"At this stage, attitude is more important than preparation," said Ayers. "We needed confidence." Two victories, however tenuous, have put the swagger back in the Buckeyes' step—and into that of point guard Mark Baker, who had been hobbled by a late-season ankle injury.
Only this week did Anderson let on how much he has suffered this season carrying the Yellow Jackets and coping with speculation over whether this would be his final year as a collegian. The stress has been such that clumps of his hair have begun to fall out. "The doctor said it might be a fungus," said Anderson, who notes that he's a fretter by constitution. "But I'm going with the worry theory."
In Tech's 87-70 defeat of DePaul, Anderson had been magnificent, your average transition magician with a five-speed transmission. He was spottier against the Buckeyes, scoring six straight points to pull the Yellow Jackets to 57-53 with 5:14 remaining but then going cold as Ohio State steadied itself and finally sank some free throws—seven in a row over the last half minute.
Fourth-seeded St. John's is Ohio State's next opponent, in Pontiac, Mich. Texas coach Tom Penders, whose Long-horns lost 84-76 to the Redmen, thinks the Johnnies' combination of prudent shooting and frontcourt size could be enough to undo the teetering Buckeyes—but only "if they can play in a rhythm and hit their free throws, because Ohio State puts you on the line a lot."
In the opinion of Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, his No. 11-seeded Huskies produced "as good an 80 minutes as we've played all year" to move into the regional semis against Duke, the team that beat them out of a Final Four berth last year. In the first 40 of those minutes, Connecticut controlled LSU's All-America center, Shaquille O'Neal, in a 79-62 victory. Then came a 66-50 win over a depleted Xavier team, whose floor leader, Jamal Walker, played only six minutes because of a bum foot. As the Huskies mush on, watch guard Chris Smith. At hoops clinics in the Northeast they're already teaching his top-of-the-key, crossover dribble move and calling it "the Chris Smith."
The highlight of Duke's 102-73 first-round romp over Northeast Louisiana in Minneapolis was Blue Devil coach Mike Krzyzewski's trashing of a chalkboard at halftime to fire up his charges. Two days later the Blue Devils, who have made the Final Four four of the last five years, dominated Iowa 85-70. "They're so experienced," said Hawkeye coach Tom Davis, after his team tried in vain to disrupt Duke with full-court pressure. "If anything, Duke is ready now for pressure defense. I think that loss to UNLV [in the 1990 title game], and the way the pressure hurt them, still sticks in their craw."
Every team, it seems, is talking about UNLV, referring to UNLV and measuring itself against UNLV. Because Georgetown at least gave the Rebels a decent game, perhaps the rest of this tournament won't be played under a sort of terry-cloth shroud. "Last year we were right there with them," says the Buckeyes' Baker, referring to Ohio State's loss to Vegas in the second round. "Then we shot 24 percent in the second half. We just didn't feel we could beat them. This year our confidence level has changed. We believe we can take them now."
But UNLV took Georgetown's best shot—twice—and still comfortably prevailed. That game, far from sowing doubts among the Rebels, may well have tempered them. So it says here that, all things considered, this isn't really a field of 16. It's a field of 15, with one thresher.