LET THE GAMES BEGIN
Unsurprisingly, the first week of January brought more upsets than the entire month of December. Syracuse, Illinois, Indiana and LaSalle all suffered their first defeats, leaving only Kansas, Georgetown, Oklahoma and Georgia Tech as major unbeatens—and who wants to bet that those four will escape January unscathed? In addition, LSU and Louisville were jolted in games they were supposed to win easily.
If there's a common thread, it might be soft early schedules, which are good for padding the record and the bank account, but bad for getting teams ready for conference play, in which the pressure gets turned up a notch or two. Look at any team in the Top 20, and you'll find at least three games on its December schedule that, frankly, amounted to little more than glorified practices.
Teams obviously don't want a tough game every time out, but some of the scheduling has gotten so absurd that it's an insult to the public, which is paying $15 a seat at some schools for the privilege of seeing a 50-point blowout. The plethora of mismatches also is an excellent argument for cutting the number of games and starting the season later in the fall. The Presidents Committee will propose just that at the NCAA convention this week in Dallas. Financially strapped athletic directors can be expected to oppose any measure that will cut into their revenues, but can anybody really argue that a player benefits more from three hours in a gym against no competition than he would from three hours in the library going one-on-one with his textbooks?
Take Syracuse. No one should have been surprised that the Orangemen, top-ranked in the polls at the start of last week, barely beat Pittsburgh before getting clobbered 93-74 by Villanova at home. Syracuse prepared for those two games by playing its last four December games against—ready for this?—Canisius, Towson State, C.W. Post and Lafayette. Going directly from that sort of competition to the Big East is a bit like moving from simple arithmetic to advanced calculus.
On the other hand, Kansas, 15-0 as of Sunday, is an example of a team that plays a reasonable preconference schedule. Sure, the Jayhawks gobbled up a couple of creampuffs, but they also defeated LSU, UNLV, Kentucky, Arizona State and Wichita State. By the way, the team-oriented Jayhawks have made a fan of a certain elderly gentleman in Los Angeles. "I've really enjoyed watching Kansas play," said John Wooden. "They're a team. I'd like to see more teams like that."
REVIVAL ON THE RIVER
Only two days after pulling off its shocking 71-66 upset of Louisville on the road, Cincinnati returned home and was upset 73-72 by Coastal Carolina. Still, the Bearcats were 8-4 at week's end, and their new coach. Bob Huggins, believes the program could be as strong as it was from 1958-59 through '62-63, when Cincinnati went to five straight Final Fours and won national titles in 1961 and '62. Asked about a timetable, Huggins said, "I don't know, but I don't have a whole lot of patience."
One reason for Huggins's optimism is a new on-campus arena that seats 13,200. The Bearcats averaged only 8,790 in their first five home games, but attendance is up by more than 5,000 fans per game over last season. Huggins sees the day when Cincinnati basketball will be the toughest ticket in town.
For the time being, however, Huggins must make do with a team that has only eight scholarship players because of sanctions levied by the NCAA in 1988 for, among other things, recruiting violations. The roster is filled out by five walk-ons, the best being 6'2" senior guard Steve Sanders, a starting wide receiver on the football team who has emerged as the Bearcats' leading three-point shooter. The lack of depth is so acute that all five starters are averaging at least 30 minutes a game. Forward Levertis Robinson, who missed 16 days because of an appendectomy on Dec. 6, played 116 of a possible 120 minutes in the Rainbow Classic three weeks later, and as of Sunday point guard Andre Tate had sat out only 15 of a possible 480 minutes. "We don't have a lot of margin for error," says Huggins.
The team's best player, 6'6" junior swingman Louis Banks, broke his left—or nonshooting—hand on Dec. 9, forcing him to play with the hand heavily taped. Oddly enough, Banks's shooting has improved since the injury. "When I was shooting poorly early in the season, I was guiding the ball with my left hand." says Banks. "Now I can't get a good grip on it with my left hand, so I'm using my shooting hand more and shooting better." Against Louisville, Banks's 18 points led four Bearcats who scored in double figures.
