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Original Issue

Inside College Basketball

Arizona's freshman backcourt led the way in a win over Kentucky

The first call came to Rodney Tention's house on Nov. 1, the
night before Arizona's annual Red-Blue scrimmage. Tention, a
Wildcats assistant coach, picked up the receiver and heard the
voice of 6'3" freshman guard Gilbert Arenas, whom Tention had
recruited out of North Hollywood, Calif. "I'm nervous," Arenas
said. "I don't know if I can do this." Tention counseled Arenas
to relax and enjoy playing. He repeated that advice the night
before each of the next four games--including two preseason
exhibitions--when Arenas called him at home to tell him how
nervous he was. "When I play, I'm not afraid of anybody," says
Arenas, "but off the court, oh, man, I'm a nervous wreck."

The truth of that statement was apparent last Friday night in
Madison Square Garden, just moments after he had established
himself as the world's most famous Arenas in Arizona's 63-51 win
over Kentucky in the final of the Chase NIT. With 6'7" sophomore
Michael Wright, Arizona's best player, limited to one point in 17
minutes because of foul trouble, Arenas sparked the Wildcats with
a 20-point, five-steal performance that earned him tournament MVP
honors. Afterward he was summoned to the interview room, but upon
catching one glance of the lights and the cameras, he took a
pass. "No, no, no, I'm not going in there," he said, beating a
hasty retreat to the locker room. "All those people? I'll be up
there mumbling like Shaq."

Arenas can be forgiven for feeling a mite overwhelmed by his
early success. His recruitment wasn't of the epic variety.
Arizona beat out DePaul, Kansas State and Cal State-Northridge
to procure his services--hometown UCLA wasn't interested--and
Arenas figured he'd spend three years backing up Ruben Douglas,
who was honorable mention on the All-Pac-10 freshman team last
season, before getting his chance to start at shooting guard as
a senior. But Arenas was so good so soon that Douglas realized
after the Red-Blue scrimmage that he very well might end up as
the reserve, so he decided to transfer. Through Sunday, Arenas
was leading the Wildcats in scoring (14.8 points a game) and
steals (3.3), and Arizona was 4-0 and ranked No. 4 in the AP poll.

Arenas's fearlessness on the court was evident as he drove at
Kentucky's shot blockers in the first half, galvanizing his
teammates, who had seemed tentative while Kentucky took an early
seven-point lead. "He's a great talent," Arizona coach Lute
Olson says. "You have to get on him a little bit, but you have
to get on him with love. Otherwise I think he'd crumble."

Arizona's impressive start can be attributed not only to
Arenas's talent but also to the chemistry he has forged with
5'10" fellow freshman Jason Gardner, a former McDonald's high
school All-America who is Arenas's roommate and backcourtmate.
Gardner, who had 10 points, three assists and four steals in 37
minutes against Kentucky, decided a few weeks ago that he and
Arenas should be called Batman and Robin, though that handle
hasn't exactly caught on with their teammates. "We'd call them
husband and wife before Batman and Robin," says 6'7" sophomore
forward Richard Jefferson. "That's how it is with them. I always
call Jason up and say, 'Can Gilbert come out and play?'"

The answer to that question should be obvious. The kid may be a
nervous wreck, but he can definitely play.

West Virginia Woes

In 37 years as an assistant and a head coach, West Virginia's
Gale Catlett thought he had dealt with everything. Then, in
September, the school announced it would close West Virginia
Coliseum for the season following the discovery of high levels
of asbestos in the 29-year-old structure. As a result the
Mountaineers' season was turned into one long road trip. West
Virginia will play six so-called home games in Wheeling, 75
miles from its Morgantown campus, and eight more in Charleston,
155 miles away. "This is the most unusual thing that has ever
happened to me," Catlett says.

