WASHINGTON -- The Duke-Kansas game was four hours away as a high school phenom named Johnny Rhodes sat in his living room, staring at his collection of 30 trophies and talking about "the score."
This wasn't another game. This was something else indeed. "The score" foremost in Johnny Rhodes' thoughts last night wasn't the one in Indianapolis. It was the one on his SAT.
After two tries, he still is not close to 700, the minimum standard he needs to earn consideration for a basketball scholarship to the college of his choice, the University of Maryland.
"All this publicity, it doesn't mean anything if I don't get the score," explained Rhodes, a 6-foot-5, 165-pound shooting guard from Washington Dunbar. "To me, it would just be a waste."
Such words would leave an admissions officer impressed, perhaps even touched. Given the chance, Johnny Rhodes can be everything that is right about college sports. But too many believe he is everything that is wrong.
Even after last night's memorable Duke triumph, this NCAA tournament will largely be remembered for the shadow cast by Nevada-Las Vegas, a school that gives kids like Johnny Rhodes a bad name.
Rhodes, 18, might never be a candidate for Academic All-America, but he has a 2.8 grade-point average (out of 4.0) at Washington Dunbar, and he's firmly convinced he can overcome the SAT.
Granted, a 700 score (out of 1,600) might not seem like much of an accomplishment, but Rhodes was educated in the inner city, not at a private school. Right now he's trying his absolute best.
"Unfortunately, he waited until his senior year to get serious about this," said Rhodes' coach at Washington Dunbar, Michael McLeese. "But teen-agers are teen-agers. And it's not too late."
The next exam is May 4, and there's another one June 1. Rhodes said he needs "another 100 points" to approach 700. His mother Lucy said, "I'm sure he'll make it."
That isn't just talk. Rhodes' family is paying $560 so he can attend an SAT review course. Lucy works for Blue Cross-Blue Shield. Her husband, Johnny Sr., is an auto mechanic. They live in a modest rowhouse, and like anyone else, they could use that money.
But this has become a mission. The course consists of 10 three-hour sessions. Last night, even with the tournament ending, even in the midst of spring break, Johnny Rhodes planned on taking a practice test.
"It's coming along," he said. "It [the course] is really helping me a lot. It's helping me understand the test more. The next time I take it, I'll relax instead of being so anxious."
He admits to being terrified his first two tries, but he's slowly XTC gaining confidence, constructing an approach. "It's something you go ahead and take as if it was a free throw," he said. "You have to concentrate."
The basketball analogy is soothing; Rhodes averaged 24 points and eight rebounds as a senior at Washington Dunbar, a team Baltimore Dunbar defeated three times this season. In last week's Capital Classic he was named the Capital All-Stars' MVP.
All that's fine, but the SAT presents a far greater challenge. The kicker is, Rhodes doesn't plan on ending his academic career before it genuinely begins. He's serious about college, serious about earning a degree.
It all sounds too good to be true, as if Rhodes was embarking on a public-relations campaign. Only he's too young to know from public relations, too sincere for the big con.
As for faking it through college, Lucy Rhodes said, "I told him you can't go with that attitude, because you can't play ball all your life. I told him you can't make it in the world without an education."
"The degree, that's what I'm going for, really," Johnny said. "If something better comes along, all right, but my main point is to get my degree. That's first, and then basketball."
The critical thing now is to reach 700, then let Maryland decide. After all its troubles, the school has no use for players who can't meet Proposition 48 standards. It could reject Rhodes even if he exceeds them.
At this point, that's difficult to imagine. But Rhodes has figured out his alternative -- attend prep school for a year, then reapply. He chose Maryland over Connecticut, St. Bonaventure and N.C. State. It's a mission now.
"I'm not saying I'm going to get it, but I'm going to get it," Rhodes said. "If I get to 700, that'll be an exciting moment in my life. Getting that 700, that's probably almost better than graduating."
Some might call that sad.