Precocious freshman guards are making their points across the
Chris Thomas remembers the moment precisely. He was seven years
old and playing in the championship game of a youth league in
Indianapolis. With his team trailing by one point and only a few
seconds remaining, Thomas was fouled and awarded two free
throws. League rules permitted players to shoot from a kiddie
line a few feet inside the regulation stripe, but Thomas took
his attempts from the grown-ups' line. He drained both shots,
and his team won. "I wanted to prove I didn't need somebody to
give me an advantage because I was young," he says.
The same precociousness has been evident this season at Notre
Dame, where Thomas, now a freshman point guard, was second in
scoring for the 12-5 Irish with a 15.6-point average through
Sunday while quarterbacking the team with an assist-to-turnover
ratio of better than 3 to 1. As good as Thomas has been, he is
just one of many stellar freshman point guards, along with
Texas' T.J. Ford, Alabama's Maurice Williams, Marquette's Travis
Diener and Kansas' Aaron Miles, not to mention UCLA's 6'6"
Cedric Bozeman, who recently returned from missing seven games
with a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee and might be the
best of the bunch. West Virginia's Jonathan Hargett and
Louisville's Carlos Hurt got off to promising starts before
injuries sidelined them. "As a group, this year's crop of
freshman lead guards is as impressive as any I've seen in the
last 20 years," says recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons.
Like Thomas, who is the first Indiana Mr. Basketball to play for
Notre Dame and in his first game had the first triple double in
Irish history, Ford arrived on campus accompanied by prodigious
hype. That could have created jealousy among his teammates, but
it hasn't been a problem thanks to Ford's predilection for
sharing the ball. "I've had to tell him to shoot, and that's
something you rarely have to do with a freshman," Longhorns
coach Rick Barnes says of Ford, who was averaging only 9.3
points but was leading the nation in assists with 8.4 per game.
"I've never had a player like T.J. He's a true throwback."
Ford immediately earned the respect of his teammates and coaches
by exhibiting leadership and savvy well beyond his years. After
the Longhorns' first practice, on Oct. 13, during which Barnes
was riding redshirt freshman Jason Klotz, Ford playfully grabbed
his coach and told him, "You know you're going to have to give
Jason some love now, don't you?" A bit taken aback at first,
Barnes agreed and privately told Klotz that he was only trying
to make him a better player. The next day during the third hour
of a rigorous practice, Ford stopped during one drill, threw the
ball to Barnes and said, "That's it, we're done." Several
players seconded the notion, and Barnes agreed to call it a day.
The Crimson Tide's Williams (10.2 points per game) may be the
most gifted of this group, but he needs to improve his shooting
(38.4%) as well as his ball handling (53 turnovers to 88
assists). Still, with Alabama 16-3 and ranked 14th, Williams led
his classmates in the most important category, wins. Says Tide
coach Mark Gottfried, "He gives us a dimension we've lacked the
last couple of years."
As good as this year's class is, some observers think next
season's may be even better. "This group is very good, don't get
me wrong," says analyst Dave Telep, who runs
theinsidershoops.com recruiting network, "but everybody is
waiting to see the 2002 crop, with players like Raymond Felton
[who has committed to North Carolina], Daniel Horton [Michigan]
and Anthony Roberson [Florida]. About 20 programs got themselves
a really good point guard."
Big Ten Leader Ohio State
Nothing Flashy But the Results
While most coaches obsess over taking their team to "the next
level," Ohio State's Jim O'Brien is only trying to get his
Buckeyes to find a middle ground. "It's all about not doing
anything in excess," O'Brien says. "We'll take the highs, but we
don't want to put ourselves on an emotional roller coaster,
O'Brien's rallying cry--Let's get out there, men, and find that
even keel!--is hardly Lombardiesque, but it has been effective.
Last Saturday, Ohio State, which no prominent preseason
publication picked to finish higher than sixth in the Big Ten,
took sole possession of first place with a 73-67 win over
Indiana. The No. 20 Buckeyes, who are 14-2 overall and 5-0 in
league play, scored only eight fast-break points against the
Hoosiers, but they showed an impressive cohesiveness, which wins
games even if it doesn't make the evening highlight shows.
"Their offense is one of the toughest I've played against,"
Indiana senior guard Dane Fife said. "It's fluid, and all the
players know what they're doing." Adds O'Brien, "We don't have
marquee guys, but we have good chemistry and guys who play hard.
Sometimes that's enough."
It certainly is this season in the Big Ten, which is suffering
through such a down year that its nonconference winning
percentage of .644 is the league's lowest since 1981-82 (.574).
