Gators on The Prowl
Thanks to superior depth and balance, Florida is in the hunt for
its first SEC title in 11 years
Four of the 14 members of Florida's basketball team won state
championships while in high school. That won't necessarily help
the Gators during their quest for an NCAA championship later
this month, but it sure comes in handy when the guys are talking
smack in the locker room. So it was that moments after Florida's
88-59 pasting of Auburn on Sunday, Brent Wright, a 6'8" junior
who won two titles at Miami High, sidled up to 5'10" sophomore
Teddy Dupay, who never won a championship while he played for
Mariner High in Fort Myers, Fla., and said sardonically, "Maybe
this is going to be the year when you finally get a ring."
Wright may be right. Sunday's win gave the No. 8-ranked Gators
sole possession of first place in the SEC East with a league-best
11-3 record (22-5 overall). With a 10-man rotation that includes
four freshmen and three sophomores, Florida is still learning as
it goes, but it has the potential to be more formidable in the
postseason than last season's Sweet 16 team. "Last year at this
time we were playing to the best of our ability," coach Billy
Donovan says. "This team is still growing."
Florida has one of the nation's most balanced squads, but it's
unclear whether that's a boon or a bane. At week's end the Gators
led the SEC in both assists and points per game (17.6 and 85.7,
respectively), although they didn't have a player in the top 10
in either category. Dupay and 6'3" freshman Brett Nelson have
shared point guard duties for most of the season, but rather than
settling on one of them, Donovan has added 6'3" freshman Justin
Hamilton to the mix in the last three weeks. Meanwhile, Mike
Miller, a 6'8" sophomore, was Florida's leading scorer (14.0
points per game) and second-leading rebounder (6.3), but he
hadn't emerged as a definitive go-to guy, nor apparently is he
planning to do so. "I want the ball in a tough situation," he
says, "but I'm sure other guys on the team do too."
Donovan seems content not to have a star. When Dupay and Nelson
were both careless with the ball during the Gators' 79-68 loss to
Purdue on Nov. 23, he benched them and let Miller bring up the
ball for most of the second half. When Florida faced a 21-point
deficit in the second half at the United Center against DePaul on
Jan. 26, Donovan replaced his starters with four freshmen plus
10th man Major Parker, a 6'4" junior small forward. The subs
sparked a comeback that fell two points shy of a win. On Feb. 5
Miller sat for most of the second half of an 85-66 win over
Georgia because he didn't hustle after a loose ball. Says
Donovan, "Our guys understand that if you don't bring it every
day, Coach is not going to play you."
Coach's biggest statement may have come with 23 seconds remaining
in a 90-73 defeat of Kentucky on Feb. 8, when he called time out
just to instruct his players on how to act after the buzzer
sounded. "This is one win in the SEC, not the national
championship," Donovan said. "Don't celebrate at the end. Just
shake their hands and walk off the floor."
The Gators did so, and did the same after they beat Auburn on
Sunday. Now they hope Donovan's preparation pays off with a
celebration in Indianapolis.
The Trouble with UConn
Getting to the Point
Last spring Khalid El-Amin, Connecticut's 5'10" point guard,
declared that the Huskies would "shock the world," and they did,
beating Duke for the NCAA title. But without rugged shooting
guard Ricky Moore and star forward Richard Hamilton, this hasn't
been a best-in-show season for UConn, which had lost three of its
last five games before Monday's 74-69 win over Rutgers and had
tumbled from a high of No. 2 in the AP poll earlier this season
to No. 24 this week. In Arabic, El-Amin means "the trustworthy
one," and during the last two years of postseason play--in the Big
East Tournament and the NCAAs--UConn is 15-1. But the Huskies'
chances of repeating depend on how ably their vexatious convexity
of a junior point guard lives up to his name.
