With league play getting under way, here's a look at what has
been learned so far
January marks the start of league play in college basketball,
which means the power-conference schools can no longer amass
gaudy records by feasting on patsies. So before the pretenders
get separated from the contenders, here's a primer on what has
been learned during the first two months of the season.
--Surprise team: Thanks largely to unexpected contributions from
two junior college transfers, 6'10" sophomore Jabahri Brown and
6'5" junior Ebi Ere, No. 10 Oklahoma (10-1 through last
Wednesday) has its highest ranking in coach Kelvin Sampson's
eight years at the controls. Arizona (9-3), Cincinnati (12-1)
and Georgia (11-2) also fared surprisingly well against quality
--Biggest disappointment: Saint Joseph's began the season ranked
No. 10, but the Hawks had a 6-4 record, including losses to
Eastern Washington and Georgia State. The Hawks are learning how
small the difference can be between winning and losing: Last
season they were 7-5 in games decided by five or fewer points.
This season they're 0-3. A rap on the knuckles is also in order
for North Carolina (5-5), Temple (3-8) and Tennessee (5-6).
--Has the most to prove: Virginia (9-0), which last season went
undefeated through a weak preconference schedule, only to go 9-7
in the ACC and bow out in the first round of the NCAA
tournament. After another unblemished start that includes only
one quality win, at Georgetown, there's plenty of doubt that the
Cavaliers are worthy of their No. 4 ranking.
--Best freshman: With all due props to Jonathan Hargett (West
Virginia), Chris Thomas (Notre Dame), Dwyane Wade (Marquette)
and Dajuan Wagner (Memphis), the best newcomer has been Jason
Conley, a 6'5" swingman at VMI. After redshirting last season,
Conley was first in the nation in scoring, with 28.5 points a
game, and was averaging 6.8 rebounds and 3.3 steals for the 5-6
Keydets. He had his biggest game--38 points--against one of
VMI's toughest opponents, Villanova.
--Most valuable player: Boston College's Troy Bell, Kentucky's
Tayshaun Prince and Duke's Jason Williams will get the most
consideration for national player of the year, but no one has
been more integral to his team's success than Xavier forward
David West. The 6'9" junior was ranked in the top five of the
Atlantic 10 in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage and
blocks, and he led the 8-3 Musketeers in steals and was second
on the team in assists. West's value was most evident against
Cincinnati on Dec. 14, when a sprained right ankle limited him
to 23 minutes and Xavier lost by 20 points.
--Most underappreciated coach: Syracuse's Jim Boeheim could have
won this award in each of the last 10 years, but his value was
magnified last month when the Orangemen went 1-2 while he was
recovering from prostate surgery. Syracuse was 11-0 with Boeheim
on the bench.
--Biggest upset: There are certainly plenty to choose
from--Western Kentucky over Kentucky, Ball State over Kansas,
Northern Iowa over Iowa, BYU over Stanford. Even more stunning,
if less celebrated, was a 70-67 victory by Belmont Abbey, a
Division II school, at the College of Charleston on Dec. 8.
Coming into the game, the Cougars (10-2) had won 22 straight at
home, the nation's fifth-longest streak.
Butler's Hot Start
The Best Team In Indiana
After Indiana tied the score with 17 seconds remaining in the
Dec. 29 championship game of the Hoosier Classic in
Indianapolis, Butler senior point guard Thomas Jackson looked
over to the Bulldogs' bench to see if coach Todd Lickliter
wanted him to call timeout. Lickliter didn't. Instead, he
signaled for a play and let his players decide the outcome for
themselves. "Trust and respect are earned over time," says
Lickliter, 46. "I believe in these guys. They've earned that."
Lickliter's faith was rewarded in exhilarating fashion. Butler
pushed ahead 66-64 with 3.4 seconds to play on 6'10" junior Joel
Cornette's putback dunk of Jackson's miss. Rather than
celebrating, the Bulldogs immediately applied full-court
pressure on Hoosiers point guard Tom Coverdale, forcing him into
a turnover. Thus did Butler hand Indiana its first loss in the
20-year history of the Hoosier Classic; improve its record to
13-0; complete a sweep of intrastate rivals Ball State,
Evansville, Indiana State and Purdue; and jump to No. 20 in the
AP's Top 25. (Butler's appearance in the poll might be brief,
however; the Bulldogs waited 52 years to get back in the Top 25
but could drop out after losing to Wright State 90-87 in double
OT last Wednesday.)
