Just Like Old Times
An undefeated start has Georgetown once again looking like the
Beast of the East
For 17 seasons as an assistant coach, Craig Esherick sat quietly
and nondescriptly next to John Thompson on Georgetown's bench,
drawing even less attention than the white towel Thompson draped
over his shoulder. Thus it was only natural that Esherick would
feel a mite overwhelmed when he took over after Thompson suddenly
resigned on Jan. 8, 1999, just as it was natural for the rest of
the world to wonder whether this faceless, voiceless adjutant was
up to the job he had unexpectedly inherited. "I was worried,"
Esherick concedes when asked how he felt that day. "Then I
realized the only thing I needed to do was win, and that's the
case no matter where you coach."
Normally that's easier said than done, but winning is all
Esherick and the Hoyas have done in his second full season at the
helm. When Georgetown defeated 18th-ranked Seton Hall on Monday
night for the second time in 10 days, it improved its record to
16-0 (4-0 in the Big East), the second-best start in Hoyas
Just as the high-profile Thompson's best teams featured glamorous
stars like Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson, so
this Georgetown club is reflective of the new man in charge. The
ninth-ranked Hoyas have gone largely unnoticed during their
winning streak--thanks in large part to their milquetoasty
preconference schedule--but have thrived thanks to depth and good
chemistry. Through Monday nine players were scoring between 12.6
and 7.1 points per game, and 10 were averaging at least 10
minutes. Even though four players who previously started are now
coming off the bench and two freshmen are starters, nobody's
"It's easy to run a team like this," says junior point guard
Kevin Braswell, who was averaging 6.9 assists (up from 5.3 his
sophomore season). "Last year everybody thought he should score
20 every game. Now we understand that if we make the extra pass,
we get a better shot."
Georgetown's glut of interchangeable parts also answers one of
the questions about Esherick when he succeeded Thompson: Can he
recruit? Esherick got off to a promising start by locking up
every player who had given Thompson a commitment, including Mike
Sweetney, who was then a 6'8" junior at Oxon Hill (Md.) High.
That didn't seem like such a coup last spring, though, when
Esherick popped in a videotape of the Capital Classic all-star
game and was astonished to see that Sweetney had ballooned to
well over 300 pounds. "I told him he would have trouble playing
for me if he didn't do something about it," Esherick says.
Sweetney shed nearly 50 pounds last summer during his twice-daily
workouts on the Georgetown campus, and through Monday he was the
Hoyas' leading scorer (12.6 points a game) and leading rebounder
(7.5). One of Esherick's other recruits, 6'6" freshman Gerald
Riley, from Milledgeville, Ga., has also been a pleasant
surprise, chipping in with 9.8 points and 3.5 rebounds a game as
Thompson still attends many home games. Esherick, however, isn't
about to start feeling overshadowed now. "It's an advantage to
have Coach Thompson around because I can still bounce things off
him," Esherick says. "I'm different than he is, but the way I
coach is the same. I've also kidded him that if I start losing,
it's his fault, too."
Notre Dame Beats UConn
The Story Of Ruth
On the grease board in the visitors' dressing room at the Joyce
Center in South Bend on Monday, someone from Connecticut had
written a formula to describe the matchup between the undefeated
and top-ranked Huskies and unbeaten No. 3 Notre Dame: BIG GAME +
SELLOUT + ESPN + ROAD TEST + UNDEFEATED = CRUSH JOB. Right
formula, wrong room.
Before the first sellout crowd for women's basketball at Notre
Dame and a national TV audience, not only did the Irish topple
the Huskies 92-76 and end the longest women's winning streak in
the nation (30 games), but they also forged a power shift in
women's hoops. "I saw a feature on TV the other night about teams
that might be able to beat UConn," said Notre Dame coach Muffet
McGraw after the victory, "and we weren't even mentioned."
