We follow it every March not only to see who becomes the game's champion but also to champion the game—to celebrate college basketball's reach, diversity and balance. We follow it to see an unlikely flock of Cardinals—from Ball State, hardly the first Indiana college that comes to mind when you mention basketball—educate the more famous Cardinals, the Doctors of Dunk from Louisville, in how to throw it down. We follow it to behold Princeton sending its perennial chill down some high-seeded spine, in this case Arkansas's, whose relieved coach, Nolan Richardson, muttered after a narrow first-round victory, "The fat lady didn't sing, but she was ahumming." We follow it to hear Towson State's Kurk Lee pause in midgame, as the pesky Tigers refuse to be shaken by a pompous Oklahoma team, and ask a Sooner player, "Do you know where Towson State is now?"
We also follow it to pour our hearts out to Loyola Marymount, which showed us that the emotion of losing a cherished comrade is high-octane stuff, capable of revving up an offense that seemed already to be moving as fast as it possibly could.
The computer that helped shape the 64-team field of the 1990 NCAA basketball tournament spit out Michigan as the No. 3-seeded team in the West Regional and Loyola Marymount as No. 11. But the computer can't shed a tear and thus wouldn't have even the foggiest explanation for the Lions' stirring 149-115 thumping of the defending national champs on Sunday afternoon (box). "Like an amusement park," Hank Gathers once said, eyes asparkle and soul full of life, of the disciplined choreography that coach Paul Westhead designed for the Loyola Marymount basketball team. "So many rides, so much to do!" The Lions, going in days from burying Gathers to praising him the best way they know how, are approaching the crest of a final run on their emotional roller coaster.
The computer was bamboozled at other turns, too. What's an amalgam of microchips to make of nine of the top 16 seeds coming a cropper just two rounds into this tournament, or of a couple of wide-eyed freshmen coming prematurely of age? UCLA's Tracy Murray showed the poise of any number of Bruins of yore, dropping in the two free throws that upset the East's No. 2 seed, Kansas, 71-70, despite two timeouts called by Jayhawk coach Roy Williams in what Murray called "a freeze-the-freshman kind of deal.... I thought it was funny." At about the same time, Aaron Williams of Xavier replaced fouled-out teammate Tyrone Hill, the Musketeers' best player, and scored in the waning moments after snatching an offensive rebound over the Hoyas' Titanic Twosome, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. Williams then grabbed two key rebounds of missed Georgetown free throws to seal the exciting 74-71 win.
If in the unfolding of all this we sort out the Player of the Year (is it Loyola's Bo Kimble? Syracuse's Derrick Coleman? Georgia Tech's Dennis Scott/Kenny Anderson/Brian Oliver? Murray State's Popeye Jones?) from the Player, of the Regular Season (Gary Pay ton and Oregon State were the other victims of the Cardinals of Ball State last week), fine. And bully for us if in the process we can also separate the good conferences from the better ones. The Big Ten sent a record seven teams to the tournament, but only two reached the Round of 16, and none of the Big Three from the Big Eight—Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas, each of which took a turn atop the polls during the season—survived. Meanwhile the ACC went 9-1, and still had four schools alive.
So there was nothing rational about Rounds 1 and 2 other than this: The tournament belongs not to the elite conferences, much less to the nine-man oligarchy that lords self-interestedly over this event. It belongs rather to the hundreds of young men who have turned the NCAAs into a billion-dollar bacchanal and will share in nary a penny of it, and who played 48 games last week, 16 of which went down to a final, gut-wrenching shot or into overtime. Out of respect for Gathers, let's no longer call them heart-stopping finishes, but life-affirming ones.
For so many college kids, last week was spring break, a chance to bust loose. Maurice Newby and Jason Reese had been playing together since the third grade at the Des Moines Salvation Army Community Center, and now they found themselves wearing the uniform of the University of Northern Iowa—the University of Nothing Impossible, as a cheerleader's sign put it. "You live to get into the tournament," said their coach, Eldon Miller. "And when you do, you live to win games." Reese's 18 points and 15 rebounds, and Newby's 25-foot three-pointer with two seconds to play, kept the Panthers alive against mighty Missouri 74-71 last Friday, before Minnesota sent them home on Sunday—barely—81-78.
"We didn't come out here just planning to watch Louisville run and dunk," said Ball State guard Billy Butts after the Indiana Cards' 62-60 upset of the Louisville Cards. "There's no doubt they didn't take us seriously. We deserved more respect than they gave us."
Unheralded Alabama humbled the West's second seed, Arizona, 77-55, outrebounding the Wildcats by 12. Forward Robert Horry—ever heard of him?—threw in three-pointers all week, including two treys during a critical 14-0 run that should have gotten 'Bama loose for Loyola Marymount. Said Arizona coach Lute Olson, "They kicked us every way you could be kicked."
For a signature play for all this, how about the time in Xavier's defeat of Georgetown when Hill went ahead and inbounded the ball without the requisite referee's handling? It was the attitude of the week in miniature: Let's play, already.