Operating under their third coach in three years, the Bulldogs
have every reason to be in disarray, but after making their
fourth NCAA tournament appearance in five years last March, they
got off to their best start ever. Last spring, when coach Thad
Matta took the Xavier job only one year after his predecessor,
Barry Collier, had been hired by Nebraska, the Butler players
importuned athletic director John Parry to give the job to
Lickliter, who was in his third stint as an assistant at his
alma mater. That Collier and Matta also were Butler graduates,
as is current assistant Mike Marshall, has helped the program
maintain its footing despite the shake-ups. "Normally when you
have coaching changes, a lot of guys transfer, but the
transitions here have been seamless," Cornette says.
Six of the Bulldogs' top seven players are juniors or seniors,
and what they lack in speed and size they make up for with guile
and grit. Although Butler was being outrebounded by 2.0 per
game, it was ninth in the nation in scoring defense (58.5 points
per game) and had committed an average of 8.4 fewer turnovers
per game than its opponents. Key to this consistency has been
the play of Jackson, who's only 5'9" but was averaging 14.2
points and 4.5 assists.
Lickliter, who attended many Butler games while growing up in
Indianapolis, fully understands the challenges his team faces.
He also has faith in his players' ability to overcome them. "We
know the hand we've been dealt, and we're not complaining one
bit," Lickliter says. "We like who we are."
Boston College's Ryan Sidney
Quiet (for a Change) Scorer
Ryan Sidney's Boston College teammates have long wondered what
it would take to get the motormouthed guard to zip his lip. Now
they know: a jaw that's wired shut. Sidney suffered two jaw
fractures after colliding with teammate Brian Ross in a Dec. 6
practice. While Sidney, a 6'2" sophomore, was finally shut up,
his game wasn't shut down: Two days after the injury he had 10
points and 10 rebounds against Massachusetts. Sidney also
refused to relinquish his role as team cheerleader. After a 25-6
Minutemen run cut the Eagles' lead to 59-54 with six minutes
left, there he was, furiously waving his hands to pump up the
crowd. The fans responded, as did BC, which went on to clinch an
Through Wednesday, Boston College was 12-1 and ranked No. 11 in
the nation, and coach Al Skinner gives Sidney much of the
credit. "By playing with so much pain, Ryan is showing everyone
else that this is the kind of toughness we'll need to be
successful," says Skinner.
Last season Sidney was an indispensable sixth man on a
surprising 27-5 team that finished first in its division of the
Big East before also winning the conference tournament. He was
tied for fifth in the conference in steals (2.12 per game) while
averaging 9.4 points and 4.7 rebounds. Now a starter, Sidney has
improved in just about every category, despite having lost some
20 pounds while subsisting on liquids for close to two weeks. He
led the Eagles in rebounding (8.1 per game) and assists (4.5),
and was second in scoring average (15.3 points).
A fully recovered Sidney playing alongside junior guard Troy
Bell, who was pouring in 23.2 points a game, could give the
Eagles the nation's finest backcourt outside of Durham, N.C. "I
expected to see much more double-teaming this year," says Bell,
whose scoring average has increased from last year's 20.4.
"Because Ryan's been playing so well, teams aren't able to focus
on me, and that's been great."
Airplane Hero Kwame James
Big Rebounder Gets an Assist
Kwame James rarely got the star treatment when he played for
Evansville from 1996-97 to 1999-2000, but he prided himself on
being a team player. A three-year starter at center, he never
scored more than 9.4 points per game for a season, but he was a
dogged rebounder and frequently had to guard bigger opponents in
the post. "Most coaches like to have a player who doesn't mind
doing the dirty work," James says. "I knew my role, and I did
whatever I had to do to help the team."
On Dec. 22 James again displayed his dedication to teamwork and
this time became a hero because of it. As a passenger on
American Airlines Flight 63, which was en route from Paris to
Miami, James helped subdue a man, later identified as Richard C.
Reid, who had tried to ignite an explosive device in his
sneaker. James, who was asleep when a scuffle broke out between
the man and other passengers, joined the fracas at the request
of a flight attendant who, much like a college coach on a
recruiting trip, was in dire need of a big body.
