OXFORD, Ohio -- A lot of fans don't remember this, but in their dream season, Miami and Wally Szczerbiak didn't even win the MAC Tournament -- which meant they could have missed playing in the NCAAs.
It was 1999, and star forward Szczerbiak was in his senior year. The RedHawks were a great team (15-3 and No. 1 in the league), but in the ultra-competitive Mid-American Conference, each game was a war. And Miami dropped the tournament final to Kent State 49-43.
"I did not have a good game (17 points, 10 rebounds)," Szczerbiak told Cleveland.com years later. "We ended up sweating to get in (the NCAA Tournament) as an at-large. But I was really motivated to prove myself after that (MAC Championship) game, because I didn't play very well at all. So I was really looking forward to the NCAA Tournament. All of us as a team really wanted to show everyone what we were made of."
Szczerbiak was the original Big Man on Miami's campus, before anyone knew of a quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger. With good bloodlines -- Wally's father, Walt, was a pro player for several years -- Szczerbiak was born in Spain (his father was playing there at the time). He played his prep ball in a small league in New York, and as a senior averaged 36.6 points and 15.9 rebounds a game. Still, his competition kept him from drawing much recruiting attention. It was Herb Sendek at Miami who landed the sweet-shooting 6-foot-8 forward.
By the time he was a junior, Szczerbiak blossomed, averaging 24.4 points per game and earning all-MAC first-team honors. It was a preview of what was to come.
"Before the season, Sports Illustrated named him (Szczerbiak) as the best player no one knew," then-head Coach Charlie Coles told the Miami Student. "The campus was really excited."
His senior season, 1998-99, was one for the history books. With Coach Coles at the helm, the RedHawks won the conference regular-season title and upset the likes of Notre Dame and seventh-ranked Tennessee along the way. But then they fell to Kent State in the tourney finals.
At 22-7, would the NCAA respect the MAC enough to make Miami an at-large qualifier?
Yes it would.
"We all were sitting on pins and needles," Szczerbiak said. "You never know if the committee is going to turn you down. We felt like we had done enough to get an invite, but until you hear your name announced in that bracket, on CBS -- that was a joyous occasion for all of us."
Awarded a 10 seed, Miami was pitted against 7-seed Washington, and Szczerbiak's legend would only grow. He scored a career-high 43 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked a shot late to preserve a 59-58 upset win.
Then came 2-seed Utah, and once again, Szczerbiak did his best Larry Bird impression, dropping 24 points and five assists in a 66-58 win. It was on to the Sweet 16 for Miami.
"The upset of Utah is probably the only upset I would rank ahead of the Tennessee game," Coles said, "because that game was national television, in the NCAA Tournament."
It set up a showdown in St. Louis with 3-seed Kentucky, the defending national champions. UK head coach Tubby Smith said before the game he would gear his defense toward slowing down Szczerbiak, and trying to stop his teammates. Wally -- now christened with the moniker "Wally World" -- was an unknown no more. In the week leading up to the Sweet 16, he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated.
"We felt we could play with a lot of the major teams but just didn't get the opportunity," Szczerbiak said. "We felt like the MAC had really gotten us ready for just about anything. The league was really good at that time, great teams in the league. There were no easy wins. Lo and behold, we clicked at the right time and played very well in the tournament."
In the first half against Kentucky, Miami put up quite a fight. Down just 26-19, Szczerbiak scored all but four of his team's first-half points. He went outside, and shot three-pointers. He went inside and dunked over 6-10 UK center Jamaal Magloire.
But the Wildcats were long, and they had a deep rotation of big men.
"We hung in there the first half, but the second half their length and overall size really got to us," Szczerbiak said.
The Wildcats switched to a zone defense in the second half, letting Miami shoot, but most of those shots did not fall. Still, with 11 minutes to go, the RedHawks were only down 35-28. But like many of those high school games back in New York, an opposing coach dared Szczerbiak's teammates to rise up and help their team win.
It didn't happen this time. The Wildcats pulled away for a 58-43 victory. Szczerbiak led all scorers with 23 points.
"You're not going to stop Wally Szczerbiak from scoring," UK's Smith told the Baltimore Sun. "He's too good a player, too versatile, too multi-talented. (But) that's one of my mantras as a coach. I don't believe one guy can beat you."
Still, Szczerbiak tried. He scored 54 percent (90 of 168) of his team's points during the tournament.
"We just ran into a marvelous team,” Coles told the Associated Press. "I hoped we would play well if we lost. That's a lot to hope for. I don't think we did."
But the ride was a marvelous one.
In the "ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia: The Complete History of the Men's Game," the network lists the 1998-99 RedHawks as the school's best team ever assembled.
"1998-99 will be remembered as the year the MAC Champions turned the NCAA Tournament -- at least for a while -- into Wally's World," it reads. "Szczerbiak's legend was assured."
He would go on to become the sixth overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft and play for 10 years with four different professional teams.
But as he walked out of that arena after his final game, Szczerbiak already had some perspective on his career.
"My teammates have been wonderful," he told New York Newsday. "We did some great things together. I'll leave Miami with my head held high."