On the ice this week, the Nashville Knights skated their last regular-season home game before heading south until next winter. In the pool, the country’s finest swimmers competed at Centennial Sportsplex. Just in time for spring, the Boys of Summer will hit town over at Greer Stadium. All of this was going on, but few of us were really paying much attention. We haven’t sobered up from our March Madness just yet.
A fine madness it has been, too, with something to satisfy everyone. Kentucky and Massachusetts will provide the rematch the media prayed for. Mississippi State, the first team from that state to reach the Final Four, provided the inspiring drama, much like the drama of being the first in a family to attend college or the first to wear shoes. The underdogs won early, then cooperated and went home without much fuss.
Now that we’ve winnowed the field to two Final Fours, and the office pools have mostly been reduced to puddles, we can at last bestow some much-needed perspective to the whole proceedings. So, once again, in the spirit of Oscar Week, and in support of the idea that life imitates sport, which imitates Hollywood, which stages its own imitation awards show, we convened our second-annual panel of off-plumb balloters to recognize the tourney’s top performances:
Best Performer, Male Dontae Jones, Mississippi State. Sure, there are other worthy nomineesSyracuse’s John Wallace and UMass’ Marcus Camby, to name twobut Dontae gets the nod for exuberance. He’s a hot dog with relish, a scorer who also relives the thrill of each basket on the way back down court, and no one lately has been able to restrain him. Not Kentucky. Not UConn. And not even big, buffed Cincinnati. What’s more, Jones’ is the kind of meteoric success story that Hollywood (and our voters) find irresistible: from a Nashville midnight league to junior college (where, prolific scorer that he is, he managed to rack up 36 credit hours in one summer) to Division I and the Final Four.
Best Performer, Female Charges of shameless, myopic homerism aside, it would be hard to deny the award to Vanderbilt’s Sheri Sam, who scored more points during the first three rounds than any other player in the tournament. But just behind her would be Saudia Roundtree, who almost single-handedly singed No. 1 Louisiana Tech to lead Georgia to the Final Four.
Best Performance, Conference SEC, on both sides of the gender line. Nobody seriously disputes the utter dominance of SEC women. Even so, the conference raised its own bar higher this year, placing four teams among the elite eight. But the SEC men? Four teams in the Sweet 16? Two in the Final Four? Who knew? The Scene’s columnist certainly didn’t, and, given the continued hemorrhaging from his brackets, he is in no mood to concede such foresight to anyone else either.
Best Director In the same way that Woody Allen cops nominations even after directing a moderately successful film, our panelists favored Arkansas’ Nolan Richardson, whose Hogs snuffled into the tournament without two of their starters. Yet they smoked two favored opponents before bowing out. This Arkansas team was only a shadow of the 1994 national champions, but it also may have been the beneficiary of Nolan’s best coaching.
Best Performance By a Director Spike Lee, who flittered around at the Georgetown-UMass regional semifinal while wearing a Hoyas jersey. We almost expected to see him lead cheers in the manner of his roundball alter ego, Mars Blackmon: “Please, baby, please baby please baby please!”
Best Score With 3.9 seconds left and the game tied, Princeton’s Gabe Lewullis suckered slick UCLA with a play that’s older than white dog doodies: the back-door cut. Lewullis snagged the waiting pass, laid the ball in, and, in that single instant, laid out the defending national champions.
Best Special Effects Darvin Ham, Texas Tech. As Tech, the No. 3 seed that might as well have been a turnip seed for all the attention it drew, was furiously administering a full-bore ream-out to imperious North Carolina, the Raider forward added his own hammy flourish with a putback dunk that shattered both the backboard and Carolina’s resistance. Several bug-eyed Tarheel players on the bench appeared so awestruck and disoriented that they gave each other high fives; others at ground zero showered to remove the fiberglass fragments from their hair while a new backboard was installed. “I can’t wait to get home,” Ham admitted afterward, “and watch it on SportsCenter.”
Best Name, Men’s Boubacar Aw, Georgetown. You might think it would be taxing to say it three times fast, but because he pronounces it “Ow,” and even more because of his hammering style of play, Boubacar’s opponents repeat his last name as if it were a mantra.
Best Name, Women’s Kate Starbird, Stanford. Perfectly Californian, of course. But also perfectly descriptive for one of the country’s most stellar players.
Best Revival of Yoda Pete Carril, Princeton. With his wizened appearance, his range of pained expressions, and a head of hair that remains standing long after the National Anthem is finished, you can almost visualize the Princeton coach as a mentor in a basketball galaxy far, far away, where he raspily urges on his young apprentices: “Make back-door cut you must, if defeat of champions you wish.”
Best Philosophical Exchange After UCLA stunningly squandered a late lead against Princeton, a reporter asked the Bruins’ Jim Harrick whether he thought he’d been outcoached. After glowering for longer than it takes to replay a presidential campaign sound bite, Harrick icily replied, “I don’t think you’re qualified to ask me that question”defining a standard that, if universally applied, would dramatically shorten all press conferences.
Best Dramatic Screenplay Georgia vs. Syracuse. Maybe the tourney’s best game, filled with late lead changes and jaw-dropping shots, including one that forced overtime and John Wallace’s 3-point winner. But for those who persevered until 2 a.m. last Saturday, Stanford’s OT win over Alabama in the women’s tournament might have provided even more of a rouser.
Best Actor John Calipari. The UMass coach, applying a motivational stratagem as transparent as Madonna’s evening wear, whined that his team had received inadequate respect from the mediathe same media, that is, who had voted UMass No. 1, handed Marcus Camby the Naismith Award, and honored him as coach of the year. Like Kevin Costner in Waterworld, Calipari played his part for drama when he should have gone for farce, but you have to credit him for trying.
Best Quote Rick Majerus, Utah. A repeat winner. After watching Kentucky’s dizzying 101-70 run around, over and through his Utes, Majerus was at a loss for an explanation but, as usual, was at no loss for words. “I feel drunk,” he said. “Pretty soon I’m going to BE drunk.”
Best Short Once again, the Big-Reputation, Little-Deserving 10, who, as Lyndon Johnson used to say, turned out to be all hat and no cattle. Among them, the league’s five entries eked out two lonesome Ws (and even those were squirrely). Hoping to atone for last year’s collective embarrassment, they rode in with the bravado of a biker gang and exited like a circus of mini-cycling Shriners.
How it looks from the La-Z-Boy (on further review)
Men’s Final Four UMass over Kentucky; Mississippi State over Syracuse.
Championship UMass over Mississippi State.
Women’s Final Four Tennessee over Connecticut; Stanford over Georgia.
Championship Stanford over Tennessee.