The top 25
6 North Carolina
19 Wake Forest
22 Oklahoma State
24 Mississippi State
25 St. John's
It is vain to look for a defense against lightning.
—Publilius Syrus, circa 45 B.C.
In this topsy-turvy, unpredictable world, it's nice to have a sure thing, isn't it? No one's happier about it than our Chief Executive, you can bet on that. President Clinton may be facing all kinds of adversity on Pennsylvania Avenue—health care, Haiti, that Newt Gingrich thing—but, by gosh, he's still got his Arkansas Razorbacks.
How 'bout them Hogs? All five starters back from a team that won the national championship in 1994. The best player in college basketball in power forward Corliss Williamson, one of the best clutch shooters in swingman Scotty Thurman, one of the most underrated point guards in Corey Beck and one of the best coaches in Nolan Richardson, who preaches an inventive brand of basketball from his bully pulpit.
"For a few years we hung around outside the door," said Richardson recently, taking a metaphor and running the break with it. "Last season we knocked that door down. Now we're inside the room. But there's a lot of other people in there with us. Where I want to be is at that head table. I wanna be presidin'!"
Well, since Arkansas has that kind of zeal, that kind of team and even the presidential stamp of approval, it's time to introduce our No. 1 team for the 1994-95 season. Ladies and gentlemen, we present...
That's right, the UCLA Bruins, those underachieving beachcombers from the underachieving Pac-10, a team that was last seen falling behind Tulsa 46-17 in the first round of the NCAA tournament before finally losing 112-102. But we think the Bruins can turn it around this year. They have the material, the motivation and, for a change, the toughness. And after all, this is a throwback year.
UCLA's beleaguered coach, Jim Harrick, for whom the term "on the hot seat" does not begin to describe the pressure he is under, did not take our No. 1 news all that well. "That is stupid," he said. "That is ludicrous. There's no way you can take anyone but Arkansas.... I don't think we belong in the top spot. I don't think I'd want it, either."
Well, Jim, you've got it. And here's why. Excepting the exceptional Williamson, Bruin forward Ed O'Bannon may be the college game's best big man—a rebounder, scorer and active, inspirational presence. O'Bannon's supporting cast is outstanding, particularly Tyus Edney, a point guard with Rod Foster rocketry; hardworking 7-foot center George Zidek; and versatile forward Charles O'Bannon, Ed's younger brother. But what really sets these Bruins apart is a fine freshman class that includes all-namer omm'A (O Rock) Givens, a 6'10", part-Choctaw Indian from Aberdeen, Wash., and all-heir Kris Johnson, the son of Marques Johnson, a member of UCLA's last NCAA championship team, in 1975.
No wonder not all the Bruins are gun-shy about being the favorites. "Put us at the top, because that's where we're going to end the season," says C. O'Bannon. "So we might as well start there." Done.
Now, what's wrong with Arkansas? Nothing except the weight of history. Only once in the last 20 years has there been a repeat winner, and even the one team that did repeat, Duke, which came back with four starters after winning it all in 1991, needed Christian Laettner's miracle shot against Kentucky in the East Regional final to make the '92 Final Four. Seven times in the last two decades a defending champ has not even gotten into the next year's NCAA tournament. In fact, besides Duke, only one other defending titlist in the last 20 years—Georgetown in '85—made it to the final game.
North Carolina coach Dean Smith knows how hard it is to repeat. "I honestly believe we were the best team in the country last season in a five- or seven-game series," says Smith, whose Tar Heels failed to live up to their role as the preseason favorite and lost to Boston College in the second round of the tournament. "But with a one-loss-and-out system, anything can happen."
Actually, a couple of things have already happened to Arkansas. Williamson suffered a broken wrist in last year's final game and came to practice this fall slightly overweight. Beck, whom Richardson describes as "the one player we need to take us to the mountaintop," had arthroscopic knee surgery in early October. (By last week he seemed completely recovered.) And it's not just injuries that can bring down a favorite. It could be a shooting slump by Thurman or the possibility that on one night somebody else will be better or, yes, that old favorite, chemistry. For all their talent and smarts, the Hogs are not immune to the distractions endemic to being a marquee team with a marquee coach. Book it: Something will happen.
