IT'S THE PITS FOR FOES
How do you sum up a league as vast as the Western Athletic
Conference? With 16 teams split into two divisions distributed
over five time zones, the WAC can be captured in four words:
"Snow, desert, tropical fruits," says Rice coach and conference
newcomer Willis Wilson, whose Owls were one of six teams that
joined the WAC this season. "We experience it all."
Of course, that leaves out high altitude and jet lag, which are
also part of the WAC experience. The conference is so spread out
that its westernmost member, Hawaii, is closer to Tokyo than it
is to Houston, where the Rainbows must travel to meet
easternmost conference foe Rice. And six WAC schools (Air Force,
BYU, Colorado State, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) are perched
at least 4,500 feet or higher, which causes some visiting teams
experience oxygen deprivation--unless they believe, as TCU coach
Billy Tubbs does, that in basketball "altitude is never a
factor, because it's played indoors."
"Road games in this conference are tough," says Tulsa senior
shooting guard Shea Seals, who played his first three college
seasons in the Missouri Valley Conference. "The crowds are huge,
and every game is like a championship game."
Certainly that could be said of the game between Seals's
unranked Golden Hurricane and No. 13 New Mexico on Sunday. At
stake? For Tulsa, to keep pace with first-place Utah in the
WAC's Mountain Division, and for New Mexico, preservation of its
24-game home winning streak in the infamous Pit, the Lobos'
subterranean lair, which is a mile high but still 37 feet below
ground level in an Albuquerque mesa.
How big a home court advantage does the Pit provide? If the
Lobos had been playing anywhere else on Sunday and shot
28.3%--their worst percentage in 12 years--and seen their star
senior shooting guard, Charles Smith, throw up on the sidelines
because of the flu, they probably would not have beaten Tulsa.
The 57-51 victory gave New Mexico a 9-3 league record and moved
it into a second-place tie with the Golden Hurricane in their
division. "It's tough playing in [the Pit], because at times
it's so loud that you can't hear your coaches, you can't hear
your teammates," says Seals, who dropped in 25 points
nonetheless. "They have great fans."
That home court support helps offset the fact that the Lobos
have gotten only five top-100 recruits in the last five years.
One of them, Smith, decided to come to Albuquerque from Fort
Worth four years ago because, he says, "I wanted to help a
mediocre team become one of the elite." Smith, a 6'4" wisp
called Spider because of his nearly 7-foot arm span, has done
his part in two ways: Through Sunday he had averaged 15.9 points
per game for his career (he broke New Mexico's alltime scoring
record in early February), and as a sophomore he earned the
admiration of 6'8" Albuquerque High star Kenny Thomas, another
top-100 player, who decided to become a Lobo, he says, "so I
could play with Charles Smith."
Thomas, a sophomore forward-center and All-America candidate, is
the Lobos' force under the basket, while Smith and junior
forward Clayton Shields make up one of the best
three-point-shooting tandems in the nation. That power triangle
has taken the Lobos to a 20-4 record, but, says Shields, "we
still haven't played up to our potential."
One team in the WAC that has played over its potential is
Hawaii, a preseason pick for conference doormat that at week's
end was leading the Pacific Division by one game (over Fresno
State) with a 10-2 record. The Rainbows were particularly
impressive during an ill-starred road trip last week. Despite
troubles that included a bus crash outside of Denver (no one was
injured), the suspension of three reserves for breaking team
rules and the loss of starting center Seth Sundberg, who was
found to have a lacerated spleen from an elbow he took last
week, the Rainbows swept Wyoming and Colorado State with only
seven players. Against the Cowboys, the Rainbows came from five
points back with 20 seconds left to send the game into OT before
going on to win by two. Star guard Anthony Carter scored 32
points. "It was unbelievable," said Hawaii coach Riley Wallace.
"This is a special bunch of guys."
If the Rainbows continue to sparkle, and if Jerry Tarkanian's
Fresno State team, which lost to lowly Air Force last weekend to
drop to 16-9, gets a grip on itself, the WAC could send as many
as five teams to the NCAAs. Come March, that's the only
conference record that really matters.
PERFECTLY IN TUNE
Coaches are fond of saying that rather than go into the NCAA
tournament unbeaten, they prefer to have a few losses and some
close wins. You hear this especially from coaches who have a few
losses. Connecticut women's coach Geno Auriemma, however, is
fond of saying, "What are you gonna do?"
He uses this phrase every few sentences, especially when talking
about his team's record (24-0 after beating Miami 86-59 on
Sunday before a sellout crowd of 16,294 at the Hartford Civic
Center) and its average margin of victory (28.5 points). The
closest the Huskies have come to a squeaker was an 11-point win
at UC Santa Barbara on Dec. 28. Connecticut has beaten five
ranked teams this season by an average of 21.8 points. What are
you gonna do if your team's really that good? "Are you going to
manufacture close games?" Auriemma asks. "You can't."
It's not as if Auriemma didn't try to schedule challenging games
outside the Big East. He arranged a home date against defending
national champion Tennessee (UConn won 72-57) and a road game
against 1996 NCAA runner-up Georgia (the Huskies romped 97-65).
It was the Georgia win that set Connecticut's players harkening
back to that once-in-a-lifetime, planets-in-single-file 35-0
record the Huskies put together in 1994-95. "For it almost to be
in the making again," says UConn forward Nykesha Sales, "gets
your heart thumping."
