Publish date:

West Virginia is the surprise of the Big East Florida State learns a hard ACC lesson The cockiest Cowboy


The national spotlight has rarely swung toward the mountains of
Morgantown, W.Va., in the dead of winter. But it did so last
Saturday when circumstances--namely a few convincing
upsets--conspired to make the showdown between unranked Miami
and No. 25 West Virginia the Big East's premier matchup so far
this season.

Both the Mountaineers, who had beaten Georgetown on Jan. 5, and
the Hurricanes, who toppled eighth-ranked Connecticut the next
day, were hoping to emerge from this game with a win and a
higher national profile. What did they get? Upstart Miami got
what coach Leonard Hamilton described as "a good, old-fashioned
rear-end kicking" and at least another week to add to their 38
years of living among the unranked. (The Hurricanes discontinued
their basketball program from 1971 to '85.) West Virginia, 14-2
and ranked No. 21 after its 98-84 victory over the team with the
best field goal percentage defense in the country, got noticed.

In the 20 years that Gale Catlett has coached the Mountaineers,
he has never had a recruit make it in the NBA and never had a
team go beyond the second round of the NCAAs. With the loss of
top scorer Seldon Jefferson and leading rebounder Gordon Malone
from last year's 21-10 team, no one expected West Virginia to be
in the Top 25 this season. But among the factors working in the
Mountaineers' favor are a starting lineup of five seniors, good
chemistry, an effective 40-minute press and that reliably potent
motivator: a snub by the NCAA tournament selection committee. "I
ran out of the room crying when we didn't get a bid last year,"
says senior point guard Jarrod West. "I don't want to go through
that again."

Neither does Damian Owens, a 6'6" forward from just outside
Washington, D.C., who went to West Virginia "to get out of the
city," he says, and has made the most of his four years in the
country. Though he has yet to be named first-team All-Big East,
the versatile Owens is arguably the most valuable player in the
league; he's on pace to end his career as the first Mountaineer
to rank among the school's alltime top 10 in points, rebounds,
assists, steals and blocked shots. "That would be truly
amazing," says Catlett. "Nobody else has done that, not even
Jerry West."

But as valuable as Owens is, he hardly qualifies as a superstar.
"This isn't the most talented team we've had," says senior
forward Brent Solheim. "But it's the closest. How you get along
is a big part of your success."

Solheim knows all about getting along; since November he and
roommate Jarrod West have been playing host to Solheim's retired
parents, Roger and Lola, who closed up their house in Rochester,
Minn., and moved into Brent and Jarrod's apartment so they could
spend the winter following their son's final season. "We're
having a ball," says Lola, who turns out lasagna feasts for the
Mountaineers while Roger, a chess buff, teaches them the basics
of the game.

But at the risk of spoiling this festival of good feeling, it
should be noted that the Big East is still a dubious contender
for March glory. The conference may be ranked second in the
latest power ratings and may have a respectable 6-6 record
against Top 25 teams, but it's 2-5 against the Big Ten and 1-7
against the ACC, which doesn't bode well for success in the NCAAs.

The truth is, the college game may have changed in ways that the
Big East has not adjusted to. Top-notch backcourts now seem
essential to winning titles, and the conference remains one of
mostly anonymous guards. In the 12 seasons since the shot clock
was introduced, the Big East has added four schools to its ranks
but has sent only four teams to the Final Four (Providence in
1987, Seton Hall in '89 and Syracuse in '87 and '96) and hasn't
produced a single champion. Don't look for that to change this


How good is the ACC? Well, Florida State started last week
ranked No. 13 in the nation, having beaten defending national
champion Arizona, toppled Big East bellwether Connecticut and
played Kansas tough before losing in the Preseason NIT
championship game. But at week's end the Seminoles stood at 1-3
in the ACC.

While not yet at the level of No. 1 North Carolina or No. 2
Duke, which have both beaten the Seminoles in Tallahassee,
Florida State has shown that it could be a force to contend with
at NCAA tournament time. To do so, however, it will have to
learn to shake off its regular-season losses quickly. "This
hurts, but we've got to get over the hurt tonight and get ready
for tomorrow," first-year coach Steve Robinson said after
Florida State's 75-63 loss to the Blue Devils last Saturday.
"We've got to go to Clemson and to Georgia Tech this week."

Living up to expectations would be something new for the
Seminoles. After advancing to the elite eight in 1993, Florida
State fell to the cellar of the ACC and stayed there, with
sub-.500 records in conference play each of the last four years.
The Seminoles maintained their lowly station despite regularly
bringing in top 20 recruiting classes. Then, last June, coach
Pat Kennedy bolted for DePaul, and Robinson was hired away from

"The difference between this team and teams in the past is that
this year we believe we can win games like this," guard Lamar
Greer said after the Duke loss. "The difference between us and
Duke is they know they're going to win games like this. Every
time we got close, they made the shot they had to have. We
didn't. Once we figure out what it takes to win, we'll be fine."

Another difference on this year's team is Greer. Recruited by
Robinson four years ago when Robinson was an assistant at
Kansas, Greer instead chose Florida State, where he was hyped as
the heir apparent to point guard Charlie Ward. But after
struggling for two years at the point and spending a mediocre
season at shooting guard a year ago, he now seems to have found
his niche at small forward. He was named ACC player of the week
after lighting up Arizona for 26 points on Dec. 23.

