Though undermanned due to NCAA probation, LSU is growling again
An hour after Louisiana State's 63-53 victory in the Sugar Bowl
Classic over previously unbeaten Oklahoma State last Thursday,
LSU coach John Brady stood in an empty New Orleans Arena and
talked about the struggle to turn around a once-proud program
that hasn't had a winning record since 1992-93. "Over the last
two years no team in college basketball has been working under
the conditions we've worked under," said Brady, whose Tigers
improved to 12-0 with the victory over the Cowboys. "We've been
harshly penalized for something that nobody currently in this
program had anything to do with. We've had to work harder with
fewer players, but we just beat the 11th-ranked team in the
country. That says a great deal about how far we've come."
The penalties to which Brady referred were handed down by the
NCAA in the summer of 1997 as a result of the investigation into
LSU's recruitment of Lester Earl in 1996. (The NCAA found that
Earl had taken money from a Tigers booster and that Louisiana
State had given free medical care to Earl before he enrolled.)
LSU had its annual allotment of scholarships reduced from 13 to
11 until 2001, and worse yet, the NCAA decreed that the Tigers
could not give scholarships to more than four players over this
season and next, even if players left school for any reason.
"Last year we lost four players and replaced three," said Brady.
"Now we can only give one more scholarship in the next year. We
have to be careful with the people we recruit. We can't afford
to make mistakes."
Despite having only nine players on scholarship, LSU, which went
12-15 last season and was picked to finish fifth in the SEC West
this year in a preseason poll of conference media members, is off
to its best start since 1985-86, the year the Tigers last went to
the Final Four. This week LSU moved into the AP's Top 25--at No.
21--for the first time since '93. The Tigers were also one of only
three teams that were still unbeaten through Sunday.
The key to the resurgence has been 6'9" sophomore forward
Stromile Swift, who may be the most improved player in the
nation after a disappointing freshman season. He arrived at LSU
in the fall of 1998 but was ineligible to play because he didn't
have the requisite standardized test score. He briefly thought
about leaving for the NBA until he scored high enough on his
last shot at the ACT test, in December '98, and was cleared to
play last January.
After just two practices Swift played his first game. He
struggled in that outing and for much of the rest of the season,
averaging 7.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. "I was out of
shape and never got into the flow of things," says Swift, who
didn't start playing basketball until the eighth grade but was a
consensus All-America at Shreveport's Fair Park High in his
senior year. "The whole season was like a blur. When it was
over, I dedicated myself to proving that I was a much better
player than I'd showed."
He has done just that. Through Sunday he was averaging 19.5
points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.8 blocks while shooting an
eye-popping 68.7% from the field. Having added 25 pounds to what
was a woefully thin frame, the 225-pound Swift is a pogo stick
of a small forward who creates matchup problems for most teams,
which need two or three players to stop him. Against Oklahoma
State his inside presence helped junior guard Lamont
Roland--last year's junior college player of the year at Barton
(Kans.) Community College--score a game-high 22 points. Jabari
Smith, LSU's 6'11" senior center, also chipped in with 11
rebounds as the bigger Tigers outrebounded the Cowboys 45-29.
Even with this early success, Brady, who had been the coach at
Samford for six seasons before replacing Dale Brown at LSU,
isn't sure how good his Tigers are. Outside of the Oklahoma
State game, LSU has played a soft schedule, but with games
against Tennessee, Florida and Arizona in the next three weeks,
Brady will soon find out what he has got. "This shows we're
headed in the right direction and that we're ready to compete in
the SEC," said Brady, "but we still have a lot ahead of us."
A Distress Conference Call
Trouble in the ACC
Until last season the ACC had never received fewer than four
bids to the NCAA tournament since the field was expanded in 1980
(at that time to 48 teams). Last March, however, Duke, Maryland
and North Carolina got the league's only invitations. Those
three bids were four fewer than the Big Ten got and the same
number awarded to the Missouri Valley Conference. The
caterwauling of complaint that started on Selection Sunday was
still going on at ACC media day in October when Blue Devils
coach Mike Krzyzewski said, "We should always have at least five
teams because we're that good. Last year it was criminal that
the ACC only had three teams. Ridiculous."
