REFUSE TO LOSE
When Massachusetts struggled to a 6-5 start this season, the
Minutemen seemed to be in danger of missing the NCAA tournament
for the first time in seven years. But after last Saturday's
81-71 victory over La Salle, UMass (19-6, 11-1 in the Atlantic
10) had won 13 of its last 14, including six conference road
games, to virtually lock up another berth.
The turnaround is similar to one the Minutemen pulled off last
season, when Massachusetts put together a 14-4 run after having
dropped six of its first nine games. That slow start had been
expected. UMass was fresh off a 35-2 season and a Final Four
appearance but had lost Marcus Camby, the 1996 player of the
year, to the Toronto Raptors and coach John Calipari to the New
Jersey Nets. This season the Minutemen were slow to adjust to
the loss of guards Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso, both of
whom graduated, and at times it seemed that their departure
might be insurmountable. Instead, the Refuse to Lose! slogan
adopted by Calipari in '92 kicked in. "This team has a chance to
do great things, but we have a lot of young guys who are still
learning," says forward Tyrone Weeks, the only senior among four
juniors, five sophomores and three freshmen on the roster.
No player has learned more than Lari Ketner, a 6'10", 268-pound
junior center who has blossomed into an NBA prospect. He brought
back memories of Camby by scoring a career-high 33 points in an
85-69 victory over Dayton on Feb. 1. Last Saturday he had 15
points and nine rebounds against a La Salle team that many
Philadelphians had hoped he would play for after he graduated
from nearby Roman Catholic High in 1995. "Last year I didn't
have a lot of confidence, but now things are starting to click
for me," says Ketner.
Things are also clicking for Massachusetts, which is poised to
win its sixth Atlantic 10 title in the last seven years. The
Minutemen attribute their success mostly to defense--they are
holding opponents to 38.7% shooting--and to a young team that
has grown up. "I was a little worried at the beginning of the
season," says coach James (Bruiser) Flint, "but they grew up
faster than I thought." --B.J. Schecter
ALIVE AND KICKING IN THE BIG SKY
In August 1995, when Ritchie McKay arrived at Portland State to
restart a program that was dropped 14 years ago for financial
reasons, the only equipment he found was a couple of moldy
uniform shorts that evoked not only another era but also another
sport. "You know those Speedo swimsuits?" asks McKay, 32, who
had been an assistant at Washington before agreeing to take the
reins of the Vikings. "That's what those shorts reminded me of."
McKay didn't have any state-of-the-art players either. In the
year he spent gathering equipment and resources in preparation
for the 1996-97 season--and otherwise breathing life into a
program whose past glory was embodied in one player, All-America
Freeman Williams, the nation's leading scorer in 1976-77 and
'77-78--McKay had just two redshirt players. Brian Towne had
transferred in after walking on at Washington, and Jamie Snook
was a junior college transfer from North Idaho. They played
against McKay and assistant Brad Soucie almost every day from
Oct. 15 to late February.
On recruiting visits McKay had no highlight tapes to play for
prospects. He couldn't even dangle the unlikely prospect of an
NCAA tournament bid because Portland State isn't eligible for
one until 1999. "I had to find kids with very high character and
sell them a dream," says McKay.
By the start of last season he had collected a number of
low-rated, high-character players and put together an ambitious
schedule. Picked by The Sporting News to finish last out of 306
teams, the Vikings almost upset Mississippi on the road in their
first game and went on to finish 9-17. This season has been even
more surprising: Portland State, led by junior forward Jason
Hartman, has beaten Oregon and lost to Oregon State, Washington
State and Loyola-Marymount by a total of 13 points; and at
week's end the Vikings were a game out of first in the Big Sky
Conference with an 8-4 record (13-10 overall).
"I want to get to the point where we have a chance to be a 14th
or 15th seed and maybe pull an upset," says McKay. What better
dream can there be for a school on the rebound?
