It's safe to say that Wyoming coach Steve McClain won't have a movie made about him anytime soon. Pity, for the bug-eyed, Skoal-dipping Steve Buscemi look-alike would be perfect in a Coen brothers flick about the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament. Call it Winners and Losers, a quirky charmer about the only week of the year when our Darwinian sports culture decides that winning isn't everything. Why, McClain was positively beaming after his 11th-seeded Cowboys' 68-60 loss to Arizona in the West region's second round in Albuquerque last Saturday. "We lined up with the Number 6 and 7 teams in the country," said McClain, whose charges had upset Gonzaga two days earlier, "and we gave them everything they wanted."
In turn Wyoming—along with fellow upset perpetrators Creighton, Tulsa and UNC-Wilmington—gave us everything we wanted from the opening week. Even though they all lost (in the second round), they won. In the early phases of the NCAAs each team has its own measure of success. No matter how double-digit seeds Kent State and Southern Illinois fare in this week's Sweet 16, they've already earned mad props by spanking a quartet of powers from the Big 12 and the SEC. "Getting respect isn't just about winning, it's how you represent yourself," said UNC-Wilmington coach Jerry Wainwright, whose 13th-seeded Seahawks valiantly lost 76-67 to Indiana, a defeat that hardly diminished their stunning 93-89 overtime win two nights earlier against USC, a fashionable Final Four pick.
Much like Fargo, Winners and Losers features all manner of oddities (three 12-seeds reaching the second round) and creepy characters (see: RPI-toting tournament committee apparatchiks) as well as breakout performances by a gunner named Tootie, a pediatrician-in-training and a coach who returned from the dead. That would be Wainwright, who 20 years ago was reported dead by a wire service after a van he was driving crashed, launching him headfirst through the windshield. "My life changed," says Wainwright, 55, who spent 50 days in intensive care and lost most of his right lung. "Now I'm a big count-your-blessings guy." Before UNC-Wilmington slayed the fourth-seeded Trojans, Wainwright told his Seahawks to relax, for the game would take only 40 minutes of their lives. "He's really good at putting things in perspective," said star guard Brett Blizzard, "but after overtime he said he'd tricked us. It was actually 45."
Like UNC-Wilmington, 12th-seeded Creighton needed just one magical victory—an 83-82 double OT jaw dropper over No. 5 Florida—to make its season. When the Bluejays' Terrell Taylor drilled the winning three-pointer, his eighth of the game, with 0.2 of a second left, he glided down the United Center court in Chicago, arms extended, imagining he was Michael Jordan. It wasn't the first time. Taylor wears number 23, has a three-inch tattoo of Jordan's Jumpman logo on his right biceps and even borrowed a Jordan DVD from a team manager to watch in his hotel room before the game. After Creighton's first practice at the United Center, he spent 15 minutes posing for pictures next to the statue of Jordan that stands outside the arena. Told that Jordan might congratulate him by phone, Taylor got skittish, though. "I don't think I would know what to say," he confessed. "I don't want to seem like a big groupie." Surely you wouldn't want to appear obsessive, right, Terrell?
If you're a mid-major with a two-digit seed, the math is simple: Win once in the tournament (as Creighton did before tumbling to Illinois on Sunday), and you've accomplished something. Win twice, and you've attained Gonzagian status. Consider Mid-American conference champ Kent State, which defied its laughable No. 10 seed (if not the Vegas oddsmakers, who had installed the Golden Flashes as favorites) by beating Oklahoma State 69-61 and then ambushing second-seeded Alabama, the SEC champ, 71-58 to win its 20th straight game and reach the Sweet 16 for the first time. So complete was the Golden Flashes' dominance—they trailed for a total of 28 seconds in the two games—that they made a mockery of the RPI, the metric used by the tournament committee to seed the brackets and give a free pass to the big-conference schools.
Better to measure a team by another yardstick, such as the character of Kent State senior guard Demetric Shaw, a self-described "brainiac" who aspires to be a pediatrician, carries a 3.5 GPA in chemistry and premed and, oh, yes, scored a season-high 21 points in the win over Oklahoma State. Hours before leaving with the team for Greenville, S.C., last week, Shaw was up to his chest in a river, trapping fish in preparation for his vertebrate zoology midterm. In a tournament during which the NCAA apparently requires its press conference moderators to use the term student-athlete in every sentence, Shaw is the real deal, a guy who says pediatrics "is what I'm put on this earth to do. My parents instilled in me that each generation of our family has to get better, and my kids will have to raise the bar even higher."
While we're at it, let's raise a glass (to say nothing of the proverbial bar) for 11th-seeded Southern Illinois of the Missouri Valley Conference, which handed Texas Tech coach Bob Knight his customary early walking papers—Knight's teams have lost four of their last six first-round games—before overcoming a 19-point deficit to dispatch No. 3 seed Georgia 77-75 on Sunday. The Salukis' star, Jermaine Dearman, writes RIP THELMA on both of his sneakers, in memory of his maternal grandmother, Thelma Young, who died at age 65 while waiting for a lung transplant four years ago. "Life is short," says Dearman, who had a career-high 25 points against Georgia. "Anything can happen, so you have to go hard every day."
Dearman is still working on the every day part. Fourth-year Salukis coach Bruce Weber benched Dearman at the start of the game against Texas Tech for being late to a pretournament practice. "Jermaine sometimes takes fadeaway shots that drive me nuts," says Weber, "but when he gets determined, he's a big-time talent." So too is Southern Illinois, which was 5-2 against NCAA tournament teams, but—irony of ironies—likely wouldn't have been awarded its at-large bid had it not beaten Indiana at home in December, in a game that was bravely scheduled by... Bob Knight.
Naturally, the tournament's opening week did more than just herald the arrival of elite mid-majors. It also announced the rebirth of some of college basketball's hoariest programs. Perhaps it's time the Hoosiers' faithful gave a smidgen of credit to coach Mike Davis, who guided fifth-seeded Indiana to its first Sweet 16 in eight years with victories against Utah and UNC-Wilmington. Despite back-to-back 20-win seasons and a brutal schedule, Davis still felt compelled to defend himself last week. "I think I've done a great job here," he argued. Relax, coach. Duke may tear your team to bits in the regional semis this week, but you're already a winner.
Besides the Hoosiers, no teams have absorbed more unfriendly fire from their own fans than surprise Sweet 16 qualifiers Kentucky, Missouri and UCLA, whose Internet message boards have thrummed with the bile of nameless get-a-lifers all season. After Missouri plummeted from its No. 2 ranking in the AP poll in December, guard Kareem Rush vowed to stop reading Tigerboard.com. "They bashed me, they bashed Coach [ Quin Snyder], they bashed everybody," Rush says. With senior Clarence (Tootie) Gilbert at point guard—he moved over from shooting guard in late January—the 12th-seeded Tigers revived last week to thump Miami and Ohio State. "We didn't earn that Number 2 ranking, but we earned this," said the sweet-shooting Gilbert (36 points in two games), whose mother, Gwendolyn, nicknamed him after the immortal character from the TV show The Facts of Life.