- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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He looked like a lone demonstrator, that Pittsburgh assistant coach who held up a placard during the Panthers' first-round defeat of Wagner last Friday. The sign read REGULAR, and while it was meant only to signal a play, it seemed to register a plea, too—that war, launched on the eve of this NCAA tournament, be counterbalanced by something familiar and ordinary.� And the opening week of the NCAAs did have a measure of comfort to it, at least to judge by how the chalk held up. Other than Marquette and the cuddly Bulldogs of Butler, no team from outside the six Bowl Championship Series conferences survived the first two rounds. Only three of the top 12 seeds, Florida, Wake Forest and Xavier, failed to advance. The Sweet 16, full of the usual suspects, includes every national champion since 1996, plus another four teams that have reached the Final Four at least once during that span.
But many favorites moved through in a decidedly irregular way. Of the 48 first-week games, 24 were decided by a single-digit margin; in 11 the margin was no more than three points. Four games went to overtime, and in the West, Gonzaga's 96-95 second-round near miss against Arizona, which players from both teams immediately nominated for ESPN Instant Classic-hood, needed two OTs. "I could appreciate how good a game it was," Zags forward Richard Fox said afterward. "But as far as being satisfied, there won't be a day the rest of my life when I won't think, What if?"
What if, indeed. What if Fox's teammate Blake Stepp had banked home that eight-foot follow shot at the end of a game marked by 10 lead changes and seven ties, a struggle that Stepp himself called "the hardest"—not greatest or best, mind you—"game I've ever been a part of"? What if Wisconsin- Milwaukee's Dylan Page had sunk that layup to eliminate Notre Dame, instead of rolling it off the rim? What if Wisconsin's Freddie Owens, after taking a pass from childhood buddy Devin Harris, had bricked the three-pointer that instead swished through and ended Tulsa's remarkable late-season resurrection? What if those two free throws with five seconds to play, sent whispering through the net by a 46% foul shooter named Aaron Coombs, had stood up for 11th seed UNC-Wilmington in the opening round against Maryland? Instead, the week's most dramatic buzzer-beater came not from Cinderella but from the defending national champions, whose Drew Nicholas (make that Bryce Drew Nicholas) drained a high-stepping three-pointer after a dash up the right sideline. To park yourself in front of the TV last week was to watch a movie that could have been called Almost Famous.
The lone team to go Hoosiers on us was Butler, which, appropriately enough, plays its home games in Indianapolis's Hinkle Fieldhouse, scene of the climactic moments of that film. A year ago the Bulldogs became the poster boys for the aggrieved mid-major after the tournament's selection committee passed them over, despite their 26-5 record and wins over Big Ten neighbors Indiana and Purdue. This year Butler, seeded No. 12, scored the only classic upsets of the first week—if you define a classic upset as a double-digit seed beating a team from a power conference—with its 47-46 defeat of Mississippi State and 79-71 victory over Louisville. Using a freshly installed offensive set in which 6'10", 230-pound bruiser Joel Cornette set high picks and guards Darnell Archey and Brandon Miller rubbed defenders off him, the Bulldogs dictated the pace of both games. Miller's runner in the final seconds beat one of the SEC's best teams. Archey, who weighed 135 pounds upon graduating from high school, knocked down eight of nine three-pointers in Sunday's defeat of the pride of Conference USA, including the trey that put Butler up 73-69 with 1:32 to play. "Butler's not a mid-major," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said afterward. "Butler is a major, major basketball power."
Both Archey and Miller grew up as Steve Alford disciples in New Castle, Ind., the former Indiana icon's hometown, while Cornette has a brother, Jordan, a 6'9", 235-pound sophomore forward, who plays for Notre Dame. "We felt we were owed one from last year," said Cornette, whose parents, Joel and Christi, will try to shuttle between regional sites in Anaheim (where the Fighting Irish will play) and Albany, N.Y., this week. "We're making up for lost time. If this wasn't on TV and nobody said a word about us, it would still be the same feeling. Because we're still playing for a national championship, and we're still here."
That so many obscure teams played valiantly seemed to vindicate the tournament committee's decision to award bids to every mid-major with a case, even at the expense of such power-conference candidates as Boston College, Tennessee and Texas Tech. "Butler went out and played people just like they did last year," said Southern athletic director Floyd Kerr, a committee member, "and they didn't lose to anyone they weren't supposed to lose to." Added another member, The Citadel athletic director Les Robinson, "You don't root for a team like Butler to win or lose. But you at least want close games, where it says, "This team clearly belongs.' "
Whether the tournament itself belonged during a time of war was one question all the participants had to confront. When it became clear that U.S. troops would be keenly following the games, however, few doubted that the NCAA had done the right thing by letting the event proceed. "It's not a distractor at all," said Tyrone Barley of St. Joseph's. "War has nothing to do with basketball. I want the best for this country, but any basketball player knows how to separate the two."
Barley's Hawks lost to Auburn despite an extraordinary game (32 points, nine rebounds) from point guard Jameer Nelson. East Tennessee State lost to Wake Forest, and Missouri lost to Marquette, despite similar efforts from backcourtmen, the Buccaneers' Tim Smith and the Tigers' Rickey Paulding. But guard play could carry a team only so far. Just as the power conferences ultimately ruled the Sweet 16, the games themselves belonged mostly to teams with power players, as cruiserweights like Florida, Oklahoma State and Indiana bowed, respectively, to broad-shouldered opponents Michigan State, Syracuse and Pitt. "Playing small ball in the tournament is like playing with fire," said Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser, who watched his second-seeded Deacons stumble against Auburn in the second round as 6'9", 270-pound Wake center Eric Williams sat for long stretches with fouls. "For teams to advance, they need a strong post presence."
That verity will bear itself out in the games ahead. With its rugged profile, Pitt is lying in wait to knock off Kentucky in the Midwest. In the East, Syracuse will hope that its three versatile freshmen, forward Carmelo Anthony and guards Billy Edelin and Gerry McNamara, will continue their mature tournament play. "The good news is we're in every game," says coach Jim Boeheim. "But that's also the bad news. We're just not experienced enough to put people away." After ending Auburn's run, the Orangemen should founder against Oklahoma, whose coach, Kelvin Sampson, is so committed to the power game that he sometimes orders his players to chuck up a shot simply to fetch it off the glass. In the South look for Texas, with its balance and depth, to take out UConn and Maryland.
Which brings us to the West. Time and again this season Arizona has prevailed by wearing down opponents with waves of fresh players. Yet as Gonzaga hung with his team last week, coach Lute Olson seemed oddly unwilling to go to his bench, choosing instead to play five Wildcats for 40 minutes or more. But Arizona's close call may simply anneal what remains the deepest team in the land. En route to their championship six years ago, the Wildcats won six tournament games by an average of 5.2 points, going to overtime to beat Kentucky in the final. SI picked this Arizona team as its preseason No 1. We reiterated that choice in our tournament preview. We're standing by it now. And that's about as regular as the college basketball business gets.