Detroit and Illinois-Chicago
TWO WANNABES MAY WELL BE
There's a strong possibility that Detroit and Chicago-Illinois,
two Midwestern Collegiate Conference teams with power ratings
better than all but 21 squads in the country, may end long NCAA
tournament droughts this year.
Detroit, the program that gave the world Dick Vitale (and should
be made to pay reparations), hasn't had an NCAA bid since
Vitale's successor, Smokey Gaines, took the Titans to the Big
Dance in 1979. But coach Perry Watson, the former Michigan
assistant who was instrumental in recruiting the Fab Five, has
put together a group of locals who might acquit themselves well
in March: Detroit (22-3, 12-1) has beaten Michigan State and
Iowa State on the road, and lost to Michigan 54-53 on a neutral
Leading the Titans--all but one of the 12 players on the roster
hail from the Detroit area--in scoring with 14 points a game is
senior swingman Derrick Hayes, a transfer from Iowa State who
has the kind of athletic versatility that Illinois-Chicago coach
Jimmy Collins hopes to bring into his program, which has never
qualified for the NCAA tournament field. "Perry has much better
athletes than I do," says Collins. "My players have to play
within a system because they are not overly athletic."
Collins's system took awhile to sink in after he arrived at
Illinois-Chicago a year and a half ago, having been passed over
at Illinois despite a 13-year apprenticeship there under Lou
Henson. "People knew I could recruit, but they weren't sure I
could coach," says Collins. After the team's 1-8 start last
season, the doubts seemed to be confirmed. But Collins earned
respect by kicking two good but disruptive players off the
Flames and persuading his remaining players to buy into his
hard-nosed philosophy. "It showed us that he wasn't playing
around," says senior forward Bryant Lowe. "We knew if we didn't
straighten out our attitude, we might get kicked off too."
The Flames finished 15-14 and nearly beat Butler in the
conference tournament title game. Led this season by senior
guard Mark Miller, who at week's end paced the conference with a
20.0 scoring average, the Flames (20-4, 10-2) have beaten
Michigan State and Illinois State and lost narrowly to Illinois
and Marquette. Their worst loss of the year, in fact, was a
76-58 thumping at Detroit on Feb. 7 that Collins hopes to avenge
in a rubber match--Illinois-Chicago won the season's first
meeting 88-83 in Chicago--at the conference tournament. No
matter what happens then or on Selection Sunday, Collins has
learned at least one thing in the last year and a half. "I know
I can coach," he says.
Last Saturday in Orangeburg, S.C., Coppin State senior guard
Antoine Brockington had his game-day routine seriously rocked.
Because of inconveniences on this road trip, he didn't have his
usual French toast for breakfast, didn't get a chance to call
his mom in Philadelphia, didn't have time to listen to his
favorite Toni Braxton CD and, perhaps consequently, didn't lead
Coppin State in scoring when the Eagles faced Mid-Eastern
Athletic Conference archrival South Carolina State. The game was
a showdown between two of the best--and least
appreciated--guards in the nation: Brockington and the Bulldogs'
Roderick (Moo-Moo) Blakney. "I didn't do any of my usual stuff,"
said Brockington, who scored 11 points, half his season average,
"but winning is more important than personal stats. Winning this
game feels great."
While it didn't turn out to be a day of artistry for either
Brockington or Blakney (20 points, "all ugly," said Moo-Moo
ruefully), it did turn out to be a cathartic one for the Eagles.
In a stroke of revenge inspired by South Carolina State's 78-76
victory on Jan. 17 in Baltimore--where Coppin State has won 56
of its last 58 games--the Eagles crushed the Bulldogs 79-63 to
improve their league record to 12-1 (14-7 overall) and take over
first place in the MEAC.
Beating South Carolina State (12-2, 14-7) so decisively on the
road bodes well for Coppin in its quest to return to the NCAA
tournament, in which the 15th-seeded Eagles pulled an upset for
the ages last March, toppling second-seeded South Carolina 78-65
in the first round before nearly beating Texas in the second.