With just three games remaining before the Huskies host the Big
East tournament, which they've strolled through in each of the
last three years, chances are that Connecticut will reach the
NCAA tournament undefeated again. Much of the credit for that
goes to center Kara Wolters, who at week's end was leading the
Huskies in scoring (16.8 per game), rebounds (8.3) and blocks
(2.9), not to mention commitment to winning another title. "I
don't want any what-ifs or any doubts about whether I did
everything I could to help the university and the sport of
women's basketball," Wolters says. "If we could go undefeated
again, it would just be incredible."
Whether a 36-0 record would help the women's game or just
demoralize all the other teams remains to be seen, but it
certainly would qualify as incredible. Since their undefeated
season, the second in women's Division I play, the Huskies have
lost two national players of the year, Rebecca Lobo and Jennifer
Rizzotti, and another stalwart, Jamelle Elliott. But two future
player-of-the-year candidates remain in Wolters, a 6'7" senior
and a front-runner for the award this year, and Sales, a 6-foot
junior who could well be the choice in 1998.
Sales stepped up in a semifinal loss to Tennessee at the Final
Four last year and hasn't stepped down since. She scored a
career-high 28 points in that game, including the three-pointer
with four seconds to play that sent the game into overtime.
"That really set the tone for this year," Sales says. "It let me
see how I have to play, and the feeling stuck with me." Through
Sunday she was averaging 16.4 points and led the Huskies in
steals with 4.3 per game.
Other key contributions have come from 6'5" freshman center
Paige Sauer and her classmate, 6-foot guard Shea Ralph, and from
5'7" junior college transfer Rita Williams, who has replaced
Rizzotti at point guard using her speed and agility to make the
position her own. "Jennifer was like Jim Brown," Auriemma says.
"She would just take the ball and go right through you if you
didn't get out of the way. Rita is more like Gale Sayers. She
sneaks in and out of there. I think people who play us are
surprised how good she is with the ball in traffic."
Still, the nagging question remains: Would the Huskies benefit
from losing a game before the NCAAs to ease the pressure of
having a perfect season? Auriemma thinks not. "Sometimes people
underestimate the positive things it gives you, knowing that
you're playing so well all the time," he says. "Going into
every game expecting to win, that's a pretty powerful
feeling." --DANA GELIN
NO MORE BLUNDERJOKES
This season a lot of teams have shrugged off years of mediocrity
and gained a measure of respectability, but none has done so as
dramatically as Northern Arizona. Through Sunday the
Lumberjacks, who finished 6-20 last season, had an 18-4 record,
including an 11-1 mark in the Big Sky Conference, ahead of
second-place Montana and Montana State, both at 8-5 in the
conference. In addition, with a 51.2 field goal percentage
according to NCAA statistics through Feb. 14, Northern Arizona
was outshooting everyone in the country but UCLA, and its
three-point percentage of 40.5 was seventh in the nation. Not
bad for a team that just a year ago was known on its own campus
as the Blunderjokes.
When coach Ben Howland arrived in Flagstaff three years ago
after 11 seasons as Jerry Pimm's assistant at UC Santa Barbara,
Northern Arizona, which hadn't had a winning record since
1985-86, was, he says, "a disaster." The Lumberjacks had only a
few decent players, and one of them, Brad Snyder, the son of
former Phoenix Suns guard Dick Snyder, died in a car accident on
the way home from school only three months after Howland took
over. Those that remained didn't get along. "We had terrible
chemistry," recalls sophomore center Casey Frank. "Every day I
dreaded going to practice and going to games."
After a 14-38 record in his first two seasons, Howland decided
that success in Flagstaff--a town of about 50,000 located 7,000
feet up in the San Francisco Peaks and populated by an odd mix
of environmentalists, truckers, Native Americans and wealthy
retirees--required a different kind of player than he had. "My
first couple of years we had kids from metropolitan areas," says
Howland. "They thought the Flagstaff area was too slow. Some
thought it was too cold. I didn't want to hear that."
So last year Howland looked for small-town kids who would
appreciate the opportunity to play in Division I. As a result,
this year's starting lineup includes freshman Ross Land from
Chico, Calif. (whose 50% three-point shooting through Feb. 14
was 12th in the nation); freshman forward Billy Hix from
Loveland, Colo.; and junior college transfer Andrew Mavis, who
almost stayed home in his native Richmond, B.C., after he looked
in the Northern Arizona media guide and noted the Lumberjacks'
dismal record and paltry attendance. "I said, 'No way am I going
there,'" says Mavis, a junior forward. "But after talking to
Coach Howland, I realized it would be great to go to a place
that was a real challenge to turn around."
With their win over Eastern Washington on Saturday, the
Lumberjacks clinched the Big Sky title, which gives them the
right to host the conference tournament. If they can win that,
the Lumberjacks will be rewarded with their first NCAA berth.
"That would mean the world," says Frank. "Last year that seemed
so far away, and now it is so close. It's just a few steps
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH When not tossing his cookies, Smith threw up shots in the victory over Tulsa at the Pit. [Charles Smith and others in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Sales and the rest of the Huskies have driven by all competition. [Nykesha Sales and other in game]