Throat-grabbing excitement

The middle two rounds of the NCAA Tournament have just enough thrills and chills to overshadow the return of Bob Knight.

Published March 26, 2001 8:34PM (EST)

First the bad news: There are only three games left in the college basketball season. Now the good: That means we'll only have to listen to that godawful "Like a Rock" song or watch the Blue Man Group do their precious, annoying shtick 3 million more times each.

The regional final weekend is the poor stepchild of the NCAA Tournament. There isn't that wild, games going on everywhere, anything can happen, upsets all over the place madness of last week's first round or the everything on the line intensity of next week's Final Four. It's the kind of weekend where the games can be not quite overshadowed by but at least forced to compete with a couple of coaching announcements: Rick Pitino hiring on at Louisville (the ex-Kentucky coach!) and Bob Knight at Texas Tech (Bob Knight!).

That's not to say the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds don't have their moments. After all, college basketball's most famous shot, Christian Laettner's 1992 game winner for Duke over Kentucky, came in a regional final. This year had Maryland's stirring upset of Stanford -- and what charming Salon writer told you last week that Maryland had what it would take to beat the Cardinal? -- USC's usual insane terrific-or-terrible act in beating Kentucky and losing to Duke, Illinois' domination of a very good Kansas team and, finally, Arizona's hard-fought upset of the Illini.

But the third and fourth rounds weren't quite must-see this year. The closest game of the weekend, USC's 80-76 upset of Kentucky, managed not to be exciting down the stretch. Instead it was a classic bad college basketball finish, a final minute filled with fouls and timeouts. The same can be said of Arizona-Illinois. Can we get rid of that rule where you can score and then call timeout before the other team inbounds? Again: To call time, you should have to have the ball and not be in danger of losing it. (Good to hear Bill Walton lobbying against that "call timeout while falling out of bounds with the ball" rule.) Of the 12 games played this weekend, only three were decided by fewer than 10 points, and one of those, Michigan State's 69-62 win over Temple Sunday, was never in serious doubt.

Gonzaga's Cinderella run came to an end, as it tends to do, in the third round, with the Zags losing by 15 to Michigan State. Temple, the 11th seed in the South, moved on to a date with the Spartans by "upsetting" Penn State, a thoroughly ordinary team that was somehow seeded seventh, and somehow beat North Carolina last week.

Good for the Nittany Lions on that one, but even better if this year's rout of the Big Ten teams that aren't Illinois and Michigan State leads the selection committee to think twice in the future before routinely handing out high seed after high seed to a bunch of teams that happen to be in a supposed "tough conference." I mean, just who did Indiana have to sleep with to be seeded fourth in the West? Sure, the Hoosiers should have beaten Kent State, but they were no 4 seed, and Ohio State, fifth seed in the East and first-round losers to Utah State, was no 5.

So for all the upsets, the Final Four is two 1 seeds, a 2 and a 3. You'll remember that your humble narrator's bracket correctly had Arizona, Michigan State and Duke going to Minneapolis, and you'll kindly forget that he also had Iowa State going. Duke was my pick to win it all going in, and the Blue Devils are methodically going about their business. Can't change my pick now, but I confess that I did have the feeling, watching Arizona survive Illinois' relentless defense Sunday, that I was looking at the real championship game.

I also had the feeling, reading about Knight snapping at a photographer in one of his first moments as the coach at Texas Tech, that it won't be long before the nonsense starts again. They say that in Lubbock you can see 100 miles in any direction, and if you step on a tuna can you can see for 200. But all anybody seems to see in Lubbock -- a few professors aside, and who listens to them when sports are involved? -- is Bob Knight the legend, Bob Knight the great coach, Bob Knight the winner. They'll see the rest soon enough.

Knight has his defenders, as tyrants always do if they can make the odd train run on time, but those of us who have known a lunatic, toxic boss or two recognize Knight for what he is, and we know that tigers like that don't change their stripes. Especially tigers who say, "Stripes? I don't have any stripes."

So it's Duke vs. Maryland and Arizona vs. Michigan State on Saturday. Nothing but good teams: the favorite, the defending champ, a team on a mission (the Arizona players want to win for coach Lute Olson's wife, who died during the season) and a relative Cinderella.

I can't wait. I wonder if the General will last the whole week without melting down.

