Wisconsin may be old-fashioned, but winning never goes out of
As Wisconsin was struggling to a 12-19 record and a ninth-place
finish in the Big Ten last season, the word in Madison was that
third-year coach Dick Bennett's conservative, defense-minded
system was as passe as a pair of Chuck Taylor All-Stars. The
grumbling started in earnest when the Badgers' only marquee
player, junior forward Sam Okey, left the team last January to
transfer to conference rival Iowa. Since Okey was the only
McDonald's All-America on the team and had been signed by
Bennett's predecessor, Stan Van Gundy, some Badgers fans got the
notion that their coach was simply too old-school to relate to
today's big-time stars. Even Bennett, who'd had winning teams for
two decades at Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Wisconsin-Green Bay
before coming to Madison, admitted, "Sometimes I think my time
has come and it's going."
This season, however, the criticism has been silenced by a player
who even Bennett thought wasn't going to last long as a Badger.
Sean Mason, a 6'2", fifth-year senior guard, also came to
Wisconsin to play in the up-tempo style favored by Van Gundy, but
when Bennett arrived with his rigid half-court offense and
relentless man-to-man defense, Mason's future seemed uncertain.
"I didn't think he would make it," says Bennett. "I thought we
were destined for different roads."
Mason remained on Bennett's road, but it hasn't always been happy
motoring. In January 1996, 13 games into his first season under
Bennett, Mason tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right
knee. After a year of rehab he returned to action, only to blow
the ACL in his left knee in the fourth game of the 1996-97
season. He survived last season intact, averaging 15.5 points a
game as virtually the only scoring threat Wisconsin had after
Okey's departure. Meanwhile, the Badgers' struggles pushed him
closer to Bennett. "I began to understand what he was talking
about," Mason says. "We talked a lot more, and I started to get a
feel for what he was seeing through his eyes and not just what I
was seeing through my eyes."
As a result Mason has had a superb season, and Wisconsin has
shown eye-opening improvement. The Badgers, 16-3 through Sunday,
have developed an offensive alternative in senior guard Ty
Calderwood, though Mason still had led Wisconsin in scoring in 18
of its 19 games and was ranked fourth in the Big Ten with an
average of 18.9 points a game. Mason also leads the Badgers in
perspective. "Those knee operations humbled me," he says. "When I
came out of high school five years ago, you couldn't tell me too
much. But college is about living and learning."
Mason is the primary reason blue-collar Wisconsin, a preseason
pick to finish anywhere from seventh to 11th in the Big Ten, has
impressive road victories at Rhode Island, Temple and Texas, and
is ranked 15th in the nation. Meanwhile, the 55-year-old
Bennett's system has gone from "antiquated" to "time-honored" and
is suddenly the envy of many opposing coaches. "The best thing
that ever happened to Dick was Okey leaving, because it's Dick's
program now, and his entire team plays hard and together and
smart," said Northwestern coach Kevin O'Neill after his Wildcats
lost to Wisconsin 57-49 last Saturday. "Dick's [system] is not
for everybody, but his guys really perform for him."
A TEAM NO ONE WANTS TO PLAY
It's time to play Name That Program. Here are the clues: This
school has the fifth-highest winning percentage in the 1990s,
putting it ahead of Arkansas, Connecticut, UCLA and Duke. Only
Kentucky has won at a better clip over the last six seasons. The
coach has won 80% of his games in 20 years at the school and has
graduated 92% of his players in this decade. This season, through
Sunday, his team had a 14-2 record, was riding an 11-game winning
streak (including a Dec. 5 victory over then No. 3 North
Carolina) and was undefeated in conference play.
If you failed to guess the College of Charleston, don't feel
bad: The Cougars don't immediately leap to mind when listing the
nation's top programs. Charleston was the media's Cinderella
during the 1997 NCAA tournament, in which it was a No. 12 seed
and knocked off Maryland before narrowly losing to eventual
champ Arizona in the second round. Now coach John Kresse has a
group that appears to be capable of achieving that same
postseason success. "If you ask most coaches around the country
to name some teams you don't want to play in the [NCAA]
tournament, the College of Charleston would be right up there,"
North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge says. "It's not a big name,
but that's changing some because of the upsets that team has
pulled off lately."
Guthridge's Tar Heels fell victim to one of those upsets when
Cougars senior forward Danny Johnson's putback with .1 of a
second remaining gave Charleston a 66-64 win in Charlotte. It was
Kresse's second win over a Top 10 team in four tries since the
Cougars completed the move from NAIA to NCAA Division I in 1991.
