NCAA losers exit tourney very quietly

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 3, 2006

PHILADELPHIA — This is how it ends in the NCAA tournament.

The winners have already celebrated in the locker room and gone to the post-game interview session and talked about how good it feels to move on to the next round.

The Connecticut players talked Sunday about going to Washington. The Villanova players talked about going to Minneapolis.

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For Kentucky and Arizona, there wasn’t quite as much to say. It didn’t seem as exciting to talk about going to Kentucky and Arizona.

This is how it ends in the NCAA tournament. It ends with a few straggling reporters in the nearly empty interview area, with players holding their heads in their hands and with coaches trying bravely to talk about the future, their words just dull echoes off the cement walls.

“We’re not going to go through another season like this,” Tubby Smith of Kentucky said quietly. He was nearly alone, although back home the entire state was listening.

“Changes will be made,” Smith said. “The players have to understand that there is a standard set here and there won’t be any bending.”

Those who didn’t live and die with every bounce of the ball in Lexington can only guess that the Wildcats’ 13-loss season didn’t quite live up to expectations.

“I thought we played excellent today,” Kentucky forward Bobby Perry said after the 87-83 Connecticut win. “That shows you how good they are.”

Getting to the second round was something for Kentucky and Arizona to grasp onto Sunday. Even if it wasn’t, they had little else. Both losing teams played well, but both ran into No. 1 seeds. There was the sense of having caught a bad break, but it was exactly the break their records had earned them.

“We laid it on the line. No regrets,” Hassan Adams of Arizona said into the gloom after Villanova’s 82-78 win. “We wanted to get it done real bad and we came together. People doubted us in this tournament.”

Apparently with some reason. Arizona never adjusted to Villanova’s speed and gave up 54 percent shooting. For their own part, they were too quick and occasionally out of control on offense. Even the layups were hasty and a bunch of those rimmed out and fell away.

“Sometimes, it’s the bounce of the ball,” coach Lute Olson said. “I’m sure when I look back there is going to be a lot of stuff that sticks like a knife in you. But you can’t play 40 minutes at that speed without making mistakes.”

Not against Villanova, just as Kentucky will have long months to counts its missed shots against Connecticut and wonder if things would have gone differently if not for its 1-for-10 shooting on three-pointers in the first half.

“I was telling them at halftime in the locker room, ‘Bend your knees. Use your legs. I believe it’s going to go in,’” Smith said.

That must have played well back home, where every boy and girl from the age of 4 is taught the same thing. It borders on the incredulous that the coach of the Kentucky Wildcats must remind his players to bend their knees during the second round of the national tournament. It is like reminding them to breathe.

But this is how it ends in the NCAA tournament. It ends with the raucous laughter of opposing fans after an airball. It ends with the quick swipe at the ball that hadn’t been whistled for four months being called as a foul. It ends with the empty chairs and the echoing room and words too fragile to fill the gaping chasm.

&uot;We’re used to playing away games,&uot; Arizona’s leading scorer Marcus Williams said of the Wachovia Center crowd that heavily favored Villanova. &uot;It was loud in there. It was crazy. But we’ve been in situations like that before.&uot;

To know how good it feels to advance in the tournament, it helps to know how it feels to go home. Connecticut lost in the second round last season. Villanova won twice before losing in the regional semifinal game.

Both teams have sat through the quiet postgame sessions while the sounds of someone else’s celebration can be heard down the hall.

&uot;I know that Jay (Wright) is proud of his team, but I’m proud of mine, too,&uot; Olson said. &uot;We played as well as we can play. Villanova just had that little bit extra.&uot;

Maybe the little extra came from the stands, although Olson didn’t want to use the environment as an excuse.

&uot;This is a great tournament. That’s something the tournament committee needs to take a look at,&uot; Olson said. &uot;Maybe there needs to be a radius in miles (from campus) or something. But I don’t for one second want that to sound like the reason we lose the game. It’s not.&uot;

There are other reasons. There always are. Kentucky and Arizona has plenty of time to sort them out. Because that is how the NCAA tournament always ends.

With nothing but time, and nowhere to go.