Play of the weekend: A tough call, but I have to go with a sequence by Jason Gardner of Arizona against Illinois. With the Wildcats leading by three but dead in the water offensively with about five-and-a-half minutes to go, Gardner launches a long, long three-pointer from straightaway that looks like a horrible idea until it goes in. Gardner steals the ball on the ensuing possession, races downcourt, is fouled and hits two free throws for an eight-point lead. Illinois would rally furiously a few minutes later, but, thanks to Gardner's five-point run, couldn't draw even.


  • Jeff Trepagnier of USC, who I swear had reached the top of his jump, takes a low alley-oop pass from Brandon Granville and, with some sort of "Crouching Tiger" magic, reelevates in midleap for the dunk in the second half against Kentucky. Why isn't Trepagnier the best player in the Pac-10? He has all the talent and athletic ability in the world, yet there are long stretches, even entire games, where he's a nonfactor. He's the most dangerous but least effective of Southern Cal's starting five.

  • Jason Williams of Duke scores 19 straight points for his team against UCLA.

  • Kirk Hinrich of Kansas steals the ball from Frank Williams of Illinois, but Williams chases him downcourt and steals the ball back before Hinrich can get off a layup. Williams is out of bounds when he saves the ball, but the refs miss it. Still, what a play. Williams' 30-point performance against Kansas is the second best of the Tournament so far, behind only Marvin O'Connor in St. Joseph's loss to Stanford. His cold shooting against Arizona would help doom the Illini.

  • Juan Dixon of Maryland hits a three-pointer with a hand in his face and the Terps unable to find anything on offense midway through the second half against Stanford. The hoop stops a 5-0 Stanford run and restores the lead to eight. Stanford would never really recover.

  • Brian Scalabrine of USC trails Duke's Williams on a fast break and swats a layup away, then comes down and hits a three-pointer to pull the Trojans within five early in the second half. USC wouldn't let the Blue Devils run away.

  • Robert Archibald of Illinois, a reserve who averages 6.6 points a game and has a career high of 16, is unstoppable inside against Arizona and scores 25 points, 13 from the line, before fouling out. Imagine where Illinois would have been without him Sunday.

  • Loren Woods of Arizona, playing soft all day, fights for an offensive rebound, a put-back and a free throw to give the Wildcats a 70-62 lead with three minutes to go against Illinois. Then in the final minute he comes up with a huge block on a slashing Frank Williams to preserve a five-point lead.

    Best rooting-section chants: Stanford. In the Cardinal's game against the Cincinnati Bearcats, not known for graduating a lot of players, Stanford fans chant, "What's your major (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap)?" and "What's a Bearcat (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap)?" Obnoxious and arrogant, in true Stanford fashion -- but funny.

    Most entertaining announcer interplay: Dick Enberg and Bill Walton arguing about whether games should be delayed for various purposes during the second half of the Arizona-Illinois game. Like watching the game with your uncle and your grandpa, who never agree on anything and love catching each other in an inconsistency.

    Announcers, please pay attention: On several occasions throughout the weekend, CBS's color announcers made good points about how a certain foul was a terrible foul to take -- OK, good point -- while replays showed clearly that the offending player hadn't touched the allegedly fouled man. Make your point, but pay attention. A bad call's a bad call.

    Billy Packer and Walton get points for criticizing officials' seemingly random definition of what, exactly, constitutes a foul. Walton even said, "What is a foul around here?" more than once. Good question in a sport where mammoth collisions result in "no calls" while light hand checks are whistled constantly.

    Best line: "I'm counting the white shirts. I think they might have more than five out there." -- Enberg on Illinois' swarming defense against Kansas. In recent years I'd been thinking Enberg, a great announcer in his prime, had gotten overly sentimental and maybe a little senile, but he's been his fine old "Oh my!" self during the Tournament.

    Best taped feature that looked at first like it might be one of those horrible, sappy, NBC Olympics features: CBS's "ultimate behind-the-scenes" look at the Tournament Saturday, which had its share of clichés -- syrupy music, slow motion, purple narration, sunsets over rural scenes -- but also provided rare and moving glimpses of players and coaches with their guards down. Nobody who saw it will soon forget Hampton's players dancing down the hallway to their locker room after their shocking upset of Iowa State in the opening round, or coach Steve Merfeld -- whose feet-in-the-air celebration after that win is the picture of the Tournament so far -- crying as he addressed his devastated players after their second-round loss to Georgetown, a loss expected by everyone but Hampton. "These are tears of happiness, guys," he said. "Tears of happiness."

  • By King Kaufman

    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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