Through Sunday, Charleston hadn't lost a game since beating the
Tar Heels. (The Cougars' two losses were to South Carolina and
Georgia.) Still, Charleston isn't ranked in the Top 25. "I'm a
basketball TV addict, and I see teams 16 through 25 that I know
we're as good as or better than," Kresse says. "We're not on the
tube very often, so we don't have that recognition, but we're as
hot as can be."
The Cougars have superior balance and depth this season. Six
players--five of them seniors--have led Charleston in scoring in at
least one game this season. Through Sunday, Sedric Webber, a 6'6"
senior forward, was the top Cougar in points (12.2 a game),
rebounds (6.9) and steals (2.1) and could achieve a rare double.
He was co-player of the year in the Trans America Athletic
Conference last year and could win similar honors in the Southern
Conference, which Charleston joined this season. "We're from a
small league, but there's a lot of talent here," says senior
guard Jermel President. "If we keep winning games, we'll get the
notoriety we should."
Celebrity is one thing. Respect is another. The College of
Charleston was ranked 49th in the RPI last week, and its standing
will likely slide now that its conference schedule is in full
swing and it will play only teams with lower power ratings. That
means if the Cougars make the NCAA tournament they can probably
expect a low seed. A modest RPI was the reason Charleston was a
12th seed in the 1997 tournament, even though it was ranked 16th
in the AP poll.
The Cougars' penchant for slaying giants has made scheduling
games against quality nonconference opponents increasingly
difficult. Recently, for instance, Kresse asked Clemson's
first-year coach, Larry Shyatt, who is an old friend, about
setting up a home-and-home series between the schools. "Sure,"
Shyatt said, "as soon as you're retired or dead."
Imagine what the coaches who aren't Kresse's friends are
demanding. --Seth Davis
TALES OF KNIGHT'S ERRANTS
Rob Hodgson and Neil Reed were freshman roommates at Indiana in
1994 until a November day on which Hodgson, frustrated by an
unexpected order from coach Bob Knight to sit out the rest of the
season as a redshirt, decided to transfer. Two-and-a-half years
later, when Knight bluntly informed Reed, one of the Hoosiers'
top scorers in his sophomore and junior seasons, that he wasn't
good enough to play for Indiana anymore, Reed also departed
prematurely. Add Jason Collier, who transferred out of
Bloomington last December because of conflicts with Knight over
his playing style, and the Hoosiers' coach owns the dubious
distinction of having signed not only this season's leading
scorer at Indiana, Luke Recker, but also the current scoring
leaders at Georgia Tech, Rutgers and Southern Mississippi.
Reed, one of nine transfers among the Hoosiers' 26 recruits since
1992, moved on to Southern Miss to play under his father, Terry,
a Golden Eagles assistant. Through Sunday, Reed, a senior guard,
ranked third in scoring in Conference USA with an average of 18.2
points a game for 11-7 Southern Miss. On Jan. 13 against South
Florida he had 26 points and made a pair of clutch foul shots
with three seconds left to clinch a 60-58 win. Reed attributes
his success to the time he spent last season recharging on the
sideline while waiting out his transfer year. One thing his
downtime didn't include was watching Indiana games. "I was angry
about the way I was treated, but since then I've healed a
little," Reed says. "Right now I'm trying to make a new name for
myself. I really do feel like I have something to prove, not just
to Coach Knight but to everybody who told me that I couldn't do
very much in this game."
Since becoming eligible at Rutgers, Hodgson, a 6'7" senior
forward and another coach's son, hasn't missed a game during his
four seasons. Through Sunday he led the Scarlet Knights in both
scoring (13.7 points a game) and rebounding (5.5) average as
Rutgers got off to its best start in 16 years with a 10-6 record.
Hodgson never played a minute for the Hoosiers but harbors no ill
will toward Indiana. "I don't have any bitter feelings," he says.
"I have the deepest respect for Coach Knight. Some people end up
leaving angry, but I just wanted to go somewhere and play."
Having sat out Georgia Tech's first six games this season after
transferring from Indiana following the first semester of his
sophomore year, Collier, a 7-foot junior forward, debuted on Dec.
13 and scored 22 points to spark an 84-79 upset of Georgia.
Through Sunday, he was averaging 17.3 points for the 11-6 Yellow
Jackets, who also had knocked off North Carolina on Dec. 22 and
were a somewhat surprising 2-3 in the ACC. He says he's more
comfortable working in the less structured system that Georgia
Tech runs under coach Bobby Cremins, whom Collier has known since
he attended Cremins's basketball camp as an eighth-grader. (A
measure of his newfound freedom can be seen in his three-point
shooting: At week's end he had made 10 of his 36 threes after
attempting just 13 in his 42 games as a Hoosier.) "The transition
has been smoother than I expected, and that's because I am more
relaxed, less worried about every little mistake," says Collier.