Nevertheless, Cincinnati's strength is its defense, which changes constantly but never lets up. "We have to keep 'em guessing, because I've never had a team big enough to do anything else," says Huggins, who went to Cincinnati after coaching at Akron for five seasons. With only a year of scholarship restrictions remaining on the Bearcats' NCAA probation, Huggins hopes they can steal enough W's by March to earn their first NCAA tournament bid since 1977.
New Virginia Commonwealth coach Sonny Smith, who became known for his sense of humor during his 11 years at Auburn, has been having trouble mustering a smile this season, and the reason has little to do with the Rams' 5-5 start. If you think you have problems, read on.
Smith's 72-year-old mother, Irma, is ill with cancer and heart disease. On Christmas Day, her Roan Mountain, Tenn., house burned down, apparently because of an electrical problem. Smith's brother, Jim, suffered burns and smoke inhalation trying to fight the fire and had to be hospitalized.
Then Smith's daughter, Sherri, 23, was hospitalized in Auburn because of a severe bronchial infection. While she was in the hospital, her father-in-law died. Smith himself broke his right hand when he slammed it against a blackboard—after a victory, no less.
Finally, when Virginia was hit by a bitter cold spell in December, Smith found himself walking around Richmond in a coat with no lining. The weather had never gotten that cold in Auburn, you see. "I think I brought this weather with me," said Smith.
"I think he's right," said Commonwealth assistant Lawrence Johnson.
"Don't stand too close to me," said Smith. "Bad things might start happening to you."
During the first half of Arkansas's visit to Texas Tech, the horn on the overhead scoreboard came loose and fell to the floor, landing about a foot and a half from Razorback forward Todd Day, who understandably flinched. Teammate Lee Mayberry thought the near-miss was more than that. "When I saw [the horn], I thought it was Todd's arm lying out there," said Mayberry. Apparently rattled. Day scored a season-low nine points in the Razorbacks' 92-75 win....
Following an 86-81 loss to Notre Dame last Saturday, Southern Cal was 12-28 in games decided by six points or fewer under George Raveling, who took over in 1986. The Trojans suffered another setback when their Jan. 13 date with Arizona State had to be moved from the Los Angeles Sports Arena to their campus's Lyon Center—an 1,800-seat student recreation facility—because of a scheduling conflict with Walt Disney on Ice. Portable seating will boost the Lyon Center capacity to 2,200. Wonder if the game will sell out....
Seton Hall, which received a lot of help from Andrew Gaze of Australia on the way to last season's runner-up finish in the NCAA tournament, is recruiting 6'8" Arturas Karnishovas, who's considered to be the Soviet Union's best young player. Karnishovas is living in Alameda, Calif. with Sarunas Marciulionis, the Soviet player who's with the Golden State Warriors....
It's not surprising that Division III Wittenberg was 13-0 at week's end; the Tigers have put together 33 consecutive nonlosing seasons. But Wittenberg's women's team, which has never won more than 11 games, was 12-0 under fourth-year coach Pam Evans. Through Sunday, only two other Division III teams, Buffalo State and Western Connecticut State, had unbeaten men's and women's teams.
A soft December didn't prepare Billy Owens and his mates for January's harsh realities.
Despite Banks's broken left hand, both he and the surprising Bearcats are on the rise.
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
MEN: Bo Kimble, a 6'5" senior, made 40 of 66 shots and averaged 41.3 points to lead Loyola Marymount to two wins in three games. In a 99-96 victory over St. Joseph 's, he scored 54 points, including a 35-foot three-pointer at the buzzer.
WOMEN: Kim Brewington, a 5'8" senior guard at Division II Johnson C. Smith University, broke the NCAA women's single-game scoring record with 64 points in a 130-45 win over Livingstone College. She also scored 49 points in a 91-90 loss to Shaw.
SMALL COLLEGE: Gene Edwards, a 6'2" senior guard at Metropolitan State in Denver, poured in 38 points in a 78-70 victory over New Mexico Highlands. The next night he scored 34 points in the Roadrunners' 89-77 defeat of Eastern New Mexico.