The point guard is 5'11" senior Louis Dale, recruited out of Birmingham with 1,300 on his SAT and no major scholarship offers, who tweaked the media on Sunday, quoting the film version of Friday Night Lights—"After this, it's nothing but babies and memories"—only because he had promised his teammates he would slip in the line from one of their favorite movies. Thirteen Big Red players and a team manager live in a scruffy, creaky old house near the campus known as the Dog Pound.
In the East region, Cornell will travel just over an hour to Syracuse to take on a top-seeded Kentucky team that is now the tournament favorite. The Wildcats—like fellow No. 1 seeds Syracuse and Duke—have ignored sentimentality in pounding East Tennessee State and Wake Forest by a combined 59 points. They are the anti-Cornell: A-list recruits, led by point guard John Wall and fellow freshman DeMarcus Cousins, both of whom are most likely NBA-bound after just one season. Kentucky is coached by John Calipari, whose two previous Final Four teams, at Massachusetts (1996) and Memphis (2008), had their finishes vacated for NCAA violations. (Calipari was not directly implicated either time.)
Kentucky was not the only top seed to humble its opponents. ACC champion Duke, which hasn't reached the Elite Eight since 2004, smothered play-in winner Arkansas --Pine Bluff and California with defense—if not offense—reminiscent of coach Mike Krzyzewski's better teams. Offense was no problem for Syracuse as junior forward Wes Johnson torched Gonzaga for 31 points in the second round. The return of 6'9" center Arinze Onuaku, who missed the first two games with a quadriceps injury, will make the Orange even tougher.
For more drama, go back to the East, where dogged Big East champion West Virginia meets No. 11 Washington, which won the maligned Pac-10 conference's tournament and then ousted Marquette and No. 3 seed New Mexico. The Huskies' leader is 6'6" senior Quincy Pondexter, whose father, Roscoe, played at Long Beach State and was a pro in Europe and South America, after which he became briefly famous in a different way. In 1999 Pondexter, a correctional officer in California, testified for the prosecution during an investigation of abuses in the state's prison system and, in scathing stories in Esquire and the Los Angeles Times, admitted to his part in punishing inmates. He was called the Bonecrusher.
Northern Iowa has much in common with Cornell. The Panthers play six juniors and seniors extensively and have won 30 games. "That's not a Cinderella team," said Kansas coach Bill Self the day before falling to UNI. "They can beat anybody in the country on any night." Farokhmanesh leads the Panthers in minutes (30.3 per game) and three-point field goal attempts (201), a surprising turn for an undersized shooting guard who was not recruited out of West High in Iowa City and attended two junior colleges. (His athletic pedigree is solid, though: His father was an Iranian Olympic volleyball player, and his mother is the volleyball coach at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.)
"Nobody wanted him," says Ali's mother, Cindy Fredrick. "He was a 5'11" white boy. All my life I've said it's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog. And he is a fighter and he's a hard worker. From the time he was just a baby, he'd drag us to the gym. Every single day: 'Let's shoot baskets, let's shoot baskets.'"
Farokhmanesh has been launching 600 to 700 shots a day since junior high. Last summer Northern Iowa assistant coach P.J. Hogan would open the gym at 6 a.m. so that Farokhmanesh could shoot before class. Asked what player Farokhmanesh reminds him of, Hogan says, "He reminds me of a towel boy."
The Panthers face Michigan State, which reached the Sweet 16 for the ninth time in 13 years because sophomore Korie Lucious made a 22-foot three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Maryland on Sunday afternoon, yet another of the weekend's dramatic finishes. The Spartans made an emotional run to the Final Four in Detroit a year ago, but struggled throughout this season and earned only a No. 5 seed. In search of unity a month ago, sophomore forward Draymond Green persuaded the team to sleep in the Breslin Center in East Lansing. "It was high school--ish," says coach Tom Izzo. "I think too many times in college we want to make everything pro-ish. I'm going the other way a little bit." The Spartans' road got a lot tougher after senior point guard Kalin Lucas suffered a torn left Achilles tendon on Sunday.
St. Mary's McConnell has followed only a slightly more glamorous path than Farokhmanesh. The 6-foot McConnell signed with New Mexico, the only college that recruited him, as a junior at Dobson (Ariz.) High, in 2006. However, when Lobos coach Ritchie McKay was fired a year later, McConnell was granted a release from his letter of intent and signed with St. Mary's, one of only two schools to offer him a scholarship. He spent two years chasing Gaels star Patrick Mills, who is now with the NBA's Trail Blazers.
That background makes McConnell positively vanilla on the multicultural St. Mary's roster. Three of the starters are—like Mills—from Australia, and Samhan, who had 32 points on 13-for-16 shooting against Villanova, is the son of an Egyptian father (Hassan Samhan) and an Irish-American mother (Marianne Fleming Samhan), who have been divorced since Samhan was a teenager.