If the Glass Slipper Fits
With that off our minds, we can settle back and enjoy the Final Other Three, not as aspirant titleists (though one never knows) but as achievers in their own right. For Wisconsin, Florida, and North Carolina, this year's tournament is one the very few sporting events where almost really is going to count. The teams that would have been frustrated or disappointed by losing in the national finals or semis -- Duke, Cincinnati, Arizona, et al. -- were frustrated and disappointed earlier and uglier. The Final Other Three are floating to Indianapolis on a river of gravy, triumphant in their various underdog virtues: single-mindedness (Wisconsin), luck (Florida), and guts (North Carolina).
The most triumphant entrant of the three would have to be the ankle-biting Wisconsin Badgers, making their first trip to the Final Four since 1941. Wisconsin appears to still be using a game plan from the early '40s, a brutal, pre-shot-clock style that refuses to let the other team run at all. I'm generally against this approach, both in principle and in practice -- it's slow and ugly, and it tends to be perpetrated by Ivy Leaguers who take pride in anti-athletic craftiness. But when, say, Princeton plays that way, the goal is to keep the score close and steal an upset at the end of the game. Wisconsin isn't trying to stay close; it's trying to crush its foes. I fully realized this in the round of eight, when the score crawl announced that the Badgers were doubling up on SEC co-champion LSU, 36-18 -- in the second half. The sneaky beat-anyone tactic has become a straightforward beat-everybody one.
Florida, meanwhile, demonstrates that the best game plan is good fortune. The Gators are deep and talented, to be sure, and had enough vim to wear out Duke. But the essential thing about Florida is this: It lost to Butler in the first round. Lost. Butler had a seven-point lead with less than five minutes left but let Florida tie. Butler took control again in overtime and, with a one-point lead in the final seconds, had a chance to virtually ice the game with two free throws. Both missed. At the other end, Florida's Mike Miller, smothered by Butler defenders, flung himself into the lane and heaved up a hopeless, falling-down shot, with the clock expiring. Plip! All net. Everything that followed for the Gators -- convincing wins over Illinois, Duke, and Oklahoma State -- stands on that unconvincing foundation.
Florida rose from its deathbed; North Carolina has risen from the tomb. University of Maryland partisans aren't supposed to enjoy the Tar Heels' success, but this Carolina squad defies resentment. It's not a bullying powerhouse, like Duke. Before the tournament, the Heels hadn't won four games in a row all year. They finished an ugly 18-13, unranked and unloved, a blot on Carolina's proud hoops history. But just as Maryland wrecked its whole season by tanking horribly in the tournament, the Tar Heels have revived their fortunes by winning at the right time.
Even in their success, they remain ungainly. Their star upperclassmen are disappointments. Senior Ed Cota, the best point guard in the ACC since his sophomore year, plays 40 minutes a game but seems to have become less and less attentive over the past two years. His arm-swinging dribble has gone from idiosyncratic to frankly sloppy; in the quarterfinals against Tulsa, he turned the ball over twice in the last minute. And 7-foot junior Brendan Haywood has been indicted, tried, and convicted of being soft and weak-willed. His problems, though, seem less moral than physical: He's a quick jumper, but his other movements are painfully slow; his legs seem too long for him to keep track of them properly. He gives the impression that at least a half-foot of his huge frame is constantly in rebellion against the rest of him.
But the erratic star Heels have been supplemented, and surpassed, by a pair of new arrivals. The first, and most obvious, is Joseph Forte, the first freshman ever to lead Carolina in scoring. Forte has a frightening, seemingly inborn acuity with his shot; his stroke is odd and darting, and it goes straight to the bottom of the net. While Cota was turning the ball over against Tulsa, Forte was hitting 10 of 17 shots from the floor and scoring 28 of his team's 59 points.
The most inspirational Tar Heel, though, is another freshman, Julius Peppers. A star defensive end on the Carolina football team moonlighting as a reserve power forward, Peppers is 6-foot-6 and weighs 280 sturdy pounds. And his assets go far beyond brute force. He is as kinesthetically gifted as Haywood is confused; he blocks shots with swash and sets picks like a moveable Alp.
But Peppers' most impressive moment, and his team's, may have been a play that didn't count. Against Tennessee in the round of 16, with the shot clock running out and Carolina up by two, Peppers caught an air ball from Forte and lofted it in to beat the buzzer. The refs called a shot-clock violation anyway and waved off the basket. So Carolina went down on defense and forced Tennessee to miss a shot, with Peppers clogging the lane. Denied a game-winning play, he and the Tar Heels simply made another one. Two weeks ago, the oddsmakers would have called the win unlikely. Carolina made it look inevitable.
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