Last year it was ''The Dunk.'' Two years ago it was ''The Errant Pass.'' This year, who knows what frantic play might decide the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball championship?
Maybe none at all. Maybe millions of fans, including 38,000 in Seattle's Kingdome, will witness a gray, suspenseless handful of games. But don't count on it, because if ever a Final Four playoff held the potential for high-voltage excitement, this year's does.
For starters, there's never been a greater collection of college big men on one floor as there will be in Saturday's semifinal doubleheader (CBS 3:30 p.m., ET). On display will be a quartet of agile high-rise athletes, who obliterate the plodding Goliath stereotype and hope to place their teams in Monday evening's 9 p.m. title game.
In the first game, seven-foot Patrick Ewing of Georgetown confronts the Twin Towers of Kentucky, 7 ft. 1 in. Sam Bowie and 6 ft. 11 in. Melvin Turpin. In the second game the spotlight will switch to Houston's seven-foot Akeem Olajuwon as the Cougars take on Virginia, which, in an interesting twist, has reached these dreamy heights without 7 ft. 4 in. Ralph Sampson, who graduated last year after collecting several Player of the Year awards.
''With Ralph Virginia played not to lose; now they're playing to win,'' theorizes TV analyst Billy Packer. Being the underdog has its advantages, particularly at tournament time when the single-elimination format and the presence of so many quality teams can give established juggernauts the jitters.
Still, three superpowers - No. 2 Georgetown (32-3), No. 3 Kentucky (29-4), and No. 5 Houston (31-4) - came through the minefield of preliminary rounds this year. That's a testament to their prowess considering the dangers that lurk within the 53-team NCAA field, which expands to 64 schools next year.
Top-ranked North Carolina was expected to check into the Northwest's Emerald City this week, but instead received a one-way ticket home after losing to Indiana in regional action. No. 4 DePaul, meanwhile, was shown the off ramp by Wake Forest, which brought Ray Meyer's 42-year coaching career at DePaul to a sad conclusion.
But if Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) fans were dejected by North Carolina's departure, and fairy tale aficionados by DePaul's self-destruction, both could take heart that Virginia made the Final Four.
For here is a bona fide Cinderella with a sparkling resume, including no national ranking, a lukewarm 17-11 regular season record, and a 6-8 mark in the vaunted ACC.
The NCAA's tournament committee made the Cavaliers an at-large selection, perhaps out of curiosity as much as anything else. How would Virginia do without Sampson, selectors may have asked themselves.
They actually did much better than expected for a team that played gangling freshman Olden Polynice in the pivot. Though 6 ft. 11 in., the Haitian-born Bronx resident has only played basketball for the last five years.
In Seattle, Polynice won't have to look far to gain inspiration from fellow foreign-born players Ewing and Olajuwon. Ewing moved with his family to the United States from Jamaica when he was nine and began his basketball career in the seventh grade. Olajuwon had only playing a year or so when he arrived at the University of Houston from his Nigerian homeland.
As college freshmen two years ago they helped their teams reach the Final Four. Ewing was a starter, while Akeem was something of a bull in a china shop coming off the bench.
Georgetown managed to make the final that year and had a chance to beat North Carolina in the last minute. But in a nightmarish blooper, Hoya guard Fred Brown threw ''The Errant Pass'' right into the hands of North Carolina's James Worthy to extinguish Georgetown's last scoring chance.
Houston, which lost to the champion Tar Heels in a 1982 semifinal, made it all the way to the championship game against North Carolina State last year. ''The Dunk'' occurred in the last ticks of that contest. The Wolfpack had gradually erased a seven-point deficit to pull even with the heavily favored Cougars and had time for a last-minute shot. Guard Dereck Whittenburg heaved up an air ball from near midcourt and Lorenzo Charles grabbed it and stuffed it through for the 54-52 victory.
Olajuwon would like to erase that memory, but regardless of the outcome of this year's tournament, many observers feel he will pass up his final year of college eligibility to turn pro. This, then, may be Houston's best chance to win its first national crown, a bauble Georgetown is seeking as well.
Kentucky is aiming for its sixth NCAA champion-ship, having won in 1948, 1949 , 1951, 1958, and 1978, while Virginia looks to win its first title.