Followers of the 43rd National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament have been left limp and dazed. After a long day's journey into night, alias the tourney's first long weekend , a flock of powers -- including DePaul, Oregon State, and Arizona State -- have been thrown onto the compost pile of early losers. Victory margins of four points or less were registered in 15 of 32 games, two games went into overtime, several others were decided during the last ticks of regulation, and one hinged on a 49-foot shot.
The midcourt desperation heave -- one of the most memorable in tournament history -- allowed Arkansas to escape with a 74-73 victory over Louisville, the defending national champion.
With just six seconds left, Derek Smith sank a 12-footer to put Louisville ahead for the first time in the second half. After Arkansas in-bounded the ball , U.S. Reed got hung up near the time line and forced his now-famous missile. Bull's-eye!
Last-second shots made news elsewhere, too, namely in stunning upsets signed, sealed, and rudely delivered to the nation's top two teams by unranked underdogs. First St. Joseph's of Philadelphia toppled No. 1 rated DePaul 49-48 in a slow-down game, then Kansas State came along to shock No. 2 Oregon State 50 -48 in a spine-tingler.
St. Joe's victory, secured on a virtually uncontested "gimme" from right underneath the basket, came with three seconds left. If was a bizarre finish to a bizarre game. A deliberate tempo helped muzzle DePaul's explosive offense and found the Blue Demons trying to sit on a one-point lead during the last five minutes. They never even scored a point or took a shot in the last 6 1/2 minutes, but Skip Dillard had a chance to ice the game at the foul line with 12 seconds remaining.
So what happens? The team's best free- throw shooter misses the front end of the bonus, St. Joe's grabs the rebound, and with no time-outs left, races downcourt. About to put up a corner jumper, Lonnie McFarlan spots an unguarded John Smith positioning for the rebound and fires him the ball, whereupon Smith puts in the game-winning hoop.
The degree of difficulty on Rolando Blackman's 16-foot shot was greater, and the result no less shocking. Blackman connected with two second left, giving Kansas State its only lead of the game and an upset over Oregon State.
For the record, this marked the second year in a row for both DePaul and Oregon State to bite the dust in their first tournament outings. The defeat was especially heart- breaking for the Beavers, who lose five players from their roster next year.
The bell tolled unexpectedly for other ranked teams with first-round byes, making one wonder if sitting out the early going isn't really a disadvantage. "Gonged" out of the tourney with second-round defeats were No. 5 Arizona State (a 88-71 loser to Kansas); No. 8 Kentucky (a 69-62 loser to Alabama-Birmingham); No. 11 UCLA (a 78-55 loser to Brigham Young); No. 12 Iowa (a 60-56 loser to Wichita State); and No. 14 Wake Forest (A 67-64 loser to Boston College).
For those keeping score, this means that no member of last season's Final Four will be showing up in Philadelphia March 28 and 30 for the semifinal, championship, and consolation games. Louisville, UCLA, and Iowa have been eliminated from the 48-team field; Purdue never made it in.
In the eyes of most observers, the teams to watch now are No. 3 Virginia, No. 4 Louisiana State, No. 6 North Carolina, and No. 7 Indiana, the highest ranking survivors and the favorites in each of four regionals.
Because of the need to balance the fields, North Carolina finds itself playing farthest from home in the West Regional. This presents the Tar Heels with a difficult challenge, that of beating 10th-ranked Utah in Salt Lake City Thursday night. "We play awfully well at home," says Utah coach Jerry Pimm, a statement supported by the Utes' perfect home record. The winner meets the Illinois- Kansas state winner in the regional championship.
The home-court advantage could really give Indiana and LSU a boost in the Mideast and Midwest regionals. By virtue of winning the Big Ten Conference title, then blitzing Marylnd 99-64 in one of the tournament's few blowouts to date, Indiana has earned the right to play Alabama-Birmingham in IU's Assembly Hall. LSU takes its physical squad to nearby New Orleans, where they go against Arkansas in the Superdome. If LSU should get by the Razorbacks on Friday, they would face the Wichita State-Kansas winner in Sunday's Midwest final. Indiana, meanwhile, is hoping to knock off UAB in order to meet the St. Joseph's-Boston College winner for the Mideast crown.
Virginia doesn't have to venture far for its next East Regional date in Atlanta, but then neither does Tennessee, which survived an overtime scare against Virginia Commonwealth to advance. In the other Thursday nigh clash, Notre Dame and Brigham Young will square off to determine which team advances to the final of the strongest regional.