Of course, making it through the gantlet that is the MEAC
tournament to reach the NCAAs won't be an easy task. "That's
where the pressure is," says Coppin State coach Ron (Fang)
Mitchell, whose Eagles had to survive two overtime games in the
league tournament last year before they could wreak havoc in the
NCAAs. "Compared to that, the regular season is light action."
A repeat of last year's postseason advance, which gave national
exposure to the brilliant play of Brockington and backcourt mate
Danny Singletary--they had 42 points between them against the
Gamecocks--is something both players desperately want as they
conclude their collegiate careers. It's about the only way
anyone gets to see these two guards, who made one national TV
appearance earlier this season on CBS in a 99-82 loss at
Arizona. "We feel that if we don't win it again this season,
we'll be forgotten," says Brockington.
For the latest scores, polls and news in men's and women's
college hoops, check out www.cnnsi.com
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN On top of his game UMass's latest spree--13 wins in 14 games--has coincided with Ketner's rise. [Lari Ketner in game]
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Identity crisis Brockington is barely known outside the MEAC. [Antoine Brockington in game]
WEEKLY SEED REPORT
After a tumultuous week that saw three of our No. 2 seeds
lose--Kentucky to Mississippi, Connecticut to West Virginia, and
Utah to Wyoming--our selection committee was ready to kick some
tail and move some names. Then the realization set in that three
No. 3 seeds also went down in defeat: Michigan State to
Illinois, UCLA to Stanford, and Arkansas to Georgia and
Tennessee. Consequently, all eight top seeds remained where they
were a week ago.
Many of our pollsters were eager to punish Kentucky for that
home court loss to Ole Miss, the Rebels' first win in Lexington
after 41 straight defeats. But while there was strong sentiment
for moving New Mexico up to a No. 2 seeding, the Lobos fell a
vote short. The doubters still want to see New Mexico win a
significant road game. The big loser of the week was George
Washington, which limped out of the seedings after falling to
Rhode Island and Dayton. The Colonials' stay in the Sweet 16
lasted one week, and Mississippi, after a two-week absence, took
George Washington's place. UCLA also tumbled a notch after the
Stanford loss and then learned on Sunday that center Jelani
McCoy had quit the team. A loss at Duke this Sunday could knock
the Bruins out of our poll.
Princeton continued to be a dilemma. The Tigers got a few votes
as a No. 3 seed but were left off one ballot entirely. We asked
some members--past and present--of the real selection committee,
and they told us not to be surprised to see Princeton, if it
finishes its season without another defeat, as a No. 4.
1. North Carolina (26-1) 1. Duke (23-2)
2. Kentucky (22-4) 2. Connecticut (22-4)
3. Michigan State (18-5) 3. New Mexico (19-3)
4. Princeton (20-1) 4. UCLA (19-5)
1. Kansas (27-3) 1. Arizona (22-3)
2. Purdue (22-4) 2. Utah (21-2)
3. Stanford (21-3) 3. South Carolina (19-4)
4. Arkansas (20-5) 4. Mississippi (17-5)
MATCHUP OF THE WEEK
New Mexico at TCU--Saturday, Feb. 21
These teams are in different divisions in the 16-team WAC, so
this game doesn't count toward the league standings. But the No.
11 Lobos (19-3, 9-1 in the Mountain Division) and No. 19 Horned
Frogs (22-4, 11-0 in the Pacific Division) are vying for lofty
NCAA tournament seeds, and high-scoring TCU wants to prove it
deserves to be considered among college basketball's elite.
Horned Frogs junior center Lee Nailon (25.8 points per game) and
senior guard Mike Jones (22.1) are second and 11th,
respectively, in the nation in scoring, yet they were outscored
61-48 by the Lobos' Clayton Shields, a senior forward, and
Lamont Long, a sophomore guard, during a 21-point drubbing in
Albuquerque on Jan. 5.
New Mexico leads the conference in three-point shooting (42.6%),
and TCU leads in scoring (102.3). But, again, this game isn't
about the WAC.