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1 Auburn With 11 players back from a No. 1-seeded team, the Tigers have the troops to win it all

The less that Mamadou N'diaye's mother, Fatou, knows of the
preseason goings-on at Auburn, the better. "When I bring posters
and programs home [to Senegal], my mother gets very worried,"
says Mamadou in his lilting English. "Seeing these things, she
thinks that I will be jinxed. And she wants me to remain--how do
you say it?--humble."

Well, Fatou, your fears are well-founded, for there are many
things testing the humility of Auburn's basketball players these
days. Season tickets for home games at Beard-Eaves-Memorial
Coliseum are history for the first time in history. Membership in
the Cliff Dwellers, the student cheering section named in honor
of coach Cliff Ellis, has more than doubled, to 500. Midnight
Madness, the practice-opening ritual that Ellis in his previous
27 years of coaching at four schools had never seen fit to
schedule, drew 8,000 maniacs on Oct. 15. Preseason magazines
spread strategically on the coffee table in Ellis's office--"We
just happen to leave them around when the recruits come in," says
Ellis--bear the photo of N'diaye's teammate, senior Chris Porter,
and bannered stories about the SEC regular-season champs.

Now Ellis can lay out one more magazine on his creaking table
because SI's choice for the No. 1 team in the land is Auburn. We
like the Tigers for many reasons (including, Fatou, the
improvement made over the summer by your son) but none so much as
the fact that, by today's standards, they're practically ancient.
Imagine: four seniors, four returning starters, 11 returning
lettermen. It's one thing if a bad team boasts this many familiar
faces, quite another when a very good team, which went 29-4 and
made it to the Sweet 16, has no defectors to the NBA. "I've been
blessed," says Ellis.

There's no position at which the Tigers are wanting, including a
new one--power 'froward. Both Porter and sophomore David Hamilton
sport 1970s-style 'dos. (Porter's is fairly subtle; Hamilton's
soars toward the Chia Pet proportions made famous by ABA immortal
Darnell Hillman.)

Porter plays all over the court--out on the break, coming off
screens in Auburn's motion offense, posting up on set plays,
leaping like a madman to distract the inbounds passer in one of
Ellis's countless trapping defenses. Ellis insists that had the
6'7" Porter been projected as a top 15 pick in the 1999 NBA
draft, instead of someone in the 23-to-28 range, where Ellis's
sources put him, he would have counseled Porter to leave. Porter
is equally adamant that he would not have gone no matter what.
"It took me too long to get here," he says. "I'm not leaving
without my degree [in criminal justice]. I'm on target to get it.
I will get it." Don't bet against this former nonqualifier who
spent two seasons at Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla.,
before arriving last season and tearing up the SEC with 16.0
points and 8.6 rebounds a game. "Chris has become a serious guy
and a great, great person," says his friend, Daymeon Fishback,
the Tigers' likely starter at small forward. "You could walk from
one end of this campus to the other and not find one person who
doesn't like CP." Ellis and his staff like Porter even more for
adhering to their off-season program of attempting at least 350
outside shots every day to, as Porter puts it, "move my game

If he moves it out too far he'll run into mop-topped shooting
guard Scott Pohlman. Warning to journalists: Though he's far too
polite to get in your face about it, the 6'2", 172-pound Pohlman
is weary of being compared to a certain television son of a
certain sheriff of a certain rural North Carolina town. He has
put on about 10 pounds of muscle--he bench-presses a not-so-wimpy
240--and has the endurance of a long-distance runner, which is why
Fishback calls him "our little Energizer Bunny" and Ellis calls
him "our Jeff Hornacek." Here's a richer vein to mine when
questioning Pohlman: Find out exactly how he gets into the
coliseum on solitary midnight shooting missions that sometimes
last until 1:30 a.m.

In addition to the outside shooting prowess of Pohlman and
Porter, Fishback, who was Kentucky's Mr. Basketball in 1996, is a
threat to score from the perimeter, as is sophomore Mack
McGadney, who has never met a shot he didn't like. There's one
more outside gunner, too. "Yes, I have been practicing that shot,
and I can make it," says the 7-foot N'diaye, whose full name is
pronounced MAMA-do EN-jai and who's known by his teammates as
'Dou. When he speaks of his long-distance shooting, N'diaye
refers to a 15- to 17-foot jumper, not a three-pointer, but the
fact that he's even talking about taking something outside the
paint is a departure from his no-O show of years past. (In three
seasons at Auburn he has attempted only 4.7 shots per game.)
N'diaye made great strides as the top find at Pete Newell's Big
Man Camp in Hawaii over the summer; Newell compared N'diaye's
footwork with that of Hakeem Olajuwon, who, like N'diaye, was a
soccer player before taking up basketball.

The 24-year-old N'diaye says that he never picked up a basketball
until he was 18. "I would hear my friends talking about this
Michael Jordan, and I thought nothing of it," he says.
Eventually, his curiosity got the best of him, and he ventured to
the playground with a basketball at night so no one would see
him. "You will not believe this," he says, "but I could not even
touch the rim at first. [He was only about 6'9" in those days.] I
still have much to learn. When you start playing a game late, you
miss so many of the technical things."

And when you start playing it early, you sometimes have the
technical precision of point guard Julius Robinson, a.k.a. Doc.
Robinson said he was only four when he began playing the point
for a team of 11- and 12-year-olds coached by his father,
Randolph, a legendary Alabama high school player. "When you're
that age and the ball's bigger than you are," says Doc, "you've
got to give it up. I never wanted to play anything but point
guard, couldn't care less about doing anything except setting up
my teammates." Robinson and two other senior starters have a spot
in a poster that's in the planning stages at Auburn. It will be
called 3-D and will feature Doc, 'Dou and Da Man (Porter). It's
sure to be a big seller in Tiger Town, but just make sure Fatou
doesn't get one.

--Jack McCallum

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO What's up, Doc? Growing up in Selma, Robinson learned to make the dishes he feeds his teammates.



SF Daymeon Fishback 6'5" Sr. 4.5 ppg
PF Chris Porter[1] 6'7" Sr. 16.0 ppg
C Mamadou N'diaye[1] 7'0" Sr. 2.3 bpg
SG Scott Pohlman[1] 6'2" Jr. 11.8 ppg
PG Doc Robinson[1] 6'2" Sr. 5.0 apg

1998-99 record: 29-4 Final rank (coaches' poll): No. 7
Returning starter[1]