Now that America's TV sets have had a few days to cool down and spouses everywhere are finally off the phone with their divorce lawyers, we can pause to consider what we've learned from the first two rounds of this year's Big Dance:
1. Earl Boykins, the tiny point guard from Eastern Michigan, fine-tunes his hand-eye skills by dribbling a tennis ball. This does not account for the game-high 23 points Boykins scored in his school's stunning 75-60 upset of mighty Duke in the first round, but it does say something beautiful about the David-and-Goliath nature of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Can you imagine Mississippi State's huge Erick Dampier dribbling a tennis ball? How about Villanova's slick Kerry Kittles? It is unlikely that these future NBA stars would devote a single moment to a thing so seemingly slight, but little Earl Boykins finds in it the will to persevere, a secret inspiration. Top-seeded Connecticut dispensed with Eastern Michigan in the second round, 95-81, but the latter's glory moment shall long endure: Duke had not lost its tournament opener since 1955, and even Coach K's biggest boys cried after the defeat. Presumably, Earl went back to his tennis ball and to the contemplation of a future without basketball.
2. Dick Vitale could use another Valium--and quickly, please. In small doses, ESPN's resident basketball lunatic can be, well, let's say, refreshing. The first six dozen times he bellows "Awesome, baby!" are delightful, and his "Jam city, baby!" doesn't wear out its welcome until maybe the 153rd repetition. But it's all downhill after that. Last weekend the overheated Mr. Vitale spent most of ESPN's tournament-update segments (mercifully, the games themselves belong to CBS) with his hands affixed to neighbor Digger Phelps's suit, shouting uncontrollably and generally giving a bad name to American mental-health care. Not even the ad segments are Dick-free: Vitale also shouts his stuff these days for an automobile manufacturer.
3. Neither Dr. Naismith nor Petey Carril recognizes basketball in its present form. Carril, the gentlemanly, cigar-smoking, 65-year-old head coach at Princeton, quickly emerged as the tournament's unlikely star--and got an invitation from Jay Leno to appear on the Tonight Show--after his small, skinny, mostly white Tigers laid their patented frustration trip on fourth-seeded UCLA, which was last year's national champion. Passing the ball endlessly, waiting for momentary openings under the rim, Princeton's brainy aristocrats outwaited the stewin' Bruins 43-41 in the first round of the Southeast regional at Indianapolis. It was the lowest tournament score in twelve years, and it was Princeton's first win since 1983. In 1989, hoops junkies can tell you, the Tigers came within a hair of upsetting kingly Georgetown in the first round but lost 50-49. Then the Tigers put real scares into their opponents in the next three postseasons.
Fittingly, the capper against UCLA came in Carril's swan song. After 29 years he is retiring, having amassed 513 wins without benefit of a single athletic scholarship (of course, no one else in the Ivy League gets a free ride, either). After his club, inevitably, was blown away two nights after its UCLA win by big, brawny Mississippi State (63-41), Carril apologized for his team's performance and, startlingly, to defeated UCLA. He also seemed bewildered by the strange turns the game he loves has taken. To paraphrase: Today's college players all look like guards and tackles on a football team, and finesse is a thing of the past; in the era of brawn and the shot clock, Carril's own deliberate style of play is also a dinosaur, and he's encouraged his players to grow bigger and tougher to keep up. At Princeton, that hardly seems likely: SAT scores at the elite New Jersey school will always outrank muscle.
Meanwhile, give sports-poor CBS great credit: Following reporter Andrea Joyce's Carril interview, conducted in a hallway en route to the losers' locker room, the director kept a camera trained on the old snowy-haired coach's back as he turned, dabbing his eyes, and slowly walked off into his retirement. It was an uncommonly moving moment of silence, of which the aforementioned Mr. Vitale might take note.
4. Pur-doo-doo won't be getting a free trip to Colorado. The carping and cries of injustice that always accompany the tournament selection committee's decisions were louder than ever this year, particularly in the vicinity of Minneapolis. Hoop folk at the University of Minnesota were incensed that 1994 champion Arkansas earned a tournament berth while they did not, but in light of the first two rounds, it's probably just as well that the mediocre-at-best Golden Gophers remained in their burrows this postseason. Five other, presumably better, Big Ten schools did get to the Dance, and all five are now sitting at home. To wit: Three-point underdog Arkansas took out Penn State 86-80 in the first round; Boston College ripped Indiana 64-51, sending Hoosier coach Bobby Knight to his second first-round defeat in as many years; Texas beat 1989 champ Michigan 80-76.
As for highly touted Purdue, the No. 1 seed in the West region, it barely escaped the ignominy of becoming the first No. 1 ever to be knocked off by a No. 16 seed with a 73-71 squeaker over feisty Western Carolina, then fell to No. 8 Georgia 76-69. The last Big Ten team, Iowa, beat George Washington, then got demolished by Arizona 87-73 in the second round. So much for the primacy of Big Ten basketball and the hue and cry from the tundra of Minnesota.
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5. Jerry probably should have done the thing himself. When little Mississippi Valley State got its first bid to the Big Dance, that school's most famous alumnus, the wizardly San Francisco 49er wideout Jerry Rice, learned that the Delta Devils were the only team among 64 in the tournament that had no contract with an athletic-shoe company. Rice made a call to his manufacturer (which pays him, let's see here, a couple of billion a year), and just like that, the Devils were outfitted with new sneakers and warmups. Wondering what Jerry said? So are we, but one thing he didn't say was, "I'll write the check." So much for the gap between altruism and the commercial clout of star athletes. In any event, for Mississippi Valley State, it wasn't the shoes. Head coach Lafayette Stribling (for our money, the tournament's coolest name) saw his Delta Devils go down to Allen Iverson and the big-time Georgetown Hoyas 93-56. Let's hope his kids get to keep their new sneaks.
6. Let us now praise famous women. In an irony all Coloradans can savor, the CSU men and its women faced their Nebraska counterparts in the postseason. In a first-round game in the second-string National Invitational Tournament, the boy-Rams lost, but the 25-4, eighth-seeded women from Fort Collins rose up and beat the Huskers in the West bracket. Meanwhile, Ceal Barry's Colorado Buffaloes were made the No. 3 seed and lost to Auburn in the first round. What were the prospects for a CU-CSU shootout in the West? Not very good from the start. CSU would have had to knock off No. 1 Stanford on its home court, but failed, 94-63. In the absence of that showdown, maybe the two Colorado teams can at least get each other on the schedule: Sixth-year CSU head coach Greg Williams not only called his club's No. 8 tournament seeding "a real slap in the face" after his women won 21 of their last 23 games, but he hinted that the CU women have been ducking his outfit over the years. We don't know about that, but Williams might think about setting his sights a little lower and first schedule the CU men's team.
7. Yes, and the African-American fellows rarely seem to descend. CBS commentator Bill Raftery is one of the most engaging personalities on that network's oversized basketball broadcast team, but he forces his shot now and then. As Temple's Owls were laying the wood to Oklahoma, 61-43, on Friday, Raftery allowed that Temple star Huey Futch "was not futching around this afternoon," then later added that Sooners forward Ryan Minor "has the ability to elevate." Translation: White men can jump. Just about then, the network ran a familiar crawl across the bottom of the screen, its annual (and hopelessly ineffective, we suspect) explanation to soap opera fans outraged that basketball has supplanted their daily obsession. "The Guiding Light will return Monday," the message read. "No episodes will be missed."
Among the adherents of March Madness, no one misses them now.