Equally unusual is Catlett's proposed solution to the academic
challenges presented by the situation. At his behest West
Virginia is preparing a petition to the NCAA to exempt
Mountaineers players from the requirement that they complete 75%
of their credit requirements for the year during the fall and
spring semesters. The NCAA implemented the minimum seven years
ago to prevent schools from abusing summer classes as a means of
keeping their athletes eligible. Since Catlett, like many
coaches, prefers to practice on-site the day before a game, his
players are scheduled to be on the road a total of 52 days in
December, January and February. "I don't think it's fair for our
players to travel that much and still have the same requirements
as normal student-athletes," says Catlett, who argues that his
players can make up their lost credits next summer. "Some of our
players have been told by their professors, 'You don't have a
chance.' A lot of the professors don't care about basketball."

West Virginia could reduce the travel burdens on its players by
staging its home games closer to Morgantown. That, however,
would mean using smaller gymnasiums that are unsuitable for
television, and the school doesn't want to lose revenue from TV
and ticket sales. The gymnastics, volleyball and wrestling teams
have also been uprooted by the closing of the Coliseum, but
since revenue isn't an issue in those sports, those squads'
meets and matches will be held in other on-campus facilities or
at venues closer to home. No academic waiver will be requested
for members of those teams. The Mountaineers' women basketball
players are being included in the request to the NCAA, but that
appears to be only to avoid sparking a gender-equity
controversy. The women's basketball team is playing eight of its
12 home games at Morgantown High and just three in Charleston.

If Catlett wants to placate those nettlesome profs, he has one
other option: He could practice less. But Catlett hasn't made a
habit of trading W's for A's and B's. In 1997 he signed an
eight-man recruiting class, and according to published reports,
six of the players failed to qualify academically. "If you don't
win any games, do they fire the players or the president? No,
they fire the coach," says Catlett. "No matter what comes up,
the expectations here are pretty high."

Perhaps that's true. But academically they may be too low.

Florida State's 400-pounder

Florida State freshman center Nigel Dixon broke the rim on the
first dunk of his life. He was a 6'7", 300-pound eighth grader
at the time, and Reggie Forbes, the dean of students at Howard
Middle School in Orlando, might have been more upset about the
damage had he not also been the school's basketball coach. Dixon
had never played basketball before that year, but inspired by a
chat with then Orlando Magic star Shaquille O'Neal when Shaq was
filming a rap video at Howard, Dixon dedicated himself to the
sport. By his senior season at Edgewater High he had become a
player capable of bulling his way to 14.9 points and 11.1
rebounds per game.

Last summer Dixon arrived in Tallahassee at 6'10" and 424
pounds. He quickly became a favorite of the Seminoles' football
line coaches, who joked with him about becoming the world's
heftiest two-sport athlete. As for basketball, the skinny on the
player known as Big Jelly is that he possesses soft hands,
nimble feet and some natural post moves, but to play regularly
he must drop at least 50 more pounds from a frame he has already
shaved to 393. "Opponents have always come in assuming I'm too
fat and slow to play at all, and they get a wake-up call real
quick," Dixon says. "I like shocking people, watching their
mouths drop."

For Florida State, whose starting center, senior Justin Mott,
weighs 240 pounds and averaged 1.4 points per game last season,
Dixon could be the ultimate space-filler by season's end.
Seminoles coach Steve Robinson recalls a moment during a
November intrasquad scrimmage when 6'3", 175-pound sophomore
guard Emanuel Mathis dribbled down the lane and ran smack into
Dixon, who had squared up his size 48 waist and size 20 shoes.
Mathis bounced back to the top of the key in almost cartoonish
fashion. "Sometimes I tell myself, If you can play at 390,
imagine what you could do at 340," Dixon says. "Then I think,
What if I had to guard myself at 340? That scares me."

Robinson has never been more optimistic about a freshman who
played just 13 minutes and scored one basket in his first three
college games. "You would never dream that a 400-pound guy could
be a basketball player, but Nigel has a real chance if he
commits long-term," Robinson says. "Look at Wilt Chamberlain,
Charles Barkley, Robert Traylor, guys who proved you can succeed
without the standard body. It's exciting to ask ourselves, Can
we help shape Nigel into one of those guys who can change the
game of basketball?" --Tim Crothers

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Gardner, who is Batman to Arenas's Robin, was heroic against Kentucky, with 10 points, three assists and four steals.