"When Coach Robinson got the job, I was the first player he
called," says Greer. "He said, 'This is Steve Robinson. Remember
me? I'm your new coach.' I thought it was a friend playing
around. When I figured out it was true, I was relieved it was
someone I knew and someone who knew me. As a senior you worry
about that. With a new coach, sometimes they want to play
younger players for the future. Coach hasn't done that, and
we're close to being there with the best." --DON YAEGER


Virginia's 69-64 loss to 4-8 Liberty last week in its own way
was another indication of how tough the ACC is, because it may
ultimately cost coach Jeff Jones his job. The 37-year-old Jones
entered this season with a respectable 135-85 record and five
NCAA appearances in seven years, but a series of off-the-court
troubles have plagued him recently. First, freshmen Darryl
Presley and Scott Johnson were arrested for shoplifting in
December 1995, and they left school. Three months later Melvin
Whitaker, a 6'10" recruit who was penciled in to solve
Virginia's perpetual big-man woes, slashed a Cavaliers football
player's face with a box cutter and went to jail. Point guard
Harold Deane was then arrested for trespassing and resisting
arrest. (His conviction was later overturned.) Finally, Courtney
Alexander, a talented 6'6" shooting guard who was Virginia's
leading scorer last season as a sophomore, left school in
September after being convicted of assault and battery. He is
now at Fresno State, waiting out a transfer year.

Those off-court troubles, combined with sixth- and seventh-place
finishes in the ACC in the last two years, have caused Cavaliers
fans to lose interest in the team. Attendance of less than 3,000
in 8,457-seat University Hall has become so commonplace that
athletic director Terry Holland has moved three home games to
Richmond in the hope of drawing bigger crowds. Jones signed a
two-year contract extension last summer, but there's a good
chance he'll be the next person forced to leave the Cavaliers'
program early.


Hard as it is to believe, Oklahoma State, which beat Texas Tech
66-63 last Saturday night to improve to 12-1, was picked by one
preview magazine to finish last in the South Division of the Big
12. "What's with that?" asks Cowboys point guard Doug Gottlieb.
"We could have Larry, Mo and Curly playing guard, and an Eddie
Sutton-coached team is not going to finish last."

So what happens to an Eddie Sutton-coached team when Gottlieb is
playing guard? Wonderful things, as Gottlieb himself, a
sophomore transfer from Notre Dame who dished out his season's
average of eight assists against Texas Tech, will tell you. "I
run the court well, and I want the ball," says Gottlieb, whose
father, Bob, was an assistant to Sutton at Creighton from 1969
to '71. "I consider myself somewhat of a Jacque Vaughn
type--three-on-two or two-on-one, it's an automatic layup for

"He gets our offense going," says 6'11" senior center Brett
Robisch, a 14.2-points-per-game scorer who is the son of former
Kansas All-America Dave and is one of the main beneficiaries of
Gottlieb's presence. "I love playing with him. He enjoys
playing, and he'll talk to anyone."

Indeed, Gottlieb rarely lets comments from the crowd pass
unacknowledged. When opposing fans ride him about anything, from
his ugly jump shot to the fact that he shaves off his body hair
("I don't want anything to restrict me," he says), he yaps back.
"I'm not into trash talk," he explains, "just repartee."

Gottlieb came to Oklahoma State only after carefully considering
his choices during a yearlong search. Upon leaving Notre Dame
two years ago in the wake of a scandal--he pleaded guilty to
charges that he made purchases on other students' credit
cards--Gottlieb spent a year at Golden West College, a community
college in Huntington Beach, Calif., scouting teams on TV in
search of one that needed a point guard to step in right away.
Oklahoma State won Gottlieb's services in part because of
Sutton, whose next win will be his 600th, and in part because of
the talent the Cowboys had collected. "This is a very, very good
team that people don't know about," says Gottlieb. "Other teams
may think they don't have to have their A game to beat us, but
they do."


After Hawaii cracked the AP poll for the first time in 24 years
last week, forward Micah Kroeger said, "We don't want to be the
Milli Vanilli of basketball. We want to keep rolling and stay on
the charts." In the first game after that, the Rainbows lost
81-72 to San Diego State, and Kroeger was ejected.

For the latest scores, polls and recruiting news in men's and
women's college hoops, check out

COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY Solheim put the clamps on Miami's Tim James in typical rough-and-tumble Big East fashion. [University of West Virginia basketball player blocking shot by Tim James]

COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND The reach of Ron Hale and the Seminoles exceeded their grasp against Duke. [Ron Hale reaching for basketball in game]


The 15 members of our mock NCAA tournament selection committee
assessed last week's winners and losers and gave the boot to
only one team: Marquette, which lost to both Alabama-Birmingham
and resurgent Cincinnati. They nearly gave Iowa the heave-ho
too, for falling at home to Illinois, but instead took the
Hawkeyes down from a third seed to a fourth. (Iowa actually got
more votes as a No. 5 seed than as a No. 4, but no other team
among strong also-rans Michigan, Xavier and Rhode Island got
enough support to displace the Hawkeyes.) Florida State also
tumbled one spot, to a four, after losing to Maryland and
second-ranked Duke.

All of the first and second seeds maintained their positions
from a week ago, though Connecticut was almost dropped to a
three seed for losing at Miami. The week's big winners were
South Carolina, which moved into the rankings, and Mississippi
and Syracuse, which advanced from fourth seeds to thirds.

Princeton got three votes as a No. 3 while one voter questioned
its RPI--which fell from 11th to 30th last week as the Tigers
embarked on their weak Ivy League schedule--and unseeded them.

1. North Carolina
2. Connecticut
3. Purdue
4. Princeton

1. Duke
2. Kentucky
4. Iowa

1. Kansas
2. Stanford
3. Syracuse
4. South Carolina

1. Arizona
2. Utah
3. Mississippi
4. Florida State