The last team to defeat Arkansas was Kentucky, which had an impressive 90-78 win over the Razorbacks in the semifinals of the 1994 SEC tournament. But then the Wildcats' weakness in the middle became glaringly evident during a 75-63 second-round defeat to Marquette in the NCAAs. To shore up the pivot this season, coach Rick Pitino, a devout Catholic, has turned to the Pope. That would be Mark Pope, a 6'10", 240-pound center. How pugnacious is Pope? Asked what his greatest moment in sports was, the transfer from Washington said, "When [teammate] Walter McCarty caught me with an elbow and made my tooth stick through my cheek." Speaking of cheek, forward Rodrick Rhodes would do well with less of it this year. If he keeps his cool and cuts down on his AWOL performances, such as his zero-point, three-rebound showing in that Marquette game, Kentucky's brand of old-time religion could be as formidable as that being preached in Fayetteville by the Right Reverend Richardson.
On the Massachusetts campus, the subject is health and fitness, not religion. Coach John Calipari has enlisted the help of a nutritionist to keep his tall and talented charges in fighting trim. Forward Louis Roe, for example, has replaced fried foods with onion bagels, and guard Mike Williams has added 15 pounds of muscle after a summer of eating healthier foods, lifting weights and working out in Hartford with Vin Baker of the Milwaukee Bucks.
But if the Minutemen are going to march deep into the postseason—and they have the stuff to do so—they'll have to feast on Roe, their star, who gained confidence over the summer as a starter for the U.S. team that played in the Goodwill Games and scrimmaged against the NBA stars on Dream Team II.
Maryland forward Exree Hipp used his ex-ree vision last season to predict, correctly as it turned out, that the Terrapins would make the Sweet 16. He's making no such calls this season, but secretly, coach Gary Williams's gritty crew hopes to go all the way. The main reason for such optimism is sophomore center Joe Smith, who may be on his farewell tour before leaving for the NBA, and help will be provided by, among others, Sarunas Jasike-vicius, a Lithuanian who is obviously no Joe Smith in the name department. But in his case J stands for Jump Shot, which is exactly what Maryland needs to complement its strong inside game.
Last season North Carolina had too much of a stacked house and not enough Stackhouse. But this season sophomore forward Jerry Stackhouse is the go-to guy, the best in Chapel Hill since ol' number 23 wagged his tongue and tugged at his shorts. A year ago Stackhouse and fellow freshman Rasheed Wallace tried to spread their wings, and their impatience sometimes rattled the senior-dominated Tar Heels. "We did have some people looking over their shoulders," concedes Dean Smith. Another key for North Carolina is shooting guard Donald Williams's returning to his 1993 Final Four MVP form. "You can't sink any lower than I did last season," says Williams, who was bothered both by nagging injuries and the tenuous team chemistry. The Heels may not be deep, but as long as their starters stay healthy, don't look for them to sink low this year.
Like his old friend Dean Smith Georgetown coach John Thompson is no fan of freshmen. But don't forget that in 1981 he plugged a 7-footer named Patrick Ewing into the lineup immediately, and months later the Hoyas were playing for the national championship in New Orleans. Another freshman phenom, Allen Iverson—coming at you from the back-court this time—might be good enough to get the Hoyas back to the Final Four for the first time since '85. And word out of Washington has it that Iverson has bought into the Thompson program. On his left arm, reportedly, is a tattoo of the Hoyas' bulldog mascot below the words THE ANSWER.
