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It's Knockout Time
March 28, 2011
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March 28, 2011

It's Knockout Time


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At first the big guy sat on his stool and stared at the carpet between his feet in the dead-silent locker room. Then he stood and leaned into his cubicle, supporting his full 250 pounds with two outstretched hands gripping the framework. Gary McGhee, a 6'11" senior center, had just played his 120th game for Pittsburgh last Saturday night, at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., and it was not supposed to be his last. After a long time he pulled his white number 52 jersey over his head, walked three steps and tossed it into a pile in the middle of the floor while wearing the grimace of the unexpectedly beaten, so familiar in March. McGhee will not be putting on the jersey again.

The NCAA basketball tournament is orchestrated by a committee of neatly groomed college athletic administrators (many of them former coaches or players) who volunteer their time and act with presumably the best intentions. They select 37 of the 68 teams (the rest qualify automatically) and then seed the entries by using tools on the cutting edge of technology. Analysis of their work follows swiftly, when millions of bracket-pool players receive guidance not only from a small army of televised and published would-be experts, but also from fascinating and instructive digital programs in the growing field of analytics that distill something as amorphous as a basketball game into an easily digestible series of numbers.

The teams are dispatched to arenas where all advertising signage is shrouded in funereal black and the wooden floors are identical from site to site, except for the name of the city stenciled in blue block letters beneath the basket and the logo of the host college in a corner of the playing surface. Players drink from matching water bottles, mop their sweat with matching towels and affix matching NCAA patches to their game jerseys. They are uniformly called "student-athletes" at press conferences, even if they have already ceased attending classes while awaiting the NBA draft.

It is a model of order and efficiency that might produce a predictable and uninteresting tournament, except for this: The games are played, coached and officiated by human beings whose very unpredictability in the crucible of the one-and-done Big Dance—especially on the first weekend—becomes the soul of the event. They will not be ordered. They will not be computerized. They will not be governed by arithmetic or expectations.

Human beings like junior guard Shelvin Mack, senior forward Gilbert Brown and junior forward Nasir Robinson.

Last Saturday in Washington, D.C., eighth-seeded Butler ran a razor-sharp inbounds play that resulted in senior guard Shawn Vanzant's feeding sophomore center Andrew Smith for a layup and a 70--69 lead over the No. 1 seed, Pitt, with 2.5 seconds remaining. But in those 2.5 seconds there would be three possessions. Mack would inexplicably foul Pitt's Brown on a 45-foot shot, Brown would make just one of two free throws and Robinson would (even more inexplicably) foul Bulldogs senior forward Matt Howard after Brown's miss from the foul line, 90 feet from the Butler basket, with 0.8 of a second left.

Howard hit the first free throw to give the Bulldogs a 71--70 victory. That made two game-winning scores in a total of one second of game time for Howard: Two days earlier he had scored the decisive putback in a 60--59 win over Old Dominion with 0.2 of a second to play. It also left Robinson gutted as only the tournament can. "I'm smarter than that," he said, choking back tears in the Panthers' locker room. "I blame myself."

That wild finish sent Butler back to the Sweet 16, one year after the mid-major (enrollment: 4,640) advanced to the national title game in its hometown of Indianapolis before losing to Duke in an epic final. Then, the Bulldogs, who hadn't lost since December, were miscast as Cinderella. This year a three-game losing streak dropped them to 14--9 in early February and left them for dead to most bracketologists. That's when professorial coach Brad Stevens, 34, showed his players video of their worst defensive performances, with precious little narration. "It was right there for all of us to see," says extroverted junior guard Ronald Nored, who plays with metal rods in both shins, inserted during surgery last June to alleviate chronic pain. Now Butler has won 11 straight.

The Bulldogs are hardly the only surprise in the Sweet 16: There are two teams from Richmond (Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth, located seven miles apart) and just two from the sprawling Big East, which started with a record 11 members in the field. One of those Big East teams is Marquette, which was seeded 11th, the lowest of any in the conference. The Golden Eagles' coach, Brent (Buzz) Williams, may call to mind Curly from the Three Stooges, but he alluded to both Robert Frost and Albert Einstein in his press conference on Sunday after eliminating No. 3 seed Syracuse—his third victory over the Orange this season—in the third round.

There are two guards with teams strapped to their backs—Connecticut's sublime junior Kemba Walker and Brigham Young's irrepressible senior Jimmer Fredette—and another with a question mark on his, Duke freshman Kyrie Irving, who returned unexpectedly last Friday after missing 26 games with a toe injury. Whether he makes the defending champions better remains to be seen. "We've only had Kyrie back for a few days, and that's why this next week of practice will be so important," said Duke senior forward Kyle Singler, the Most Outstanding Player in last year's Final Four. "We're getting more and more comfortable with him in the lineup. Hopefully the best is still to come for Kyrie."

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