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March 31, 2008
Joey Dorsey powered Memphis into the Sweet 16, but the Tigers' mercurial star is just one of several key players left in the field who have something to prove
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March 31, 2008

Focused Group

Joey Dorsey powered Memphis into the Sweet 16, but the Tigers' mercurial star is just one of several key players left in the field who have something to prove

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WITH HIS braided cornrows and thick Baltimore accent, Memphis senior forward Joey Dorsey looks and sounds a lot like a character from HBO's crime drama The Wire. But unlike Dorsey's favorite TV show, the NCAA tournament doesn't have to be a Greek tragedy, its actors doomed by the cruel Fates. And so, in the days before last week's games in North Little Rock, the notoriously downbeat Dorsey ignored the negatives—his February swoon, the Tigers' two straight Elite Eight exits, his backfiring smack-talk toward Ohio State's Greg Oden in last year's tournament—and at the behest of his coach, John Calipari, wrote his own fairy-tale script in the pages of a blue spiral notebook.

Needless to say, it had Memphis, the South's No. 1 seed, advancing to its first Final Four since 1985. "It relieved a lot of pressure," says Dorsey, the mercurial big man whom teammate Chris Douglas-Roberts calls the Tigers' most important player. "All my life I've been told, 'You can't do this.' But I could just sit down and write the story on my own."

That's the beauty of the NCAA tournament: Nothing is inevitable. The first step in achieving any goal is to imagine it, history and conventional wisdom be damned. It's a powerful idea, and the newly optimistic Dorsey—Proposition Joey, if you will—isn't the only figure aiming to reverse his checkered past this week and reach the Final Four in San Antonio.

To win The Chip—Joakim Noah's felicitous phrase for the national title he claimed twice at Florida—it helps to have a chip on your shoulder. And in a round of 16 that features only one player with a Chip on his résumé (North Carolina guard Quentin Thomas, a veteran of the Tar Heels' 2005 victory), the brackets are filled with up-and-down performers who have something extra to prove this week. Stanford's junior guard Mitch Johnson hopes to erase the perception that the Cardinal is nothing more than the 7-foot Lopez twins, Brook and Robin, and a bunch of perimeter stiffs. Xavier guard Drew Lavender and Wisconsin forward Brian Butch, two fifth-year seniors, want to show that patience has a place in an era of one-and-done college superstars. And it's hard to fathom that UCLA, Tennessee and Michigan State can make it to San Antone unless the Bruins' Josh Shipp, the Volunteers' Chris Lofton and the Spartans' Drew Neitzel find their long-range shooting strokes after an inconsistent Week 1.

Fair or unfair, the NCAA tournament defines a college career, and while cuddly upstarts like 10th-seeded Davidson (page 39) and 12th-seeded Western Kentucky can celebrate remarkable seasons even if they lose this week, the favorites enjoy no margin for error. Few have as much at stake as Bill Self, the coach of Midwest No. 1 seed Kansas, who's seeking to shed the title of Best Coach Never to Have Reached the Final Four. The 45-year-old Self, now in his fifth season with the Jayhawks, has always been a golden boy: As a high school junior he predicted to his family that he'd be a Division I head coach by age 30, which is exactly what happened when he took over at Oral Roberts in 1993. His first season with the Golden Eagles, Self recruited a walk-on who was working behind a Subway restaurant counter, and ever since he has had success wherever he's gone, with a lifetime .716 winning percentage and Elite Eight runs at Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas (twice). Yet he's never landed on the sport's biggest stage.

If the Jayhawks can dispatch 12th-seeded Villanova on Friday, it would give Self the chance to finally break through ... or become only the second coach (besides John Chaney) to make five Elite Eight appearances without a trip to the Final Four. Give some credit to Self for being honest, though, about his Week 2 Whammy. "If you get to that Elite Eight game, you probably had a pretty good season," he says. "But in order to have great seasons at a high-profile place like Kansas, you have to punch the ticket from time to time, and we have not done that."

While the Jayhawks are perhaps the nation's most balanced team, Stanford entered the tournament as its most top-heavy outfit, not least because its twin-tower front line produced more than half of its points. And though Brook Lopez did nothing to dispel the perception of Stanford as a two-man team, scoring 30 points and the last-second game-winner in an 82--81 second-round overtime win against Marquette, it was Johnson's school-record 16 assists, one turnover and calming halftime speech (after coach Trent Johnson had been ejected) that showed the Card's guard stigma may be undeserved. "We were rattled," said forward Taj Finger, "but Mitch is our vocal leader, and he was able to relax everybody."

The son of former NBA All-Star forward John Johnson, Mitch still bounces passes off his teammates' shins at times, but his junior-season stats are up from last year's in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.7 to 2.4) and three-point shooting (32.1% to 39.7%). This week, however, he'll face his greatest challenge yet. "The teams we play now, it's going to take more than two big guys to beat them," Johnson says, and a South Regional showdown with D.J. Augustin, Texas's All-America point guard, on Friday in Houston will prove whether the much-maligned Johnson has the chops to make a difference..

THEN AGAIN, if the NCAA tournament has taught us anything over the years, it's that conventional wisdom is often a synonym for hooey. What was supposed to be the second straight Year of the Freshman came to a quick end as Michael Beasley of Kansas State, O.J. Mayo of USC and Eric Gordon of Indiana were all eliminated by last Saturday. Moving on instead were a pair of carbon-dated seniors who long ago were labeled busts. Xavier's 5'7" Lavender and Wisconsin's 6'11" Butch are so ancient, they both played in the 2003 McDonald's High School All-American Game alongside LeBron James, Chris Paul and Luol Deng. But five years later they're reigning over college basket ball, happily scoffing at the snap judgments that rendered them failures when they struggled early in their college careers.

The operative word is career, and the lesson is that it's still possible to have a long and decorated one in the college ranks. (If you measure a college player solely by his pro potential, then you're probably better off skipping March Madness altogether.) No little man may leave a bigger footprint this week than Lavender, who watches tape of the Charlotte Bobcats' 5'5" Earl Boykins for inspiration and regularly hears taunts referring to him as Webster or Gary Coleman from opposing fans. "It makes me laugh. I know I'm short and everything, but I've been getting it since the first day of college," says Lavender, whose family members all came to last week's Xavier games at Washington, D.C.'s Verizon Center wearing T-shirts silk-screened with the SI tournament-preview cover featuring his likeness.

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