What are the questions? Will Iverson get the ball to center Othella Harrington, the Hoyas' reigning stud, often enough to keep Harrington happy? Will wide-load freshman center Jahidi White free up Harrington to move to power forward, where he really belongs? And will Hoya Paranoia concerning Iverson, who has served jail time for his involvement in a bowling-alley brawl (SI, July 26, 1993, et seq.), be as virulent as it was for Ewing? A clue to answering the last question came during a summer league game at Georgetown when a friend of the Iverson family set a screen in front of a photographer who was merely trying to take Allen's picture. You might as well face it, Hoyas: There's no hiding this kid.
And there's no hiding the resurgence of basketball at Florida. More than 10,000 fans jammed the O'Connell Center for Midnight Madness, thousands more than the Gators were getting for home games just three years ago. That's what a Final Four appearance and the return of four starters will do for you. The Gators boast the nation's hottest young coach in Lon Kruger, who was mentioned as a replacement for Mike Krzyzewski had the Duke coach responded to overtures from the NBA last May, and one of the nation's most entertaining frontcourts in the persons of 6'10" Andrew DeClercq and 6'7" Dametri Hill, he of DaMeat Hook shot, who showed up this year at a svelte 286 pounds. Da real task for Florida, however, is to find a shooting guard to pair with Dan Cross.
Like Florida, Arizona has every intention of returning to the Final Four. Some Wildcats have been sporting T-shirts that boldly proclaim PLAY ON MONDAY, meaning the Wildcats intend to be on the floor for the championship game on the night of Monday, April 3, in Seattle. They already seem to have plugged into Arkansas's we-don't-get-no-respect theme of last season. "There's a lot of magazines out there picking us low down in the Top 10, picking UCLA to win the Pac-10 [really?], stuff like that," says swingman Reggie Geary. "It's a slap in the face." Well, Geary would seem to be an ideal person to tabulate the insults, since he's one of the conference's most notorious trash talkers. But he's also a demon on defense, and an entertaining one at that. "I create havoc for the fans, for the opposing coach, even for my own coach," says Geary, Wait a minute, is that last one a good thing?
A much more reliable Wildcat is Damon Stoudamire, one of the highest-scoring point guards in the college game, who will nevertheless have to think more about distributing and less about shooting. Among those waiting for his handouts will be 6'9" Roads scholar Ben Davis, who began his career as a freshman at Kansas in 1991, transferred to Florida and then ended up at Hutchinson (Kans.) junior college before going to Arizona, where he must sit out a semester to catch up on some credits. Wisconsin center Rashard Griffith almost became a traveling man too, so disenchanted was he with former coach Stu Jackson's offense. Instead Jackson left for the front office of the NBA Vancouver Grizzlies, and Griffith decided to stay and play for former top assistant Stan Van Gundy. Griffith even spent part of the summer taking ballet lessons to improve his footwork and vertical leap. That means the Badgers have not only a go-to guy in preseason All-America forward Michael Finley, but a go-tutu guy as well.
Most of the culture at Indiana is provided by 6'8" freshman forward Andrae Patterson, a talented singer who used to belt out the national anthem before volleyball games at Cooper High in Abilene, Texas. There are no current plans for Patterson to exercise his lungs at Hoosier games, although coach Bob Knight, in search of a backcourt to mesh with his outstanding frontcourt, will. One of the players who might help replace Sherron Wilkerson, who will be red-shirted because of his slow recovery from a broken left leg, is freshman Michael Hermon, a 6'3" slasher-shooter out of Chicago's Martin Luther King High. Hermon did not make the qualifying score on his college boards until June, by which time both Illinois and Southern Cal had given up on him. And why did he come to Bloomington? "I just had a warm feeling," Hermon told an Indiana fan publication. "When I came here it was so much like home." Whew! That must've been one tough upbringing.
Not ballet. Not singing. Poetry. Kansas guard Jacque Vaughn reads it before games (Maya Angelou is a favorite) and writes his own in a journal—"not for publication, just for my own expression of my inner thoughts," he says. Jayhawk coach Roy Williams has made his thoughts about the necessity of keeping Vaughn on the floor extremely outer: During scrimmages the coaches call a foul on Vaughn "every time he breathes" to get the message across that he mustn't pick up cheap fouls.