Why should they have been? As well as the Irish have played this
season, few observers felt they belonged on the same plane as
UConn and Tennessee. Notre Dame had never beaten a No. 1 team and
over a span of 18 years was 0-24 against the Huskies and the Lady
Vols. Joe Smith, the director of Women's Basketball News Service,
who has covered the distaff game since 1973, predicted a 27-point
What Smith and others failed to account for was Irish center Ruth
Riley. Playing all 40 minutes, Riley, a 6'5" senior, scored 29
points (including 13 for 13 from the foul line) and had 12
rebounds. Decked out in her trademark headband, Riley atoned for
a foul-plagued, four-point effort against the Huskies last Feb.
26. And "her presence defensively was more impressive than it was
offensively," said Huskies coach Geno Auriemma, whose defending
national champs suffered their worst loss in seven seasons. "Her
presence in the lane turned us into a jump-shooting team."
Only twice before has a Notre Dame basketball team been ranked
No. 1, as this one surely will be next week. The first time was
when the men's team shocked UCLA and Bill Walton in 1974,
breaking the Bruins' record 88-game winning streak. On a
similarly wintry day in South Bend 27 years later, the best
player on the floor was again a pivot player known for headbands
and a feathery touch, only this time she was on the winning side.
"I don't think I've ever seen anybody dominate a game like this,"
said McGraw, edging into hyperbole. "She was better than Bill
She was, in a word, Ruthian. --John Walters
A Straitlaced Rebel Leader
Faith is a word spoken often these days at Ole Miss. How else to
explain the fact that a team picked to finish last in the SEC
West was, as of Monday, sitting atop the division with a 14-2
record (2-1 in league play) and ranked No. 21 in the nation? How
else to account for the fact that a program that reached one NCAA
tournament before 1997 is now a good bet to reel in its fourth
NCAA bid in the last five seasons? And how else to explain the
fact that Mississippi's guiding force is 6'8", 255-pound senior
center Rahim Lockhart, who two years ago was one misstep from
being kicked off the team?
During his first two seasons Lockhart took the title of Rebel too
literally. Ole Miss coach Rod Barnes constantly had to hound him
about going to class, showing up on time for practice and
controlling his temper on the court. Barnes suspended Lockhart
twice for a total of four games in January 1999, the second time
when Lockhart was arrested for allegedly shoplifting a cassette
tape, a charge that was dropped. "I was a wild child, the life of
every party," Lockhart says. "If Coach heard of somebody getting
into trouble, he would ask, 'Where's Rahim?' I had a huge chip on
my shoulder, but I realized I had to change. I compare it to
being born again."
Within days of his arrest Lockhart learned that his girlfriend,
Tarrah White, was pregnant, and he asked his mother, Trudy, to
mail him the Bible he now carries with him everywhere. He married
Tarrah that July, and in October they had a daughter, Amirah.
"After the arrest I let my faith in Rahim overrule logic," Barnes
says. "I gave him one last chance, and I've never seen any kid
make a transformation this dramatic."
Today Lockhart is at peace, punctual and an honor student in
social studies/education. Through Monday he led the Rebels in
scoring with 12.9 points per game, ranked fifth in the SEC in
rebounding (9.0) and in field goal percentage (56.8%), and was
third in blocks (1.8). Largely because of him, a young
Mississippi team that starts two freshmen and a sophomore has
beaten ranked teams Oklahoma and Southern Cal and broken an
11-game SEC road losing streak, with an 81-68 win at Vanderbilt
on Jan. 6. Four days later, in a 53-48 victory at Arkansas, the
Rebels held the Hogs, the West Division's preseason favorite, to
their lowest point total ever in an SEC game. That win also set a
record for total victories by an Ole Miss four-year class.
"Sometimes it feels that this program is born again," Lockhart
says. "Ever since I've been here, there's been an increasing
sense of purpose and a faith that we can defeat teams we've
rarely beaten before."
The Rebels' stellar start has been built around the SEC's
stingiest defense and inspiration from what once seemed an
unlikely source. "I've watched Rahim grow from a spoiled boy into
a responsible family man," senior guard Jason Flanigan says. "We
need that kind of maturity to help lead us in tight games."