"Everything was happening so fast, I was more surprised than
scared," James says. "Later, when I was sitting with Reid and
kind of guarding him, I could see the fighter jets flying
alongside our plane. That put into perspective that this was an
episode in the new era we live in."
With Reid safely restrained and sedated by two doctors on the
flight, the Boeing 767 landed a couple hours later at Boston's
Logan International Airport, where James was swarmed by the
media, and law-enforcement officials questioned him for more
than two hours. The next day James flew to Miami, where he hoped
to catch a flight to his native Trinidad. He was delayed for
another day making appearances on Good Morning America and the
Today show but finally made it home on Christmas Eve.
After spending most of his early life in Trinidad, James moved
to the U.S. in 1994 when he was a junior in high school, in
hopes of earning a college scholarship. He lived with an aunt in
Indianapolis for two years and eventually signed with
Evansville. In 1999 he helped the Purple Aces earn an NCAA
tournament bid. After spending one season playing professionally
in Argentina, late last year he moved to Paris, where he plays
for AS Bondy 93 in France's B league.
Now that he's enjoying his first visit home in more than two
years he may try to hook on with a U.S. minor league team. "I
love being around my family, but it's been hectic," James says.
"I'm a humble person, and I don't like taking credit for being a
hero. It was a team effort up there."
COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II Jameer Nelson had nowhere to go in a New Year's Eve loss to Gonzaga that confirmed Saint Joe's as a big first-half disappointment.
COLOR PHOTO: RON HOSKINS Brandon Miller scored 13 points as Butler served up an upset to Indiana in the Hoosier Classic.
Here's how the top leagues performed in the preconference season
and our assessment of which ones distinguished themselves--and
which didn't. We took into account schedule strengths, results,
good wins, bad losses and top-to-bottom parity (all stats
through last Tuesday), and ranked the conferences as follows.
W-L vs. Number of teams Avg. strength of
Conference Record* Top 25* in Top 25 [t] schedule rank
1. Pac-10 65-25 7-4 4 79
Surprisingly strong showings from likes of Arizona and Oregon
have pushed league to the top. Six NCAA tournament bids possible.
2. Big 12 94-37 6-7 4 128
Though ranked only No. 5 in conference RPI, has five powerhouses
plus some intriguing sleepers for best top-to-bottom strength.
3. ACC 70-25 10-6 5 100
Once had unparalleled top-to-bottom parity, but chasm between
haves and have-nots is now deep. Still, three teams are in
nation's top eight.
4. SEC 109-32 6-11 3 103
No other league outpaces SEC in up-and-down excitement, but it
went 0-7 in November and December against teams in Top 10.
5. Big Ten 80-47 7-17 4 71
Embarrassing losses and downturns by customary powers Indiana
and Michigan State leave the league at its lowest point in years.
6. Big East 121-37 3-10 4 166
Year after year no league puts together more wienie schedules
than Big East. League's highest-ranked team (No. 11 BC) yet to
play Top 25 foe.
7. Conference USA
102-53 2-14 3 131
Cincinnati and Marquette have been surprises, but it is still
mystifying that this league gets major-conference status.
8. MAC 55-63 3-7 1 148
In beating Kansas and UCLA, Ball State proved MAC can compete
with anyone, but perennial parity makes it hard for league to
get multiple NCAA bids.
9. Atlantic 10
72-59 0-11 2 74
Four of nation's top nine scorers play here, but with Temple,
UMass and Saint Joseph's struggling, there hasn't been much else
*Division I nonconference opponents only
[t]At any point this season
Player of the Week
SENIOR, GUARD, ST. BONAVENTURE
The week: Bremer had 33 points, eight rebounds and three assists
to help the Bonnies (8-3) beat Connecticut 88-70 on Dec. 28, and
then scored 32 points in a 93-82 OT loss at Kent State on Dec.
31. Here's his dossier.
Nonacademic book now reading: The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Currently in the CD changer: Jay-Z's The Blueprint, Juvenile's
Last movie seen (and rating): Ali (4 stars on a scale of 1 to 5)
Pregame ritual: "A shower, after which I put Vaseline on my
Favorite late-night TV show: Martin reruns
Video game most addicted to: Madden NFL 2002 for PlayStation 2
First phone call after a game: Mom in Cleveland