HE is a senior without a ring, the most desperate of NCAA tournament players, driven one last time to punctuate his career with a net draped around his neck and confetti in the air. Four and a half years have passed since A.J. Price's life was interrupted. One day he was greatness in waiting; the next he was fighting for survival. As a freshman at Connecticut in the fall of 2004, he became gravely ill from a congenital abnormality in the blood vessels of his brain. He spent his 18th birthday in the intensive care unit of a Hartford hospital, disconnected from basketball in the most terrifying manner.
Last Friday he sat, elbows on knees, in a quiet corner of the UConn locker room at the NCAA tournament in Philadelphia. His teammates lounged at the other end of the room on this off-day for them, watching on television as games were played at distant sites during the tournament's chaotic opening round. His coaches chatted idly in a trainer's room, awaiting transportation back to the team's hotel.
Price's college journey ends soon. He is the soul of a very good Connecticut team that won two games in Philadelphia by a combined 82 points to advance to the Sweet 16, and now he can measure his appreciation—and his ambition—by those 14 days he spent in the hospital, of which he cannot remember a single second. "I lost two weeks of my life," says Price. "Like it never happened."
Now he tries to squeeze two weeks more from his career. They all hope for two weeks more. Sixteen teams survived the first weekend of the tournament, and there is a fortnight left to find sweet redemption, to slip through a window in time or to seize one last chance after narrow misses and crippling disappointment. They are ringed in chalk—a record 14 of the top 16 seeds advanced; only Purdue (5) and Arizona (12) were exceptions—but they share Price's hunger as if they are all Siena, the fearless ninth seed that took out Ohio State (in Dayton) in the first round and threw a monster scare into top overall seed Louisville in the second.
Some are fighting disrespect, either real (Arizona, widely criticized for its inclusion in the field despite a mediocre regular-season record) or perceived (Memphis, which believes its No. 2 seed is beneath contempt and that Conference USA deserves mention with the true power leagues). Some are trying to reward seniors with an overdue title (North Carolina for Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green) and others are seeking to end uncommon runs of postseason mediocrity (Duke) and frustration (Pittsburgh). Still others are on quests framed against personal struggles (Syracuse's Eric Devendorf, Purdue's Robbie Hummel and Kansas's Sherron Collins).
All of them are kindred souls with Villanova senior forward Dante Cunningham. After scoring 18 points in an 89--69 thrashing of toothless UCLA on Saturday afternoon, Cunningham found Wildcats coach Jay Wright as they ran off the floor together and recalled 'Nova's run to the Elite Eight three years ago when Cunningham was a freshman. "It's totally different this time," he told Wright. "I understand how those seniors felt. I can see the clock ticking." The Sweet 16 will separate fragile dreams from sturdy ones.
For the next round Connecticut (29--4) will travel west, from where it launched national title runs in 1999 and 2004. In both of those seasons, Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun also missed at least part of an early tournament game with some sort of medical problem. Last Thursday he missed the Huskies' opening game—a 103--47 rout of No. 16 seed Chattanooga—and spent the night in a hospital getting treated for dehydration.
Calhoun used his sick leave to watch video of UConn's win—"They don't let you sleep in a hospital," he quipped—until 2 a.m. Then he quizzed nurses about the time line facing his neighbor, a man who was awaiting a heart transplant. What happens when the heart arrives? Where do you keep it? When does he go to surgery? The grilling distracted him from his team's delicate timing, which had bothered Calhoun since explosive junior guard Jerome Dyson was lost for the season with a knee injury on Feb. 11. In Philadelphia, UConn played its best games in a month. Calhoun has great affection for these Huskies, thick with last-chance seniors like Price and Jeff Adrien and junior Hasheem Thabeet, who is expected to leave for the NBA. "Now it's about leaving a legacy at UConn," said Calhoun.
Few players left in the tournament are performing better than the 6'2" Price, who had 27 points, eight assists and five rebounds in his team's 92--66 win over Texas A&M in the second round. Surely no player has endured more adversity—some of it his own doing, most not. A year after his hospitalization (the official diagnosis was arteriovenous malformation, which led to bleeding in Price's brain and was alleviated by radiosurgery in February 2005), Price was suspended from the team for another year for his role in the theft of four laptops from dorm rooms (he was charged with felony larceny and ordered to do community service), delaying his college debut until the '06--07 season. That year's team won only 17 games and missed the NCAA tournament.
Last season UConn went 24--8, but lost in overtime to San Diego in the opening round of the NCAAs, a game in which Price blew out his left ACL. "Right when I hurt my knee," says Price, "I was just about back to the player I had been when I got here. But the knee injury was nothing. [During] my rehab after the illness my freshman year, I'd be exhausted after walking for 10 minutes. The knee rehab wasn't even close to that." There are players on UConn's roster who were in eighth grade when Price was hospitalized in 2004. "I'm pretty sure they know my history," says Price.