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NCAA BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

Doses of Madness

Improbable runs by underdogs are rare, but among the most impressive are Fullerton's in '78 and Loyola Marymount's in '90

March 20, 2003|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

Bobby Dye swears it happened.

Twenty-five years ago this month, with his Cal State (Who?) Fullerton Titans poised to shock Arkansas at Albuquerque in the West Regional final, Dye's mind drifted briefly from backcourt at The Pit to back lot at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

"I saw Judy Garland, the Tin Man and the Straw Man running down the yellow brick road," Dye said last week. "Yes, it ran through my mind: 'We're off to see the Wizard.' "

Toto too?

Not so Fullerton fast.

It came down to Arkansas, up by a point, missing a free throw with 10 seconds left and Fullerton guard Keith Anderson streaking down court with the ball and a chance to send the Titans to Oz.

"You couldn't ask for a better ending," Greg Bunch, the star forward from that Titan team, recalled. "You come back, you have the ball in the hands of the guy who is the hottest player on the team."

Anderson had only one take on this shoot, though, and was stripped of the ball as he tried to drive the lane. That was that.

Dye is retired now, living in Carlsbad, a quarter-century removed from his finest coaching achievement. Every now and then, he'll pop the Arkansas-Fullerton tape into his VCR and let the memories flood.

He recalls the timeout he called with 20 seconds left against Arkansas, his team down by one. Dye wanted the Titans to trap Arkansas' in-bounds pass with a play called "sideline," but one panic-stricken Titan forgot the play.

Dye snapped his fingers for a stick of chalk but Fullerton trainer Jerry Lloyd couldn't-for-the-life-of-him locate one in the three-piece, multi-pocketed suit he'd purchased for his appearance on national television.

"The clock is running down," Dye said, laughing, "I'm thinking, 'If he can get me the chalk, we go to the Final Four.' He's slapping himself trying to find it, and finally he finds it, pulls the chalk out, but his hands are trembling so bad the chalk drops on the floor and splatters. We have no chalk."

Dye had to scrap the play, but darn if it didn't almost work out anyway.

"We were up by one with a minute to play to go to the Final Four," Dye said. "But as dramatic as the run was, there was also disappointment. We had conditioned ourselves mentally to win."

In a three-week blaze, "Cal State Who" seized the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. tournament crown, stunned heavily favored New Mexico (with Michael Cooper), San Francisco (with Bill Cartwright), nearly ousted Arkansas (with Sidney Moncrief, Ron Brewer and Marvin Delph) and outlasted UCLA (newspaper headline: "Fullerton in, UCLA Out.")

Then, poof, it was over.

That 1978 courtship remains Cal State Fullerton's only NCAA tournament appearance.

When you think about it, really, the beauty of these out-of-nowhere runs is not that they happen so often -- it's that they happen so rarely.

You can count the real miracles on one hand: Pennsylvania with no scholarship players plowing into the 1979 Final Four; Cleveland State pushing Navy to the brink in 1986; Loyola Marymount's three-week passion play in 1990.

Truth is, Team Underdog is supposed to go under and it's no fluke Troy State is going to its first NCAA tournament 28 years after John Wooden coached in his last one.

Twenty-seven schools have made one NCAA tournament appearance, lost, and never returned. Cal State Fullerton and Cleveland State are the only one-hit wonders to have won two tournament games.

Since the NCAA bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the 16th-seeded schools are 0-72 against the No. 1s.

Once in a while you get a pop-through performance from Kent State or Valparaiso or Richmond or get to go gaga over Gonzaga.

But far more often than you get lucky, you get Kentucky.

"You have a huge bias toward the big schools," Tom Peabody, one of the cogs in Loyola Marymount's 1990 squad, maintains.

Peabody thinks Loyola was able to make history only because the team's two stars, Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers, had transferred in from USC.

"It was just dumb luck," Peabody said of the key acquisitions.

Although the possibility of the impossible makes the NCAA tournament the most quixotic of sporting events, the cold facts remain:

Of the 18 national titles claimed since 1985, 16 have been won by schools seeded fourth or better. The top-seeded schools have hogged 32 Final Four spots and 11 national titles. The only school seeded ninth or worse to make the Final Four since 1985 was No. 11 Louisiana State in 1986.

Will there be a breakthrough team this year, another one-hit wonder like the '78 spun by Bobby D and the Titans?

In 2028, might we wax nostalgic about kids from East Tennessee State, or Wagner, North Carolina Wilmington, or maybe Brad Holland's Toreros at San Diego?

Maybe, maybe not.

Dye says there's a reason these things don't happen more often -- busting through is hard to do.

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