It wasn't weird enough that Mississippi had won four conference games on the road and shot 76.3% from the field in one of them. Mississippi? Or that for almost a month Georgia had been the most solid, stable, disciplined team in the league. Georgia? Or that at one time or another old reliable Tennessee had been 0-for-Saturdays; street-slick Alabama had beaten UCLA at UCLA but couldn't beat Mississippi State at Starkville; and Kentucky, the proud, king-daddy-of-them-all Kentucky Wildcats, had been booed with true-blue, bluegrass boos right there in Lexington. The coach and the players. Boos?
What seemed most outrageously bizarre was that on Sunday, Feb. 6, at the halfway point of the 1982-83 Southeastern Conference basketball season, six schools, most of whom you would not have recognized without their football cleats, were tied for first place with records of 6-4 (see chart, page 20) and that one of them was Auburn. Auburn? And that the Auburn star, quite possibly the most amazing, dynamic and fun-to-watch collegian in all the land, happens to be a humongously plump sophomore who has learned to answer to a variety of monikers, including Fatboy, Breadtruck and Amana, in hostile arenas. Charles Barkley, all 6'6", 272 pounds of him (before breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, supper, snack, dinner, snack, dessert, snack and midnight munchies, by which time he might be up around 400), plays the game like Porky Pig gone berserk on a trampoline.
And if anyone in the SEC environs took a break from the annual prayer meditations over the signing of high school football players last week—in the deep South what it is is football, still—he might have noticed that the conference's basketball race had taken some more improbable turns toward chaos. At Auburn last Saturday, before the Crisco Kid could tear down a single backboard with one of his refrigerator slams or add to his hefty career statistics against Kentucky, Barkley was thrown out of the game, exactly 113 seconds after it started, for deliberately swatting Wildcat Charles Hurt's head from behind.
Barkley's blow was a retaliatory gesture that came after Hurt, no shrinking violet himself, had knocked Barkley to the floor on Auburn's first possession and then, moments later, had viciously body-blocked him down the side of the lane and all the way into the end-zone press table. But Referee Paul Galvan, one of the best, saw only the Tiger's paw. Barkley's belt hurt Auburn more than it hurt Hurt. Kentucky went on to win the game 71-69 as Wildcat Center Melvin Turpin, whom Barkley routinely eats for lunch along with his four pizzas, scored 25 points. That game may turn out to be the most significant in this conference season. Because Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Mississippi all lost on the road, by late Saturday Kentucky stood alone at the top of the SEC with an 8-4 record, while the above losing trio dropped to 7-5 and Auburn to 6-5. If Barkley, the Wildcat-whipper, had stayed in the game, according to the house line, Auburn would have won going away, and there would have been the usual virtual five-way tie for first. Oh, Pancho. Oh, Crisco.
This new parity doesn't necessarily mean the best basketball is played in the SEC, only the most competitive. Just now the league appears not to have any North Carolinas or Indianas, contenders for the national championship, and its top two teams—whoever they may be—might lose to the strongest pair from a handful of other conferences. But below that, don't come messing with the SEC.
At week's end, SEC teams had won 81 and lost just 18 against non-conference opponents, and every SEC club except LSU had won a holiday tournament. Moreover, Jeff Sagarin, the computer wizard from Bloomington, Ind. who punches scores and schedules into his terminal to come up with a ranking that is biased by neither geography nor media hype, recently had nine, count 'em, nine, of the 10 SEC teams in his Top 30.
For sure, the Southeast's middle-rung schools would blow out the third or fourth place teams from anywhere else. The trouble is, the SEC has been so closely bunched for so many weeks that it would be difficult to find the middle rung. But last place? Forget it. Alabama has been there almost all year. The Tide, which last week won only its third game in league competition, was once ranked seventh nationally by SI at the same time it ranked 10th in the SEC, where it yet remains. At home in the cozy SEC one night, 'Bama fell behind Vanderbilt by 23 points; away from home, the Crimson Tide has defeated Penn State, Southern Cal and Georgetown (by 21 points), in addition to UCLA. The last three of those games were played in Los Angeles. 'Bama Coach Wimp Sanderson has not scotched the rumor that he will relocate his team out west and call it UALC, the University of Alabama at La Cienega.