El-Amin put his best and worst on display last week. On Feb. 21
he baked a glazed doughnut in a 79-64 loss to St. John's,
shooting 0 for 7 from the floor. Then, last Saturday against West
Virginia, he took an inbounds pass with UConn down by a point and
4.8 seconds to play, dribbled the length of the court, launched a
running banker from an impossible angle and found the basket at
the buzzer for a 72-71 win.
If El-Amin seems schizoid, it may be because he's at once
unusually old and unusually young. He played with seventh-graders
as a third-grader, on the varsity as an eighth-grader and handled
the roles of father and husband while leading Minneapolis North
High to three straight state championships. Yet "he still has a
lot of third-grader in him," says UConn assistant Karl Hobbs.
The burden of leadership on El-Amin is evident in statistics such
as these: He has led the Huskies in scoring in five of their
eight losses; when guard Albert Mouring or forward Kevin Freeman
has the most points, UConn is 11-2. On Jan. 5 against Notre Dame
in Hartford, El-Amin set his career high with 34 points, but he
appeared to be trying to match Irish star Troy Murphy bucket for
bucket. Murphy needed only 18 shots to sink his 11 baskets;
El-Amin went 11 for 26, and UConn lost. Afterward UConn coach Jim
Calhoun and El-Amin met behind closed doors to hash out what's
expected of a floor leader.
A revealing test for El-Amin will come this Saturday against
Syracuse. The last time the Huskies played the Orangemen, on Jan.
24, El-Amin sank a couple of three-pointers early and then woofed
at his opposite number, Jason Hart, saying, "This is what you've
read about!" Hart then led a Syracuse breakaway, sinking two
threes of his own, forcing El-Amin into a palming violation and
stripping him of the ball. Syracuse won 88-74.
"Oscar Robertson had a knack for scoring early to stake his team
to a lead, then getting everybody touches so they'd play defense,
then he'd bury the opponent personally in the fourth quarter,"
says Calhoun. "The moment the balance goes off, it's not
particularly good for us. At the same time, [if you're an
opponent,] you wouldn't want to put Khalid in a situation where
he thinks you think he's going to fail. Because then he's going
to win." --Alexander Wolff
Indiana's Quiet Star
The Hoosiers' A.J. Is A-OK
For four years the odometer on Rhonda Ruffin's silver Mazda 929
has been in near perpetual motion. Ruffin is the mother of
Indiana standout A.J. Guyton, and she has faithfully made the
490-mile round trip from her home in Peoria, Ill., to
Bloomington, Ind., for nearly every Hoosiers home game. If that
weren't enough to get whistled for a traveling violation, she
also motors to most of Indiana's Big Ten road encounters. "Don't
get me wrong, I love watching A.J. play," says Ruffin, a pharmacy
technician at a Walgreens drugstore when she's not putting pedal
to metal, "but I sure am thankful he's a senior."
This season the schlepp has been particularly worth it. Guyton, a
catalytic 6'1" shooting guard, has emerged as a likely first-team
All-America and the front-runner for the Big Ten MVP award,
especially after last Saturday, when he scored a career-high 34
points and outplayed two of his rivals for the award, Michigan
State's Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson, in Indiana's 81-79
overtime victory. Through Sunday, Guyton was averaging 20.6
points, tops in the Big Ten, and playing ferocious defense.
Riding his coattails, the Hoosiers ran their record to 19-6 (9-5
in the conference) and are ranked No. 14 in the latest AP poll.
"So far, this season has been very satisfying," Guyton says. "We
weren't in anyone's preseason Top 25, and we wanted to show we
were for real."
Though Guyton came very close to turning pro after last season,
he decided to stay in Bloomington and add a final year of
seasoning to an already rich game. He combines a quick first step
with a shooting range that extends beyond the three-point line.
Thus while he scores the bulk of his points by penetrating for
short jumpers and layups, he also knocks down 2.5 treys a game,
the second-best average in the Big Ten. "He can go to the basket
anytime he wants," says Northwestern coach Kevin O'Neill. "The
only way to guard him is with a 6'6", 6'7" guy like Morris
Peterson, but even then Guyton's going to get his shot off."
