In This Corner....
The anticipation has been building for weeks. It's the defending champ against the No. 1 contender, and each has been tuning up against mostly inferior competition. If this Sunday's UNLV-Arkansas game had a nickname—like the Big Thrill in Fayetteville—you would swear it was a heavyweight championship fight instead of a regular-season basketball game.
Two teams, Alabama-Birmingham and Florida State, have had the misfortune of getting thumped by both the Rebels (17-0 at week's end) and the Hogs (22-1). Here's how some of the Blazers and Seminoles see the game.
"Both teams play great defense, but UNLV is more disciplined," says Florida State swingman Aubry Boyd, whose team lost 101-69 to the Rebs on Dec. 22 and 109-92 to the Hogs on Jan. 21. "Arkansas is more explosive getting turnovers, but it gambles a lot and gives up some easy baskets. I'd have to pick UNLV to win—barely."
"[Arkansas center] Oliver Miller will need to get [UNLV forward] Larry Johnson in foul trouble because Johnson is the key to UNLV," says Alabama-Birmingham guard Jack Kramer, whose Blazers lost 109-68 to the Runnin' Rebs on Dec. 1 and 104-72 to the Razorbacks last Wednesday. "But I think [playing at home] gives Arkansas the advantage."
"On sheer talent the advantage goes to Vegas," says Blazer coach Gene Bartow. "But playing at Barnhill Arena gives Arkansas a psychological advantage."
The guess here is that Arkansas will keep the game close most of the way, because the Razorbacks are one of the few teams whose backcourt can stand up to the Rebels' defensive pressure and exert some of its own. But the Hogs' inability to match Vegas's depth up front should enable the Rebels to pull away late. The final score: 102-91.
Happy New Year
If the season ended today, Providence's 6'2" senior guard, Eric Murdock, would get our vote as a first-team All-America. No guard in the country—not Georgia Tech's Kenny Anderson, not Michigan State's Steve Smith, not anyone else—has enjoyed a better season than Murdock. On Jan. 29, Murdock broke the NCAA record for career steals by snatching number 342 in a 65-62 win over Seton Hall, but that was no surprise, because Murdock has long been a top defender. What has shocked college hoops observers is Murdock's scoring. At week's end he was averaging 28.9 for the 13-7 Friars.
Murdock has saved most of his best performances for top opponents. He had 45 points and eight rebounds in a 99-87 loss at Arizona, and 48 points (a Big East record), seven rebounds and six steals in a 92-79 loss to Pitt. "Eric Murdock has caught the entire professional basketball establishment off guard," says former Friars athletic director Dave Gavitt, who is now senior executive vice-president of the Boston Celtics. "I tried to think who he reminded me of, and the name that kept coming to mind is Lenny Wilkens."
That's high praise indeed for a player who had a disappointing junior season and who began this one with a career scoring average of 14.2 points. Last season's frustrations began when Murdock suffered a stress fracture of his right shin in the preseason. The injury bothered him during most of 1989-90, but it was nothing compared with the scare he received last February when he was found to have an irregular heartbeat. Murdock was cleared to play after missing only one game and hasn't had any ill effects since. Nonetheless, he was shaken up when Hank Gathers of Loyola Marymount collapsed on the court and died of a heart ailment only a few weeks later.
"When that happened I didn't know what to think," says Murdock. "I still can't bring myself to watch the whole thing on tape. But the doctors have told me that my condition was completely different."
As frightening as his irregular heartbeat was, Murdock has survived cruder twists of fate. He never knew his father, and his mother was killed in a car accident when he was six months old. He was raised by his grandmother Anna, who had 13 children of her own. "When I was little I called her Mom because that's what everyone else in the house called her," he says. "I still call her Mom sometimes—when I want something."
Last season Murdock was a preseason all-conference selection but didn't even make the third team in the postseason voting, a fact that his coach, Rick Barnes, didn't let him forget as 1990-91 approached. "Every day I told him he was the first guy in history that had happened to," says Barnes. "I didn't know if it was true, but he didn't like me saying it. He would just say, 'New year this year, Coach, new year.' "
For Murdock, it hasn't been just a new year, it has been an outstanding one.
It's not exactly a revelation that post play in college basketball is rougher than it was 20, even 10 years ago. As players have grown bigger and stronger, the constraints against physical contact have become looser. But recent complaints from a number of coaches suggest that the roughness may be getting out of hand.
LSU's Dale Brown, concerned about opponents' defensive tactics against his 7'1", 295-pound sophomore center, Shaquille O'Neal, has been particularly vocal. Last week Brown put together a video of what he thought was unnecessarily harsh treatment of O'Neal that had gone un-whistled, and he sent the tape to John Guthrie, the SEC's supervisor of officials. "Elbows, holding, shoving," says Brown. "I hate to sound like a crybaby, but there is so much violent play going on. He's taken a terrible beating."
O'Neal's father, Philip Harrison, confronted Guthrie following LSU's 82-79 loss to Mississippi State last week. "We spoke about some things that were concerning me about my son's safety," says Harrison. He also indicated that concern for Shaquille's safety would be a factor as his son decides whether to turn pro early.