The reasons for this vast shift of roundball power in a conference in which only 15 years ago Mississippi announced that Head Basketball Coach Eddie Crawford was being "promoted" to assistant football coach are few and rather obvious: big money, good coaches and black players.
After years of Kentucky white rule, the SEC began to change in the mid-'60s. Athletic directors realized that meaningful revenues could be enjoyed from a basketball program if a school had a sizable place to play. Tennessee was the first to build an arena to rival Kentucky's Memorial Coliseum, and Georgia, Alabama, LSU and the two Mississippi schools soon followed. Now everybody has the big tent. After Kentucky escalated the building war and moved into the 23,000-seat Rupp Arena, in 1976, Tennessee began planning a 25,000-seater, or at least a building one seat bigger than Kentucky's.
If bigger wasn't automatically better, blacker certainly was. In 1966-67 Vanderbilt broke the league's color line with Perry Wallace. Two years later an Alabama athletic director named Bear Bryant hired little-known C.M. Newton out of tiny Transylvania College, a few blocks away from Rupp Arena, to coach basketball at Tuscaloosa. Newton immediately recruited a stream of talented black players, and soon all those quality athletes from the South, the "home boys" who had gone off to the Big Ten and the Missouri Valley and the WAC, or had opted for smaller local black schools, were integrating SEC lineups. On current SEC starting teams, 42 of the 50 players are black. And what a fertile recruiting territory the SEC is. The state of Georgia, for example, furnished Louisville with two-fifths of its starting national championship team in 1980 in Derek Smith and Wiley (One Thumb) Brown, and this season four different Georgians are playing key roles on SEC teams outside Georgia: Dale Ellis at Tennessee, Jeff Malone at Mississippi State, Odell Mosteller at Auburn and Kenny (Sky) Walker at Kentucky.
In recent years the SEC has become not only a "black" league but a "coach's" league. The conference boasts five head men who are veterans of the Final Four: Kentucky's Joe B. Hall and Florida's Norm Sloan (while at N.C. State) each won a national championship; Georgia's Hugh Durham (while at Florida State) and Mississippi's Lee Hunt (while an assistant at Memphis State and UCLA) had runner-up teams; and Dale Brown's LSU club was fourth in 1981. Then there's Mississippi State's Bob Boyd, who spent so many years chasing UCLA while at Southern Cal that he qualifies for sniffing rights to the NCAA title.
"I'm not into building cases for one league over another," says Boyd, "but in the Pac-8 and Pac-10 there were a couple of places you'd go and know you were going to win. A lock. In this conference you're never sure, not even at home. The Kentucky mystique is gone. Everybody's saying, 'What's wrong with Kentucky?' The only thing wrong is there's a bunch of teams in the SEC just as good."
This conference preseason started normally enough, with nobody being as good as Kentucky. Though the polls didn't show it, through much of December the Wildcats were No. 1 in the world, loose, happy and confident despite the continuing absence of the ill-fated 7'1" Center Sam Bowie, who is now zeroing in on Evel Kneivel in the most-plaster casts-worn department. But at Indiana on Dec. 22 the Wildcats became tentative and got roughed up. Suddenly the bloom was off the rose.
Waltzing into SEC competition, Kentucky seniors Derrick Hord and Dirk Minniefield fell into slumps, and the team became dependent on Turpin. Meanwhile, the wondrous freshman, Walker, lingered on the pines while Hall went into his annual tiff with the media over his substitutions and his verbal whiplashing of players. In a stretch of seven games Kentucky lost four and barely survived to win two others in overtime; over a span of 17 minutes encompassing parts of two games, the Wildcats were outscored 32-4 and Hall called no time-outs. "The difference is enthusiasm," Minniefield said. "We don't have it. Sometimes we tighten up from him [Hall] getting hard on us."
