If tournament history is guide, star or two about to be born

Fate has way of turning obscure players into marquee performers

March 18, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The last three weeks of the college basketball season are not only about crowning a champion from the 65 teams that start the NCAA tournament, but also identifying the players who take to the game's grandest stage and suddenly become stars.

Often, they are players who have somehow slipped through with barely any recognition and then find themselves performing in the brightest of spotlights.

Think about this: Would Michigan State have beaten Indiana State in 1979 had Greg Kelser and Terry Donnelly not had as big a game to support a legend-in-making named Magic Johnson? Would another future legend, Larry Bird, have won that game had his teammates come up as huge as Magic's?

Or this: Would Duke have survived in 2001 had it not been for the second-half heroics of Mike Dunleavy, who helped bury Arizona with his three-point shooting while stars Shane Battier and Jason Williams struggled for most of the game, making just three of 16 shots?

Or even this: Would Syracuse have won its first national championship last season had Hakim Warrick not blocked the three-point attempt by Michael Lee of Kansas, one of many plays the then-unknown forward made during a tournament that turned Carmelo Anthony from a freshman phenom into a household name?

Starting with today's opening round of the 2004 tournament, coaches are hoping that their teams' star will get that same type of help that could ultimately lead to a national title. And players, some of whom you've hardly heard about, will quickly become as familiar as your next-door neighbor.

"I think a second [scoring] option and a third option and even another half-option is really a big deal," said Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli. "[Teams] do their scouting report and they understand what you're going to do. They understand what your key guys are going to do.

"If you can hit them with more than one option, it makes you dangerous."

A big part of what makes the Hawks dangerous - regardless of what Billy Packer thinks - is junior guard Delonte West. A year ago, when Saint Joseph's was bounced from the tournament in the opening round, West was playing literally on one leg, not fully recovered from the stress fracture he had suffered in his right fibula.

"Jameer [Nelson] carried us as far as he could carry us against Auburn, but it wasn't enough," Martelli said earlier this week. "We didn't have enough firepower on the floor."

Martelli is concerned about West, who joined Nelson on the Atlantic 10's all-league team and is averaging 18.8 points a game going into his team's first-round game against Liberty, trying to make up for what happened last season.

"I totally understand what coach means. It's easy for a player to think he has to redeem himself or make a statement. All I have do is go out and help my team and do what I've been doing all year and I'll be OK," West said. "I definitely don't feel any pressure to perform or show what I can do in the tournament."

Aims at perfection

Said Martelli: "Sometimes what he gives you [is] that exterior view that he's cool, calm and collected, and what happens is that he drives himself harder than maybe any other player that I've ever coached. He wants to makes himself perfect on every single play. That's just not reality, but that's what makes him great."

West has been striving for perfection ever since he left Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, considered by some to even be over his head at Saint Joseph's. Named the Atlantic-10's most improved player last season, he finally gained some national attention when he didn't miss a shot during a 33-point performance this season at Xavier.

"I always thought that top players rise to the occasion," said West, who hit all 12 shots he took from the field and all six free throws. "It was really a tough situation, coming into their home, a big crowd.

"I guess there were a lot of [pro] scouts there. I didn't do anything special. We stayed within the team concept and I just got open looks and knocked them down. That just happened to be my day."

West is not the only talented player on a highly ranked team this season to be overshadowed by a teammate, or even by more than one other player.

Oklahoma State's Ivan McFarlin did much of the dirty work inside for the Cowboys while guards John Lucas and Tony Allen received most of the glory, including sharing Big 12 Player of the Year awards.

"He does all the dirty work," Lucas said of the 6-foot-8, 232-pound senior forward.

Said Allen: "He's like the grandfather of the team."

McFarlin sat out his first season in Stillwater after being a partial academic qualifier. Not only has he become a solid, steady inside presence for the Cowboys - averaging 12.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks a game - but he has also become a role model academically.

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