The golf cart from hell swerved one way and then another, picking up speed as it slalomed through the tunnel beneath Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill., on March 26. Riding in the back, his leg muscles aching from cramps, Illinois guard Deron Williams was gamely fielding a reporter's questions about a historic NCAA tournament day when his wayward ferry nearly tossed him like a bucking bull. "Oh, my God!" Williams exclaimed to the driver, his white-knuckled hands shaking. "Could you slow down just a little bit?"
College basketball players, coaches and fans are always in such a hurry--to get to the NBA, to move up the ladder, to dope out the next big game--that they seldom stop to note genuine transcendence in the present. But let the record show that in 2005, over two days in March, the tournament produced a trinity of remarkable games not seen since March 14, 1981, when buzzer-beaters felled No. 1 DePaul, top-seeded Oregon State and defending champion Louisville. This spring, for the first time in the tournament's 67-year history, three regional finals were settled in overtime, while two Final Four--bound teams staged memorable comebacks on the same day: Illinois (which erased a 15-point deficit in the final four minutes against Arizona) and Louisville (which dug out of a 20-point hole against West Virginia).
So astonishing were the plotlines, so unlikely the outcomes, that even cellphones--normally the bane of any fan experience--became mandatory information-gathering tools for anyone in an arena. At the Chicago Regional a sea of orange-clad Illini supporters held theirs aloft like periscopes at the Masters, snapping pictures of Williams as he sprawled, exhausted, on the bench after the game. It was as if they needed digital proof that his four late three-pointers really had turned a 75-60 deficit into a 90-89 OT victory, a result that both backcourtmate Dee Brown and Illini coach Bruce Weber called "a miracle."
Three hours earlier those same fans had listened on their phones, dumbfounded, as their buddies described the events taking place at the Albuquerque Regional. Though West Virginia built a 38-18 lead and would finish with a jaw-dropping 18 three-pointers, Louisville pressed, trapped and sank 11 treys of its own to help set a combined single-game NCAA tournament record. By the time the Cardinals had sealed their 93-85 OT win, even Louisville coach Rick Pitino was bowled over. "I've never seen anything like it in my life," marveled Pitino, who admitted that he had been lying when he told his players at halftime that he was sure they would come back to win.
The next day, at the Austin Regional, the phones came out again. With his team down 75-72 to Michigan State, Kentucky's Patrick Sparks chucked a desperation three-pointer that bounced five times on the rim, hung tantalizingly on the edge and--one second after the red light had flashed and the buzzer had sounded--dropped. But did it count? For the next 7 1/2 minutes, as officials reviewed whether Sparks's size-11 right sneaker was touching the three-point line, the Frank Erwin Center presented a surreal tableau: Thousands of fans, frantic to know what the replays showed, were dialing up anyone who might be in front of a television. Sparks's prayer stood, and though the Spartans would hold on to win in double OT, the burr-headed gunner had earned a permanent place in Kentucky hoops lore, to say nothing of the NCAA tournament's.
It was that kind of year for college basketball. Those two days in March were the most arresting moments of the sport's best season in a decade, a renaissance that featured more returning stars, higher television ratings, more marquee matchups and a higher level of play. While other sports were plagued by varying degrees of turmoil, college basketball had no steroid scandals, no brawls in the stands and (as always) no arguments about how to determine its champion. "I feel like the game is on an upward trend right now," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who had struck a blow for college hoops solidarity by turning down a $40 million offer to take over the Los Angeles Lakers in July 2004. "We've always had a great product, with its traditions, its rivalries and its spirit, but it's taken a while to adjust to the changes over the last decade." Even more progress was made thanks to the NBA's new minimum age limit, which will allow colleges to welcome players (for at least a year) who might otherwise have skipped school altogether.
Two years after it was rocked by the murder of forward Patrick Dennehy by a Baylor teammate and ethics scandals at St. Bonaventure, Georgia and Fresno State, college hoops was back. For the first time since 1965 the pretournament No. 1 and No. 2 teams ( Illinois and North Carolina) met in the national title game, and in his fifth Final Four appearance as a head coach the Tar Heels' Roy Williams was able to wade into the crowd and embrace his family, a champion at last.
So thank you, college basketball, for 2005. Thanks for giving us so many reasons to pick up a phone and say, Did you see that? Thanks for providing so many scenes to slow down and savor.