One of Vaughn's responsibilities will be to sate the offensive appetites of three voracious frontcourtmen—6'11" prize recruit Raef LaFrentz, 6'11" sophomore Scot Pollard and 7'2", 270-pound senior Greg Ostertag. Two of them will always be in the game, says Williams, and if there's room on the court, sometimes he will use all three.
As strong as Kansas seems to be inside, that's how formidable Virginia looks on the perimeter. But one wonders if the Cavaliers have too many backcourtmen, with returning point Cory Alexander, who missed all but 11 minutes last season because of a broken leg, pushing last year's quarterback, Harold Deane, over to shooting guard, and deadeye freshman Curtis Staples pushing both of them for minutes. Already the guard glut has pushed 6'7" sophomore Jamal Robinson from shooting guard to small forward. Virginia may have been pushed around in a 94-83 loss to Ohio in the second round of the preseason NIT, but the Cavaliers still have the troops to push Maryland and North Carolina for the ACC title.
Similarly, Duke is heavily endowed in the backcourt, with veterans Chris Collins (who is scheduled to return around Jan. 1 after breaking his right foot) and Jeff Capel joining a prize kiddie corps of Trajan Langdon, Ricky Price and Steve Wojciechowski. But clearly the Blue Devils must get the ball inside to the Chief, 6'11" center Cherokee Parks, a history major with a concentration in Soviet studies. Any student of recent Duke history knows the burden facing this year's team—six Final Four appearances in the last seven years, and no Grant Hill to lead it to another.
Recent Villanova history includes a 1994 NIT title. This year the Wildcats hope to replace that with a different set of letters. The Wildcats gathered the campus faithful together a few weeks ago and showed a Back to the Future-like video that concluded with a montage of trick photography: 1984-85 star Eddie Pinckney went up for a dunk, and '94-95 star Jason Lawson finished it. Are the Wildcats good enough to win it all? Probably not. But then again, no one picked them in '85, either.
Speaking of history, Cincinnati recently unveiled a nine-foot-tall bronze statue of the man who led the Bearcats into the Final Four in 1959 and '60. There's no one like O (Oscar Robertson) around this season and, more to the point, no one like X (Nick Van Exel, who in '92 led the Bearcats to their first Final Four appearance since '63), either. But there seems to be a no-nonsense attitude that could mean improvement on last year's out-of-kilter 22-10 campaign. "We didn't have a true leader," says point guard Keith LeGree, a transfer from Louisville who becomes eligible on Dec. 13. "Everyone was doing his own thing. People got kicked out of practice. We didn't have discipline." And no one seems to be shedding tears over the departure of turbulent forward Dontonio Wingfield, who left for the NBA after his freshman season. "From what I hear, Dontonio had an attitude," says blue-chip freshman forward Dan Fortson.
What Michigan coach Steve Fisher hears about his good-looking crop of freshmen is way, way too much. In contrast to the freedom he gave his 1991-92 Fab Five, in fact, Fisher wants to keep this standout group of Jerod Ward, Maurice Taylor, Willie Mitchell, Maceo Baston and Travis Conlan under wraps. "If I could roll back the clock, I would be more guarded and protective of the kids," says Fisher, "rather than allowing so much access and so much freedom to say what you [the media] wanted them to say." Well, Steve, have it your way. But the world will want to learn about your new Fabios, particularly the 6'9" Ward, the son of two ministers, who almost committed to Cal but finally came to Michigan because he felt "the Lord was trying to push me here."