"At Indiana I was told not to shoot threes, not to do this, not
to do that. There was a lot more I was not allowed to do than I
Collier says that sometimes when he watches Hoosiers games on
television he expects to see himself jump off the Indiana bench
and enter the fray, and he still speaks regularly to former
teammates Recker and Michael Lewis. "I left Indiana because Coach
Knight and I weren't able to get along, but I'm still friends
with those guys," Collier says. "Indiana players have a bond."
THE TERRIERS' TUITION BREAK
St. Francis, a small commuter college in Brooklyn, has had a
winning record just nine times in the last 40 seasons. But the
Terriers are 8-1 in the Northeast Conference and 11-4 overall,
thanks to the scoring exploits of 6'2" senior guard Ray Minlend,
who is fourth in the nation in scoring (24.1 points a game).
Minlend is attending St. Francis for the most basic of reasons:
He had to pay his own way, and the tuition was cheap. "Role
players fall into your lap once in a while," says Terriers coach
Ron Ganulin. "Rarely does it happen with dominating players."
The 24-year-old Minlend, a native of Yaounde, Cameroon, played
two seasons at Davidson, where he started 23 games as a sophomore
in 1995-96 and averaged 12.1 points a game. But in the spring of
'96 he decided to major in accounting. Since Davidson doesn't
offer accounting as a major, Minlend decided to transfer.
Wildcats coach Bob McKillop, however, refused to release Minlend
from his scholarship, which meant that Minlend would have to pay
his own tuition for one year if he went to another school.
Minlend wanted to move to New York City to be closer to his older
brother Charles, who was then a standout forward at St. John's.
Ray says he "must have called at least a hundred schools" before
picking St. Francis because, at around $3,600 per semester, it
was the best Division I bargain in town. "It had nothing to do
with basketball," says Minlend, who has been on scholarship since
the fall of '97. "It was a life decision."
Besides the high marks he is earning in basketball, Minlend is
maintaining a 3.34 grade point average in the classroom. He hopes
to live in the U.S. for the next couple of years but plans to
return to Cameroon eventually. He hasn't been there in more than
four years and hasn't seen his father in three years or his
mother since Charles's graduation from St. John's two years ago.
"It's difficult," Minlend says, "but you have to have a vision.
You have to trust that if you put the effort into it, things will
work out." --S.D.
For the latest scores, polls and recruiting news, check out
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Wisconsin's pesky defense badgered Evan Eschmeyer in the win over Northwestern. [Three Wisconsin players guarding Evan Eschmeyer]
COLOR PHOTO: STEVE COLEMAN Reed, who's averaging 18.2 points, has found happiness since leaving Indiana. [Neil Reed jump-shooting in game]
WEEKLY SEED REPORT
The past week was like a game of musical chairs as nine of our 16
seeded teams lost at least once, setting off a scramble that left
some where they started, others in new spots and still others out
entirely (bye-bye, Kansas, Ohio State and Purdue). The most
significant change was in the Midwest's top seed, as Maryland
moved up to a No. 1 by virtue of its 89-76 win over North
Carolina in Chapel Hill, while Cincinnati dropped a notch for
losing to North Carolina-Charlotte. (Many voters actually cast
their ballots for the Bearcats as No. 1, arguing that a
controversial one-point loss involving a ref's mistake shouldn't
cost them the top spot, but our power-mad committee chair broke
the tie and moved the Terps up.)
With so many teams losing, some seeds got away with bad defeats.
Kentucky, for instance, remained a second seed despite falling at
home to Tennessee. Arizona wasn't so lucky. The Wildcats lost a
heartbreaker at the Pit in Albuquerque--where visiting teams have
to battle a hostile crowd and some of the most dubious refereeing
in the game--and dropped a peg to a No. 3 seed. But their loss was
New Mexico's gain; the Lobos joined the seeds for the first time
1. Connecticut (15-0)
2. Auburn (17-0)
3. Iowa (13-2)
4. UCLA (12-4)
1. Duke (17-1)
2. Kentucky (15-4)
3. St. John's (15-3)
4. Indiana (16-5)
1. Maryland (16-2)
2. Cincinnati (16-1)
3. Arizona (12-2)
4. Wisconsin (16-3)
1. Stanford (15-2)
2. Michigan State (14-4)
3. North Carolina (15-4)
4. New Mexico (16-2)