Hall has one of the toughest jobs in the sport. When Auburn beat Kentucky 75-67 in Rupp Arena on Jan. 15, some nice folks in the crowd chanted "We want a coach." It's little wonder the team so closely reflects its mentor's personality. Hall called the Cats "yellow" and "gutless" to their faces. That was before a victory. After Turpin scored 42 points at Tennessee in a game Kentucky still managed to lose—Hall is 1-10, career, in Knoxville—one coach said of Hall, "I'd have to take pills to get that uptight."
The Kentucky problems have surfaced virtually parallel with those of another established SEC power, the enigma, Alabama. Out of conference, relaxed and with nothing to lose, the Tide is an entertaining gang of street-ball aficionados, with Ennis Whatley, the point-guard prince, at the controls. Though a shock to some, Alabama's 70-67 victory over UCLA was really made to order, the Bruins being a no-defense, scatter-shot, semiselfish crew that played into 'Bama's quick hands. "Don't let Whatley get the ball," UCLA Coach Larry Farmer kept yelling to his troops. Totally, f'sure. Hah. Back in the SEC, they get after Whatley with muscle, forcing him to over-penetrate and to initiate too much, and then pound the Tide's no-depth finesse forecourt to dust. 'Bama has lost five SEC games by four points or fewer.
The question hovering over the Crimson Tide concerns character. Whatley, Bobby Lee Hurt and Buck Johnson all committed to other schools before they signed on at Tuscaloosa. Now there is talk that Whatley, only a sophomore, wants out for the NBA draft. As is his wont, Sanderson bows his head and grimaces, which is about the way his team plays. "I think we might have been overrated," he says, grimacing and bowing. Stay tuned for more. The Woes of Wimp.
The SEC having returned 36 of its 50 regulars from last season, all it took was the slightest lapse by the favorites and here came the rest of the cavalry:
•Georgia, where Durham has done his most innovative coaching and where the Dawgs are missing the mad leaper, Dominique Wilkins, who jumped all the way to the pros this season, far less than he may be missing them. Georgia won six of seven SEC games even as Durham was whining about a brutal 18-game conference schedule that demands total concentration and intensity every time out. "Look at North Carolina playing Citadel and Furman one weekend," Durham said. "They took the week off. Just took it off. We can't do that in this league." Well, some Dawgs must have. Through last week Georgia had lost three in a row and had fallen to 6-6 in the league.
•Vanderbilt, Mississippi and Mississippi State, where the individual efforts of Phil Cox, Carlos Clark and Malone, respectively, have been the hallmarks of surprisingly successful seasons. Cox is a 5'11" sophomore from Harlan County, Ky., who, despite breaking all the high school scoring records of Kentucky's (and Harlan County's) legendary Wah Wah Jones, was snubbed by the Wildcats before being snapped up by the Commodores. Newton, who moved from his head coaching job at Alabama to become assistant commissioner of the SEC and then on to Nashville, has guided Vandy to shocking road victories at Alabama and at Tennessee, and Cox, a 14.5-point-a-game scorer through last weekend, led the nation in free-throw percentage at .956. Clark, a 6'4" lefthander, has had a featured role in Ole Miss's tenacious zone press, which Hunt resurrected from his bull sessions at UCLA with John Wooden. But Carlos (19.2 points per game) is a terror on offense, as well. Hunt calls him "Marques Johnson in miniature." Then there's Malone, a 6'4" marvel who averaged more than 31 points in January while shooting 55.0%. He's extraordinary at sliding open off picks. The Kentucky man-to-man held him to eight-of-23 shooting in the Wildcats' 88-67 victory early last week, but he and his team recovered on Saturday at home against Tennessee; Malone outscored Ellis 28 to 21 as Mississippi State won 75-66. Through last week State was 13-8 (6-6 in the SEC) after going 9-19 (4-14) last season. Pro scouts say if Malone isn't the first big guard selected in the NBA draft, another SEC player, LSU's Howard Carter, will be.