With conference play set to begin this week, the first-semester
returns suggest otherwise. The ACC is fourth in the latest
conference RPI rankings, behind the Big 10, the Big 12 and the
Pac-10, and the fifth-place SEC looks as if it probably has more
tournament-worthy teams than the ACC. Through Sunday the ACC was
a combined 6-11 against Top 25 teams, and just three of its
teams--Duke (No. 8), Maryland (12) and North Carolina (14)--are
ranked in this week's AP poll (thanks to Wake Forest's disastrous
trip to Hawaii, where the then No. 19 Demon Deacons lost to
Oregon and Villanova).
The decline of college basketball's most storied conference can
be attributed to a litany of factors, including a slew of NBA
defections, uninspired recruiting by a few schools and higher
academic standards than many other leagues. (The ACC will not
allow its schools to sign nonqualifiers and will only allow them
to bring in four partial qualifiers, and of those no sport may
have more than one.)
The result: Top to bottom, the league isn't as strong as it used
to be. The weakest teams, Clemson, Florida State and Virginia,
have little chance of making the postseason. North Carolina State
was 9-1 at week's end, but its easy schedule left doubts about
the Wolfpack's strength. And while Georgia Tech has played four
quality nonleague opponents (Kansas, Michigan, Georgia and
Stanford), it lost to all of them.
It may sound like heresy, but the conference doesn't even seem
that tough at the top. North Carolina, a first-round loser to
Weber State in last year's NCAAs, looked mediocre in recent
losses to Indiana and Louisville. Maryland was spanked by George
Washington and struggled against George Mason. As for Duke, it's
telling that an ACC school could lose four NBA first-round draft
picks and still enter conference play as the highest-ranked
The sky may not be falling on the league quite yet, but there's a
cloudy forecast for the foreseeable future. --Seth Davis
From Russia Without Love
Abrosimova vs. Auriemma
Early on in top-ranked Connecticut's 90-63 rout of No. 3
Louisiana Tech on Sunday night, Huskies forward Svetlana
Abrosimova was guarding Brooke Lassiter, a heady point guard.
Later she switched to Catrina Frierson, a bulky 6'1" forward who
planted herself in the paint. There were even moments when
Abrosimova--once considered as defensively inspired as a blob of
mashed potatoes--was matched against high-scoring Betty Lennox,
a 5'8" guard with an Iverson-like first step. "You see, I can
play defense very well," Abrosimova said after the game,
pointing toward Huskies coach Geno Auriemma. "I'm not nearly as
bad as he makes me out to be."
There was no angst in Abrosimova's voice, just the glee of an
All-America (albeit, one from St. Petersburg, Russia) who enjoys
showing up her ultracritical coach. For three years Abrosimova,
a 6'2" junior, has been Auriemma's No. 1 target--the recipient
of more negative reviews than a Robin Williams film festival. If
Auriemma isn't nagging her over her defense, it's her shot
selection or her weak left hand or lazy passing. "Today, Svet
played great," said Auriemma, following Abrosimova's 25-point,
six-rebound, four-steal performance. "Tomorrow she'll do
something to drive me crazy, just because she knows I'm happy
and she doesn't like the status quo. We were made for each
other. She's Russian and a woman, I'm Italian and stubborn. I'm
always right, she's always right. Luckily, in basketball, the
coach is right."
It's a comedy routine that isn't always so comical. Auriemma, an
unabashed yeller, has screamed things that have made Abrosimova
wonder why she ever traveled thousands of miles to a school she
had barely heard of. In return, the gifted Abrosimova, versatile
enough to play all five positions, still occasionally goes on mad
one-on-five dashes with no intention of passing. "Svet is so
good, and the game comes so easily to her, there are times she
wants to shoot when she probably shouldn't," says UConn guard Sue
Bird, "but that happens less and less."
On Sunday it only happened once, late in the second half, when
Abrosimova traveled while charging awkwardly into three Lady
Techsters. Auriemma screamed ("I have to be consistent," he said
later); Abrosimova shrugged ("I know he's trying to help me
improve," she said). Otherwise, Abrosimova spent the evening
cutting along the baseline, setting picks, posting up on Lennox
and nailing 3 of 5 three-point attempts. Most important,
Abrosimova--who was averaging 14.0 points and 7.6 rebounds at
week's end--played good defense.
