIs and seedings and scheduling home games."
Many fans would be pleased to join Martelli atop his soapbox. The masses of fans who make the NCAAs such a valuable TV property plunge into office pools not to see the top seeds march to some preordained station in the Final Four but to watch the tournament's crouching ( Princeton) Tiger, its hidden (Drexel) Dragon. But what has made this season's event so memorable is how the lesser teams have bypassed the soapbox to make their cases on the hardwood.
Indiana State, a No. 13 seed, ousted fourth-seeded Oklahoma as one of the Sycamores, Kelyn Block, lost three teeth after taking an elbow to the mouth from the Sooners' Hollis Price. Block wouldn't go off for a triple root canal until he had contributed five points in overtime to send the Big 12 tournament champions home, 70-68.
Utah State, a No. 12 seed, took out fifth-seeded Ohio State of the Big Ten 77-68, also in OT, thanks to Bernard Rock, a New Yorker with a tongue stud and a mural of a body (sample tattoo: STEAL THE ROCK/PASS THE ROCK/SHOOT THE ROCK/BE THE ROCK). Hampton, a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference school playing in only its sixth season of Division I ball, kept the Big 12's Iowa State, a No. 2 seed, from scoring for the final seven minutes of a 58-57 Pirates victory, while the legally blind father of Hampton guard Marseilles Brown peered at the action through binoculars and told the refs that he knows blind when he sees it.
Another rebuke of the committee came from Georgia State, the 50-49 conqueror of the Big Ten's Wisconsin. This season Georgia State beat the SEC's Georgia, which in turn beat the ACC's Georgia Tech, though you can guess which two teams were seeded in the top half of their draw and which one, at No. 11, wasn't. Other rebuffs were delivered by the Midwestern Collegiate Conference's Butler, whose 43-10 halftime lead in its 79-63 victory over the ACC's Wake Forest made the seedings (Wake a No. 7, the Bulldogs a No. 10) look grotesque. And by Mid-American Conference representative Kent State, which beat Indiana, a No. 4 seed from the Big Ten, 77-73, as the Golden Flashes' Trevor Huffman scored 24 points against Hoosiers defensive ace Dane Fife—the same Fife whose dad, a Michigan high school coach, had once said of Huffman, "He could be a good Division III player."
Most of the first-round upset winners failed to duplicate their successes in round 2. But as usual Gonzaga, of the West Coast Conference, made the most emphatic statement on behalf of the mid-majors. As a result of the mischievous RPI, which ranked the Bulldogs 75th in the land, they were seeded 12th. Still, thanks to six three-pointers, five assists and only one turnover from point guard Dan Dickau, Gonzaga beat No. 5 seed Virginia. After the Bulldogs defeated Indiana State on Sunday to reach the Sweet 16 for the third year in a row, Cinderella no longer seemed to be the right word for Gonzaga. Forward Casey Calvary tried to be helpful, suggesting, "How about Tournament Powerhouse?"
Although she charmed the nation for 48 hours, Cinderella has seen her future, and, brother, is it grim. NCAA tournament committee chairman Mike Tranghese, trying to justify awarding an eighth seed to a 16-14 Georgia team that would lose its opener to No. 9 Missouri, declared that strength of schedule would henceforth be paramount among the committee's considerations. Of course, your schedule can only be as powerful as the schools willing to play you, and next month the evil stepsisters of college athletics are fixing to eliminate the last, best opportunities for smaller schools to play the big boys: The NCAA membership will vote on a measure that would imperil early-season events such as the Maui Invitational and the Great Alaska Shootout, in which a mid-major can take on teams from the power conferences on a neutral floor with unaffiliated refs.