•And Tennessee. Always Tennessee. The Big Orange. The elegant Ellis. The dangerous Don DeVoe, Tennessee's coach. He says Kentucky should win the SEC. He says Kentucky will win it. But DeVoe himself may be the negating factor in that equation when his team challenges the Wildcats again in Lexington on the last Sunday in February. DeVoe already has uncharacteristically lambasted his own Volunteers—"Seventh-graders can shoot better free throws than this team," he has said. "I've never had a team where a guy won't show some leadership, go up there and perform the job at the line"—but that's what the SEC will do to a guy. After the Vols won three in a row DeVoe said he would continue to wear a red tie. Red with orange? "I've never worn orange in my life," he said. "I'm not that superstitious."
No such restraint will ever infect the wandering mind of a former DeVoe assistant (at Virginia Tech), Sonny Smith, who for five years now has been the delightfully quotable, homespun coach at Auburn. Smith says he wants Barkley on the "Sonny diet—if it tastes good, spit it out." He says he wants Barkley playing at 250 pounds, "but I don't think he's ever been there." He says Barkley sometimes is called "Porkley" on the road. "Then they yell, 'Hey, Porkley, why don't you send Sonny out for some egg rolls," Smith says. "Damn, I'll buy up the whole A&P if Charles'll go get me 35 ever' night with maybe 15 'bounds."
The Round Mound of Rebound would be just another media-inspired sobriquet with no basis in truth were it not for the fact that Barkley actually ballooned up to 305 pounds during the National Sports Festival last summer. "Chocolate chips," he says. Still, he's a magnificent athlete—"our aeronautical wonder," says teammate Bryon Henson—a leaping, pirouetting hippo of a child who at week's end was third in the SEC in rebounding and was second in the entire NCAA in field-goal percentage (.667).
He has always been especially effective against Kentucky. Before last Saturday Barkley had gotten 70 points and 49 rebounds (to Turpin's 38 and 20) in four games against the Wildcats—grist for Smith's suspicions that either the Wildcats or Charles Hurt himself had plotted the Round Mound's premature dismissal.
Hall would not comment on the charge, and Hurt, who, strangely, had never covered Barkley in the past but was high-fived and congratulated by his ecstatic teammates as the Mound left the game, merely said, "It was my time to guard Barkley. We at Kentucky never set out to do that kind of thing."
Following the incident, the Tigers, especially freshman Forward Chuck Person (17 points, 10 rebounds), worked feverishly to give Auburn a 35-28 halftime lead. But, without Barkley's gargantuan frame blocking his path, Turpin soon had easy sailing through the keys. After Kentucky won the game on the rejuvenated Hord's 18-foot jump shot at the buzzer, Turpin said of Barkley, "I started feeling sorry for the kid, but yeah, I was happy to see the kid go." The kid?
Across the hall Barkley held court for the press while obviously contemplating an approaching repast. Should you have been disqualified? "Yeah. I told the ref, 'Good call.' I lost control for a few seconds. I deserved to be thrown out," he said. Were you set up? "More like made a fool of," Barkley said. What do you do now, go for the burgers or the Moon Pies? "Sure," Barkley said.
Hey, a kid's got to eat.
Soaring and scoring, Minniefield helped Kentucky to a sweet 88-67 victory over Mississippi State.
Sanderson may have to look toward Mecca for a solution to 'Bama's ills.
Kentucky beat Auburn because the Turpin-Barkley matchup barely got off the ground.
DeVoe thinks his lucky cravat is the tie that binds the Volunteers and gets the likes of Ellis out of knotty situations.
At 26.7 a game, Mississippi State's Malone hasn't backed into the SEC scoring lead.
Commodore Cox, here driving, is the nation's top foul shooter with a 95.6% mark.