Brown and Harrison aren't the only ones concerned about the slam dancing under the basket. "The game has to be restructured," says Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs. "It's becoming block and tackle, push and shove."
Wasn't the three-point shot supposed to reduce congestion in the middle? Yes, but at a price, according to Providence coach Rick Barnes. "The three-pointer means teams can't pack it inside anymore," says Barnes. "But now you have to muscle your man out higher so the guard doesn't have as far to go to help."
Stanford coach Mike Montgomery thinks officials are calling games differently today. "Some have lost sight of what the term 'Letting them play' means," says Montgomery. "It's about only stopping the game for contact that gives an advantage or disadvantage. It doesn't mean you call every other foul or every third foul.
"Now it sometimes seems as if the 6'10" guy isn't as free to show his skills as the 6'2" guy," says Montgomery.
Land of 1,000 Recantations
Less than a year ago the Texas A&M program seemed to be on the rise. Plans had been approved for a $35 million, 14,500-seat special events center that would be ready for the 1993-94 season, and 31-year-old Kermit Davis, a highly regarded coach, had been hired to put together a team that would fill all those seats.
But at week's end the Aggies, plagued by injuries and by suspensions for disciplinary and academic reasons, were 5-15 overall and 0-9 in the Southwest Conference. Even worse, Davis was defending himself against charges that he may have tried to upgrade the Texas A&M program too quickly. The school is investigating several reported violations, including one allegation that Davis used the services of a New York City talent scout, Rob Johnson, to help recruit 6'8" forward Tony Scott, a transfer from Syracuse who's sitting out this season at A&M.
At a press conference last Thursday, Davis denied any wrongdoing. "In six years of coaching, not one negative thing was ever said about me," said Davis, who took Idaho to the NCAA tournament the last two seasons. "Now all of a sudden [I'm being] tried in the media."
The allegations against Texas A&M appeared in the Syracuse Post-Standard in December as a by-product of its investigation of the Syracuse basketball program. Scott told a Post-Standard reporter that Davis had paid Johnson's way to College Station while Scott was considering transferring from Syracuse and had also paid part of the airfare for Scott's father to get home to Rochester after dropping off his son at A&M. The NCAA forbids free air travel for friends or relatives of an athlete. The newspaper also revealed that Davis had paid Johnson $2,400 to work at his basketball camp last summer—despite Johnson's limited coaching experience—and that Johnson had been a candidate for a job as a graduate assistant with the Aggies.
Scott has since retracted his statements to Davis, saying that he made them because he wanted to get the Aggies put on probation so that he could transfer once again and play without sitting out another year. Recantations are becoming something of a tradition among the Aggies. In 1988, Texas A&M football player George Smith charged that Jackie Sherrill, the Aggie coach at the time, had paid him to keep quiet about his knowledge of recruiting violations. Smith later said he had lied. Shortly thereafter, he recanted the recantation, saying he had been promised $30,000 to take back his statement about Sherrill's giving him hush money.
Bully for Auburn
Auburn women's coach Joe Ciampi couldn't have planned it any better. In one game played last Saturday, the seventh-ranked Lady Tigers set an NCAA women's record with their 63rd consecutive home victory, gave Ciampi his 300th win at Auburn and thrashed archrival Alabama 77-48. "It was a great coincidence," said Ciampi afterward. "There was a lot of pressure on our players, and they did a great job of handling it."
The Lady Tigers, 18-3 after the Alabama victory, are tough to beat anywhere—they have reached the NCAA championship game in each of the past three years, though they have never won it—but one reason Auburn is especially tough at home is the crowd at Eaves-Memorial Coliseum, which includes the Baseline Bullies. The Bullies, however, aren't your typically vocal student section. They're faculty members. "They help out the officials, and they've been known to have a few suggestions for me, too," says Ciampi. "If I don't hear them during the game, I hear from them on the phone later."
After Saturday's win, Ciampi's phone should be quiet for a while.
Hamilton College, 15-0 and ranked No. 1 in Division III at week's end, won't get a chance to play for the NCAA Division III championship. Hamilton is a member of the New England Small College Athletic Conference, which bars its 10 teams from participating in postseason play so that their athletes won't miss too much class time....
Everett Foxx, a 6'2" junior guard for Division III Ferrum (Va.) College, made over 60% of his three-point attempts (29 of 48) during a recent four-game hot streak, but he should have tried backing up a bit on his foul shots. He made only 55% (10 of 18) from the free throw line.
No other guard in the country is enjoying as good a season as the unheralded Murdock.
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Byron Houston, a 6'7" junior forward for Oklahoma State, scored 23 points and got nine rebounds in a 78-68 victory over Colorado and had 22 points and 11 boards in an 81-68 upset of No. 11 Nebraska.
Providence's Tracy Lis, a 5'9" junior forward, averaged 26 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.3 steals as the Lady Friars ran their record to 18-3 by knocking off Iona (91-46), Seton Hall (103-79) and Pitt (108-97).
Jackie Givens, a 5'8" senior forward for Fort Valley (Ga.) State, had 24 points in a 65-63 loss to Paine College and 63—one shy of the NCAA women's Division II mark—in a 132-86 rout of LeMoyne-Owen.