"People think because I am Russian, I must be soft," says
Abrosimova. "I'm not soft. I love shutting someone down.
Hopefully, Coach saw how I played tonight. Maybe he'll see that
I was good." Abrosimova paused, then turned to a reporter. "Tell
him I was good--could you?" --Jeff Pearlman
Troubles At UMass
No coach is on a hotter seat than Bruiser Flint at
Massachusetts. The Minutemen had their first losing record in 10
years last season and were 6-6 through Sunday after dropping
three of their last four games, to Southern Illinois, BC and
Providence.... Thin-benched Maryland got a bonus last week when
redshirt freshman guard Calvin McCall, who started nine games at
quarterback for the football team, joined the basketball team.
McCall had 10 points and eight assists in 30 minutes in wins
over Maryland-Baltimore County and Coastal Carolina.... Why did
Cincinnati play a road game at Boise State last Thursday?
Because two years ago Bearcats athletic director Bob Goin agreed
to the game as part of a deal to secure a bid for Cincinnati's
football team in the Humanitarian Bowl, which is played in Boise.
For the latest scores and recruiting news, plus more from Seth
Davis and Grant Wahl, go to cnnsi.com/basketball/college.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Swift was quick off his feet in blocking Fredrik Jonzen's shot as LSU defeated Oklahoma State.
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Abrosimova lit up the Lady Techsters for 25 points but later bragged about her defense.
WEEKLY SEED REPORT
Yes, it's early, and skepticism over some very weak schedules is
running deep with many of our pollsters. (You know who we mean,
Syracuse, Auburn and Florida.) Still, enough games have been
played that it's possible to start thinking about where teams
would be seeded were the NCAA tournament to start this week.
Keep in mind that no matter how strongly they finish, the
Orangemen will be shipped out of the East because Syracuse is
hosting the East Regional finals. As things look now, that could
be a big boost for UConn's hopes of staying close to home,
perhaps in Buffalo, N.Y.
There promises to be loads of upheaval along the way, however.
(Just look at Michigan State's inexplicable loss to Wright State
last week.) So with conference play about to tip off, here's the
early line on the tournament lineup:
1. Connecticut (9-1)
2. Florida (11-1)
3. Indiana (10-1)
4. Texas (8-3)
1. Cincinnati (12-1)
2. Michigan State (9-4)
3. Maryland (11-2)
4. Oklahoma State (10-1)
1. Arizona (11-2)
2. Auburn (12-1)
3. Syracuse (9-0)
4. North Carolina (9-4)
1. Stanford (11-0)
2. Duke (9-2)
3. Kansas (10-2)
4. Tennessee (12-1)
FIRST-SEMESTER REPORT CARD
Y2K had no adverse affect on the computers that figure college
basketball power ratings (RPI), so here's a look at which teams'
numbers have improved or fallen the most since the end of last
season. On the plus side, Liberty, which was 4-23 a year ago,
has seen the benefits of a strong recruiting class, and Hawaii,
a winner over Oregon last week in the Rainbow Classic final,
looks like a team to watch. (Howard's improvement, however, is
purely a mark of its willingness to get beaten by teams with
high RPIs in the early going.) On the downside, Miami, which
suspended leading scorer Johnny Helmsley for two games after he
stormed off the court during a win over Detroit on Dec. 21, has
fallen from a lofty level.
School (record) 1999 Final RPI Latest RPI Change
Liberty (8-2) 310 59 +251
Wis.-Milwaukee (7-6) 260 92 +168
Howard (0-9) 307 160 +147
Hawaii (11-2) 215 70 +145
Eastern Kentucky (5-4) 303 166 +137
Central Florida (2-10) 101 313 -212
Rice (4-6) 87 295 -208
Miami (8-6) 11 201 -190
Drexel (4-6) 97 276 -179
Southern (3-6) 149 315 -166
SOURCE: Collegiate Basketball News (games through last Friday)