Survive and advance. In the NCAA tournament, that’s supposed to be all that matters. Jim Valvano coined the phrase in 1983, the year his North Carolina State Wolfpack survived Pepperdine and Jim Harrick in double overtime, UNLV and Tark the Shark on a Thurl Bailey tip-in, Virginia and Ralph Sampson on Lorenzo Charles’ free throws and Houston and Phi Slama Jama on the most serendipitous air ball in the history of the sport.
But now, 29 years later, we ask: When is surviving and advancing not enough?
Maybe when your point guard suffers a broken wrist, as happened to North Carolina. Maybe when your starting center is gone for the duration, as is the case with Syracuse. Those four No. 1 seeds who looked unassailable only a week ago. Two have been weakened, and the other two had nervous moments in the Round of 32. Michigan State nearly blew a lead against St. Louis, and Kentucky was tied with Iowa State in the second half.
If you picked the four No. 1’s to reach the Final Four, your bracket has held up better than Dick Vitale’s, who had Missouri and Florida State. But that top-seeded foursome seems a bit less fearsome. Carolina’s Kendall Marshall had surgery on his right wrist Monday, and there’s no guarantee he’ll play against Ohio in the Sweet 16. (This comes after forward John Henson returned from missing three games with an injured wrist of his own.) Yes, Marshall is left-handed, but still.
Two days after announcing that center Fab Melo would miss the NCAA tournament, Syracuse nearly played its way out of the thing. It needed a rally and an official’s whiff on an out-of-bounds call to subdue UNC Asheville, and its Round 2 triumph over Kansas State wasn’t as emphatic as it appeared. The Wildcats were without second-leading scorer Jamar Samuels, declared ineligible 20 minutes before tipoff.
With Carolina and the ‘Cuse in flux, some see the No. 2 seeds in the Midwest and East — Kansas and Ohio State, respectively — as smarter choices. But the Jayhawks required a furious fightback to subdue Purdue, which finished sixth in the Big Ten, and Ohio State, which should have won the Big Ten outright, is playing under the weight of long-deferred expectation.
For all their gifts, the Buckeyes might not be the best team still playing from the Buckeye State. Their next opponent is Cincinnati, which has a history of thwarting Ohio State in this event. (The Bearcats did it in the NCAA final of both 1961 and ‘62.) Xavier, which was Cincinnati’s partner in December’s infamous Crosstown Punchout, has reached the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in four seasons, and Ohio, formerly known as Ohio U., became the first 13th seed to win two NCAA games since 2006.
The West, which seemed on Selection Sunday an unimposing regional, has lost No. 2 seed Missouri but somehow gained in stature. Louisville could give Michigan State a run, although Tom Izzo has made a career of whipping teams from the Bluegrass. (Indeed, in 2009 his Spartans took down the Cardinals, then the No. 1 overall seed.) And Florida, which has won its two NCAA games by an aggregate 60 points, will face a powerful Marquette team headed by Jae Crowder, once the starting quarterback for Villa Rica High.
The South Regional will be staged in a dome 32 miles east of Villa Rica, and it features a collision of royalty. Between them, Kentucky and Indiana have taken 12 NCAA titles. Indiana was the first — and, until Selection Sunday, the only — team to beat these Wildcats, having prevailed in Bloomington on Christian Watford’s buzzer trey. Logic suggests that the Hoosiers, without injured point guard Verdell Jones III, cannot do it again. But there’s perilous precedent afoot.
On March 22, 1984, the fourth-seeded Hoosiers faced the nation’s No. 1 team in the Sweet 16. Like these Kentucky Wildcats, the North Carolina Tar Heels of that vintage had gone unbeaten in regular-season conference play. Like these Wildcats, those Heels had lost only twice — once on a final shot (to Arkansas), once in its conference tournament (to Duke). Like these Wildcats, those Heels were brimming with talent. Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty and Kenny Smith would all enjoy distinguished NBA careers, and none was even first among equals.
The famous-beyond-measure Michael Jordan was whistled for two early fouls against Indiana and was pulled by Dean Smith. He returned in the second half but, dogged by the dogged Dan Dakich, never got going. Jordan finished with 13 points on 14 shots. The Hoosiers won 72-68. Two days later, they would lose the East final to the post-Sampson Virginia, a team Carolina had beaten twice.
And where, you’re asking, was Indiana’s stunner hatched? In the old Omni, which stood next to where Friday’s game will be played. If you’re Kentucky, which is as heavy a favorite to win this tournament as North Carolina was in 1984, the parallels are surely cause for pause. The Valvano Method– survive and advance — is easy to remember, somewhat harder to implement.
By Mark Bradley