Indeed, last Saturday in Oxford, Georgia upset Ole Miss 70-66 by
outscoring the Rebels 22-12 after Lockhart fouled out with 7:21
left. Lockhart didn't gripe when he met Tarrah, who's pregnant
with their second child, afterward. He held Amirah in one hand
and signed an autograph with the other, scribbling his name,
jersey number 44 and the citation for a Bible verse, Romans 12:2,
that sums up both him and the Ole Miss program: "Do not conform
any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by
the renewing of your mind." --Tim Crothers
For complete scores and recruiting news, plus more from Seth
Davis and Grant Wahl, go to cnnsi.com/basketball/college.
COLOR PHOTO: MITCHELL LAYTON With 16 points against the Hokies, reserve guard Nathaniel Burton showed how deep the Hoyas go.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER (PITINO)
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JONATHAN CARLSON
COLOR PHOTO: TED S. WARREN/AP Riley led the Irish over UConn with a hair-raising 29 points and 12 rebounds.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY DANIEL PELAVIN
Where He'll Stop, Nobody Knows
When Rick Pitino resigned as president and coach of the Boston
Celtics on Jan. 8, he loosed a fusillade of rumors over where he
will land next. Feeding the frenzy of speculation is the number
of big-time programs--listed below along with the skinny on
their chances of landing Pitino--whose fans are antsy for a
higher-profile coach. The runner-up prize for the losers of the
Pitino sweepstakes? Bob Knight, anyone?
UNLV: They love Armani suits on Gucci Row, but the rest of the
Mountain West Conference is strictly Wal-Mart. UNLV, however, was
seen as the early favorite to nab Pitino because it has some
built-in advantages. It already has a vacancy--sorry, Max Good--and
can pony up the requisite cash, a package reportedly worth more
than a million a year.
UCLA: Sources close to Pitino say this is the job he really
wants--L.A. is a much grander stage than L.V.--and there's tension
between Bruins coach Steve Lavin and athletic director Peter
Dalis over the fact that Dalis has twice spoken to Pitino
recently. One sticking point: UCLA would have to pay Pitino a lot
more than it's giving Lavin, who makes $485,000 annually.
INDIANA: Pitino is one of the few coaches who could surmount the
sniping of Knight loyalists. He would also be able to recruit on
a national basis while benefiting from a local pipeline that
doesn't exist at UNLV. The big impediment could be Rick's wife,
Joanne, who's said to be disinclined to move to another college
MICHIGAN: Ann Arbor is bigger than Bloomington, but is it big
enough to pass the Joanne test? More to the point, could the Boy
King really be happy in a place where football reigns?
MASSACHUSETTS: Pitino's alma mater was 4-10 through Sunday under
Bruiser Flint, but the feeling is strong that Pitino is washed up
in the Bay State.
The Joe College Report
Perpetually dyspeptic Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins was so angry
at his Bearcats after their Dec. 30 loss to Toledo that he booted
them out of their locker room at the Shoemaker Center. Their new
digs? The men's soccer dressing room. "We've had champions dress
in that locker room," said Huggins of the Bearcats, who have won
the last five Conference USA titles, "and our guys right now are
not playing or working like champions." As of last week Huggy
Bear's charges were back for a second round in their original
dressing room, but for how long? After all, fans know about their
recent spate of bad performances in the second round....
Alabama freshman forward Gerald Wallace is proving that he was
right not to go straight to the NBA. He started the season with
a bang, leading the SEC in scoring with a 20.3 average after six
games. But in nine outings since then, through Monday, he'd
produced 8.0 points a game and his minutes had diminished.
Worse, in his first three conference games he'd averaged a mere
5.7. "Once he got into the SEC schedule, everything got faster,
bigger, stronger," says Crimson Tide coach Mark Gottfried. "He's
learning, like all freshmen." ...
An actual passage from the Florida State media notes before its
99-72 loss to Duke on Jan. 4: "Florida State is undefeated, 4-0,
when it outscores its opponents." Too bad the floundering
semi-'Noles are 0-11 when being outscored. Bewildered coach
Steve Robinson has performed the singular feat of making former
Florida State coach Pat Kennedy look like John Wooden.