Syracuse star Lawrence Moten didn't push talented juco transfer Michael Lloyd to join the Orangemen when the two played together in a summer league in Washington, D.C., but Lloyd was amenable to the idea when the subject came up. Now they are best buds and twice monthly even share a repast at Grimaldi's, an off-campus eatery, pigging out on shrimp and lobster and making a series of toasts about the season. One of their toasts—to win the preseason NIT—was washed up on the rocks last week when the Orangemen lost to George Washington 111-104 in the first round at Manley Field House. Lloyd played well, though, and Syracuse could still be a factor in the national picture if it gets consistency from Mr. Inside, John Wallace, and Mr. Outside, Moten, as well as playing time for swingman Todd Burgan, who has the talent to become one of the Big East's best freshmen.
Consistency and toughness are two staples of Randolph Childress's game at Wake Forest. Childress teams with another underrated star, 6'10" sophomore Tim Duncan, to make the Demon Deacons a dark-horse possibility in the ACC. Childress has set the tone for Wake, even to the point of organizing the preseason pickup games, praising those who meet his exacting standards, excoriating those who don't.
Seemingly more beneficent leadership is displayed by Illinois point guard Kiwane Garris, who gathers his team together at the apartment he shares with forward Jerry Hester. "We play computer games, rent videos and just hang out," says Garris. "We want everyone to stay out of trouble." The Mini could give their opponents fits, though, with their strongest lineup in years, bolstered by the addition of 6'7" freshman Jerry Gee.
Seeing to it that there's no trouble at Connecticut will be the responsibility of the Marshall. But the name is Donny—not Donyell, who bolted to the NBA and signed a lucrative deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves. "More people have started calling me Donyell this year than when Donyell was here," says forward Donny in the way of a mild complaint. But the distinction is clear, says Donny. "All they have to know is Donyell is the rich one and Donny's the poor one." Actually the key one for UConn is sophomore guard Ray Allen, who made the preseason All-Big East first team even though he didn't start a game last season. The Donny should get such respect.
Respect is something that Oklahoma State senior center Bryant (Big Country) Reeves feels he didn't get nearly enough of last season, when, said consensus opinion, he slipped from his Big Eight Player of the Year status as a sophomore. "Take away the start of the season," says Reeves, who had three bad games in the Rainbow Classic in late December, "and I had the same year, or probably even better, than the one before." Well, it's academic now because Reeves will have to be at his best this year if the Cowboys are to challenge Kansas in the Big Eight and go anywhere in the NCAA tournament. Coach Eddie Sutton is especially worried that the team's poor outside shooting will allow teams to sag in on Reeves. "I wouldn't want my guys to play even you guys [the media] in H-O-R-S-E right now," said Sutton. The Cowboy most likely to beat the media, and the opposition, with the outside shot is off-guard Randy Rutherford.
At Penn the shooting role, and every other role, in fact, is the responsibility of Jerome Allen, who leads the Quakers' three-guard offense. He took a lot of ribbing from his Goodwill Games teammates about playing in the Ivy League—"I thought Princeton ruled that league," Arizona's Stoudamire used to tell him. Now the silky-smooth Allen, who is being mentioned as a possible lottery pick, will be hearing it about the Quakers' opening-game loss to Canisius.
It's a wonder that Mississippi State (page 108) forward Darryl Wilson, who averaged 16.2 points per game last season, can shoot at all. He first played basketball at a rural Alabama elementary school where there were no baskets. The hoops were made by kids standing on chairs and hugging air to approximate basketball goals. Bank shots obviously gave new meaning to the phrase "in your face."
Felipe Lopez, by contrast, had all the advantages that a New York City basketball education can provide, and his presence at St. John's promises to restore the excitement of the Chris Mullin-Walter Berry era.
UCLA is in the catbird seat should the Hogs stumble on the road to Seattle.
The Gators have the lean and hungry look of a team that wants to return to the Final Four.
After a summer Spent taking ballet lessons, Griffith is ready to take the Badgers to the Big Dance.
Coach K will have to rely on a corps of kids if Duke is to reach its seventh Final Four in eight years.
Fisher has five fab freshmen at Michigan again, but this time he's keeping them under wraps.