Hard as it is to get a hand on Guyton, it may be even harder to
get a handle on him. Preternaturally quiet--"He's kind of a
loner," says Ruffin. "I call him my silent assassin"--Guyton is
more likely to noodle around on the Internet or with Nintendo and
PlayStation than socialize with friends or teammates. His hidden
talent is a Tom Ripleyesque knack for impersonations (including,
we hear, a mean one of his coach, Bob Knight), but he invariably
clams up when asked to perform for strangers.
Before this season Knight asked Guyton to be more of a leader.
"He meant leading with my play," says Guyton, who is expected to
graduate with a telecommunications degree this spring. "He knows
I'm not going to be vocal."
Perhaps not, but rest assured we're not done hearing from
Guyton, who in a loss to Ohio State on Feb. 19 became the fifth
Indiana player to score 2,000 points. He's being hailed by NBA
scouts as a lottery pick. Lest they jinx anything, neither
Guyton nor Ruffin has much interest in discussing his basketball
future. Ruffin does allow, however, that her days behind the
wheel are mercifully drawing to an end. "Next year, if he's in
the NBA and wants me to watch him play," she says, "he can fly
me there." --L. Jon Wertheim
Not Going Down Without a Fight
Don't expect Nebraska coach Danny Nee to ride quietly into the
sunset the way Georgia Tech's Bobby Cremins did on Feb. 18 when
he announced his resignation, effective at the end of the
season. Nee, who's on the hot seat because of the Cornhuskers'
11-16 record through Sunday, told a recent gathering of
boosters, "All you sons of bitches who want me out of here, I'm
not leaving." That means Nebraska will have to force Nee out,
which it seems intent on doing. It looks as if the Huskers' Big
12 rival Kansas State will also clean house, by firing Tom
Asbury, but beyond that, this off-season is shaping up to be one
of the quietest in recent memory when it comes to coaching
changes.... Arkansas's loss to LSU on Feb. 19 marked the first
time the Razorbacks had lost back-to-back home games since
1985-86, Nolan Richardson's first year as coach. Said
Richardson, whose Hogs were 14-13 through Sunday, "A lot of
things are hard to believe, but the reality is that it's
happening." ... Utah State has been one of the nation's most
surprising teams. The Aggies have eight newcomers and just one
player taller than 6'7", but they were 23-5 through Sunday (14-0
in the Big West) and owned the nation's longest winning streak,
For the latest scores and recruiting news, plus more from Seth
Davis and Grant Wahl, go to cnnsi.com/basketball/college.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Miller went for 13 points, including this thunderous hoop, against Auburn, but he's happy to defer to others on offense.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Guyton's textbook shooting form has put him atop the Big Ten scoring list.
WEEKLY SEED REPORT
There have been changes aplenty since last we met in this space
two weeks ago. Foremost among them was the demise of Auburn,
which at one point in January was a No. 1 seed and now figures to
be out of our seedings permanently as a result of the suspension
of star forward Chris Porter. Porter was sent home to Auburn on
the eve of the Tigers' game at Florida last Saturday because he
had accepted money from an agent. If he's done for the season,
the Tigers will be going home early, too--from the NCAAs.
A welcome back is in order, however, for St. John's, which beat
Syracuse, Connecticut and Duke in succession. The wins over the
last two made the Red Storm unique: It is the first team to beat
both of the previous year's NCAA tournament finalists in a single
1. Duke (22-4)
2. Temple (22-4)
3. Florida (22-5)
4. Indiana (19-6)
1. Cincinnati (26-2)
2. Iowa State (24-4)
3. LSU (23-4)
4. Maryland (21-7)
1. Arizona (24-4)
2. Michigan State (21-7)
3. Tennessee (22-5)
4. Syracuse (23-3)
1. Stanford (24-1)
2. Ohio State (20-5)
3. Oklahoma State (22-4)
4. St. John's (20-6)