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Monday, March 28, 2005
Updated: March 29, 11:24 AM ET
A magical weekend of hoops

By Scoop Jackson
Page 2

And then there were four.

He stood at the free-throw line with the score tied in the second overtime, thinking about the last time he was here, two weeks ago. He didn't want to go back there, back to that Big Ten Tournament game, where he missed those two free throws that cost his team not only a shot at the title, but a seeding more representative of how thorough his team really is.

Still, those misses re-entered his head as the ref handed him the ball. Nylon. Nylon. Then it happened two more times, two more free throws. And those misses were still there, still creeping back into his head. More nylon. Finally, after the fourth make, the missed 15-footers, the earlier ones, evaporated. Four-for-four from the stripe in the final 12 seconds. His team wins by six. Do the mathematics. Alan Anderson will never have to think about those misses, ever again. ...

* * * * *

Sean May
Sean May's been the key to Carolina's run to the Final Four.
He yelled at no one, but said something to everyone. Something happened when his man, his teammate for life, his boy went down. When the drama of outside life attacked Rashad McCants' body, game and spirit, he knew. He got vocal, his game got loud. All of a sudden, the team no longer belonged to someone else -- not Raymond, not Rashad, not Roy. It belonged to him. He became the best big man, if not the best player, in college basketball.

But it wasn't his 20/20s that did it. It was his vision -- his vision to see deeper than the surface of what this team needed to advance, not just survive. He put arms around necks, hands on chests, fingers on temples. Listen, believe, think. As one Carolina fan said, "Sean May is better than Brad Daugherty ever was because Daugherty never communicated or led his teammates the way May does." And it began the minute the spiritual leader's spirit was stolen, when the chosen leader could no longer lead the chosen few, when something divine intervened ...

* * * * *

He couldn't put any pressure on his foot. Or his leg. Sprained anterior or posterior tibial, pulled hamstring. Both. It was too late in the game; the pressure was too tight. The best player on the team -- its leader -- had just fouled out with 4:02 left. He, the reserved one of this clique, had left the game with 5:42 left, never expecting to come back. The game before this one made him a star. Twenty-five points. Elite Eight status for a team that should've been ranked No. 4 instead of seeded 4. He was this year's Lionel Chalmers. The brotha who was singing Mighty Mouse songs. Here he came again, injured foot and all, to save the day.

But this time, he couldn't pull off another miracle by putting points up on the board. He had to somehow will his birds back into a game against a flock that was dropping threes like Iverson, Marbury, D.Wade, Q.Rich and Ben Wallace were all on the same squad. It was an uncliché game where you hated to see someone lose. Dude didn't feel that way. And despite his teammate's 21 second-half points, it was he, Taquan Dean, who sat next to his coach the next day, Easter Sunday, and talked to Greg Gumbel, Seth Davis and Clark Kellogg about how the West was won ...

* * * * *

He got blamed for their only loss. In that game, that one flawed game over three weeks ago, he scored two points and the Illa lost by one. Again, mathematics. It was his fault. With four minutes left on Saturday, his team down by 15, he thought about that loss. He thought, I can take the blame for one loss, but not two. A commentator broadcasting the game on the radio said his name, said he "hasn't gone off yet." Said, that was scary. Down by 13 with 3:28 left, down by 11 with 3:00 left, down by nine with 2:43 left. He was starting to go off.

Deron Williams
Deron Williams stepped up when it counted, when his team needed him the most.
They said that he was the overrated one on a team that was being called overrated. He was the only member of the starting five not to be named conference player of the week during the season. Down by three with 45 seconds left. He hits the three with 34 seconds left to lock the game at 80. OT. He hits another three to open overtime. Then another to give the Illini an 88-84 lead. All the while, he alone confined the best shooter in college basketball, held him to a 2-for-13 night in the biggest game of his NBA-bound career.

And with 11 seconds left in one of the greatest games of NCAA recent memory, he made it impossible for Arizona's hottest player (Hassan Adams) to get a shot off to win the game. And all that time, all of those last nine minutes that he said later "were a blur," all Deron Williams could think about was this: that one loss. And if it wasn't for that one loss, the No. 1 team in the country wouldn't have won this game ...

* * * * *

Four games. Four stories. Welcome to the Final Four: We Know Drama.

It can't live up to this past weekend can it? Can it?!?

Without doubt. How? Because Larry O'Bannon's story is deeper at Louisville. Because Marvin Williams' story is deeper at North Carolina. Because Shannon Brown's story is deeper at Michigan State. Because Luther Head's story is much deeper at Illinois. And the stories will unfold and write themselves on Saturday and Monday.

We asked for parity and inherited greatness, for an intensity only equaled with balance. Of the remaining four teams in this Lord of the Rings-type epic, the emergence of a king might not solidify dominance, but it will secure greatness.

How are the Illini going to feel secure with a lead when they know that as dramatic as their win over Arizona was, Louisville came from further behind (20 points) against a team that never went cold or choked? How are the Tar Heels going to feel when they realize that Raymond Felton going 6-for-6 from the line in the last minute to win the game last week is nothing compared to the way Michigan State shoots free throws. The Spartans have four of the top five free-throw shooters in the Big Ten, and the team is third in the nation in free-throw percentage.

There's more ... but why script it? Why go there? Why test fate? What we will get this weekend is basketball anticipated at the Dr. Dre's "Detox" release level. With no leaks or skits or gimmicks. Games will be played, but no one will be playing games.

Cardinals, Spartans, Pirates (Tar Heels) all fighting Illini. Three Hall-of-Fame coaches going against a coach whose players this time last year had no faith in him. But faith is not wrapped all around this; fate is. It belongs to no one; it belongs to all four. All four coaches, teams, programs and universities. Still, only one will benefit.

And in the end, when Andy Katz gets his Sunday Conversation interview next Monday night, when Dick Vitale hypes the school he claimed all along would win it, when Page 2 gets overcrowded with columnists twisting angles on why this team won the most dramatic NCAA Tournament ever, the one left standing might be more than the best team. It will consider itself one of the greatest.

How? Because of what -- not necessarily who -- it went through to get there. Because of the equality of talent on each team. Because of the balance and compatibility that hasn't been seen in college basketball's final four teams since 1985. Because of the parity.

Yes, the parity that is the blessed result of Amare, LeBron and Dwight never entering this stage. The parity that we've begged for from unpaid, scholarshiped ball. Because of that, fate -- not talent, money, or recruiting -- will decide whose back story we will be telling on Tuesday, April 5.

And it is the fateful moments like the ones we just witnessed in an unforgettable 48-hour period that will have us on lock again. Waiting for a No. 1 team with only one loss to come back from 15 down with 4 minutes left; waiting for a 48-percent-shooting team to outscore a 68-percent-shooting team by one; waiting for the moment when a toe-on-the-line isn't a toe-on-the-line and it takes the refs almost as long to decide whether the shot that took an hour to fall through the rim loses the game or ties it; waiting for a coach whose mother has just passed away to maintain his composure -- even in the middle of his team's euphoria -- but sees his brother and finally loses it in his arms.

This is what we'll take into next weekend. It will never live up to the one that just passed.

Or will it?

Scoop Jackson is an award-winning journalist who has covered sports and culture for more than 15 years. He is a former editor of Slam, XXL, Hoop and Inside Stuff magazines; and the author of "Sole Provider: 30 Years of NIKE Basketball," "Battlegrounds: America's Street Poets Called Ballers" and "LeBron James: the Chambers of Fear." He resides in Chicago with his wife and two kids. You can e-mail Scoop here.