Corchiani shines, but his sport has dark undertones NCAA TOURNAMENT


COLLEGE PARK -- Chris Corchiani was quite clearly enjoying the moment. And why not? It was all his. He had just played the game of his life, leading N.C. State to an impressive win in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament. That would have been enough, even if the game hadn't been -- for the winners at least -- pure fun, which made it even better.

This is what college basketball is supposed to be all about. And Corchiani was pumped. If you've ever seen him play, you have some idea what that means. The brush-fire intensity brightens into a smile that fairly glows, and the words pour out like a Corchiani-to-Monroe-to-the-hoop fast-break. I know you've seen that.

"When we're on a roll," he was saying, "it's like riding a bike downhill. We're really hard to stop."

But then he was stopped, and it wasn't that hard either. Some official simply led Corchiani away in mid-sentence to a room where he was handed a bottle. He knew what to do with it. This was the drug-testing room, where winners are routinely stripped of their dignity and where college sports get stripped in the same way.

That's the problem with the college game. It's fun until you look too closely, and then you run into the NCAA making America safe from drug-addled point guards.

If you like basketball, you have to love watching Corchiani and Rodney Monroe. You can especially enjoy the two State guards operating against a team like Southern Mississippi, where they're apparently going to wait until next season to put in the defense.

Corchiani, the all-time NCAA assist leader, drove at will and shot at will, too, going for 11 assists and 25 points while missing one shot. Monroe, who scored 22 on an off-day, missed more often than he hit, but he's the kind of player you can enjoy watching even when he misfires. You feel like you should rate his shots for difficulty and style, not just count them for either two or three points. When he's on his game, he's unstoppable. He's like a bike rolling downhill. And then he takes his drug test, too.

Even when State blew the game open, the players kept firing up three-pointers, one after the other, and the scoreboard was blinking like an out-of-control pinball machine. The crowd was going nuts.

"This is great," Corchiani said. "When you sit out of the tournament for a year, you appreciate it a lot more."

He missed the tournament last year because State was on probation. Jimmy Valvano, then the coach, was fired and is now forced to live on the few hundreds of thousands of dollars paid him by ABC-TV to comment on the game he busily subverted.

Probation is the sub-theme of this sub-regional. Maryland, the host team, is, of course, on probation for the foreseeable future. New Mexico, which played in the opener, has spent much time in NCAA prison. Its opponent was Oklahoma State, coached by Eddie Sutton, who left Kentucky on probation and got himself another job. Nice going.

There's N.C. State, of course. And, on deck, is Syracuse, which has been accused in a hometown newspaper of the typical transgressions of which so many big-time programs are guilty. The reaction at Syracuse has been, in general, to blame the newspaper.

Syracuse could have played its game at home, where the Orangemen are hosts of another sub-regional, but the team was sent here instead. Why? As long as we're asking the question, why in the world were New Mexico and Oklahoma State playing a game in Maryland? Wasn't there anyplace closer to home they might have met? Does this make any sense? As someone observed, it's just another case of those twin symbols of college ball -- the open checkbook and the closed textbook.

And then I go back to Corchiani. What does it have to do with him?

He just wants to play basketball, and he's had a great career at N.C. State. But he nearly left when Valvano was forced out. Don't blame him for that. It's the kind of loyalty, however misguided, we'd hope for in our own children. He backed his coach. Fine.

In the end, he stayed, and that was fine, too. He decided he didn't want to allow the politics of the college game to ruin his career.

"I thought a lot about leaving," he said. "I came back for my senior year because I wanted to have fun. And I've enjoyed my senior year."

And he loved that first-round game. He said that if he were a fan, it was the kind of game he'd enjoy.

"We're fun to watch," he said. "We never slow it down."

With the game all but over, Corchiani was still diving on the floor for loose balls. It's the way he plays. It's the way every coach would want every player to play.

And when Corchiani and Monroe and the other regulars came out in the final minute of a 114-85 win, they were treated to a standing ovation. After all, the fans had gotten their money's worth.

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