What's more, the conference has just two teams ranked in the Top
25. That, however, doesn't fully explain Ohio State's success,
nor do individual statistics. The Buckeyes didn't have anyone
selected to the all-conference team in the preseason, but they
work hard on defense and work well on offense: Through Sunday
they were second in the nation in field goal percentage (50.5%)
and were holding teams to 58.7 points a game. That's a tribute
to their three best players: 6'4" senior guard Brian Brown (who
averages 15.2 points), 6'5" senior guard Boban Savovic (12.1)
and 6'1" junior guard Brent Darby (11.1).
Brown, who scored a career-high 26 points against Indiana, best
reflects O'Brien's philosophy. O'Brien initially didn't want to
recruit Brown out of Bishop Loughlin High in Brooklyn, but he
became interested in him while visiting the home of Brown's high
school teammate Will Dudley, now a Buckeyes senior forward.
"Will's mother said Brian might be the nicest kid on their high
school team, and her son was sitting right there," says O'Brien,
who adds, "Brian is as consistent a human being as I've ever
been around. He always has a smile on his face. He does the same
things in practice all the time. He never does anything great,
but he never does anything bad."
Brown's tempered approach seems to be contagious. The Buckeyes
always sit in the same seats on the team bus and occupy the same
chairs while watching videotape. With the Big Ten's preseason
favorites--Illinois and Iowa--having their weak moments, Ohio
State could win its first outright regular-season Big Ten
championship since 1991-92. "A lot of people watch us and figure
it's no fun to play this way," Dudley says. "We may not be
flashy, but we think it's more fun to win."
Louisiana Tech's Rising Star
Ford Inspired by Famous Father
Louisiana Tech junior center Cheryl Ford loves it when her
father attends her games, but she wishes he'd keep quiet. "He
sits there and cheers for me the whole time," Ford says. "I try
to block it out and play." Ford's father happens to be Utah Jazz
star Karl Malone, and on Sunday the Mailman and 10 other members
of the Jazz sat courtside while Ford scored 13 points and
grabbed 11 rebounds to lead the No. 8 Lady Techsters to a 68-45
victory over SMU in Dallas.
Malone, who stayed in town an extra day after the Jazz had lost
to the Mavericks, admits to being 20-year-old Cheryl's toughest
critic but tries to keep his advice constructive: Don't rush
your free throws, avoid cheap fouls and, whatever you do, don't
date any of my teammates. After struggling in her first two
seasons, Ford, who, like Malone, wears number 32, through Sunday
was averaging 11.7 points and 7.9 rebounds while shooting 50.0%.
Before signing with Louisiana Tech, her dad's alma mater, Ford
was a three-time Class C All-State player for Summerfield (La.)
High. She and her twin brother, Daryl, a sophomore reserve guard
for Tech's men's team, were raised by their mother, Bonita Ford.
Malone fathered the twins when he was in his late teens, and
later he and Bonita Ford settled a paternity suit that she had
filed against him. Malone was estranged from the twins until
1998, when he set about trying to build a relationship with
Cheryl and Daryl.
Since then the twins have spent summers with Karl, his wife,
Kay, and their four children at the Malones' Utah house and at
their Arkansas ranch. Karl talks to Cheryl nearly every day and
tries to make it to a couple of her games each year. On Dec. 30
he chartered a plane to see the 6'3" Ford play at Fresno State.
"There were a lot of lost years for a lot of reasons," Malone
says of his relationship with the twins. "You wish you could
make up those years, but you can't, so you go on."
Says Cheryl, "I love my father to death, and I'm so glad I'm
finally getting to know him. I love it when he comes to my
games. I get butterflies knowing he's in the stands."
Teams Have Iowa Figured Out
The word is out on Iowa: Focus almost exclusively on guarding
Reggie Evans and Luke Recker because, as one Big Ten coach said
last week, "I don't think their [other players] are going to
beat you." The Hawkeyes' three other starters averaged 15.6
points and 7.7 rebounds during Iowa's current three-game losing
streak, which includes a 63-50 spanking by perennial league
doormat Northwestern last Saturday. Iowa was ranked as high as
No. 9 three weeks ago but fell out of the rankings after
Saturday's loss and dropped to 2-4 in the Big Ten (13-7
overall).... The race is far from over, but at the moment
Georgia's Jim Harrick is the favorite for national coach of the
year. Despite the suspension of starting center Steve Thomas
(and reserve guard Tony Cole) pending the results of a rape
investigation, the Bulldogs have won at Kentucky and at Florida
to improve to 4-1 in the SEC (15-3 overall). Adding insult to
injury, Georgia's win over Florida was sealed by four late free
throws from football walk-on Fred Gibson, who last year reneged
on an oral commitment to play football for Florida because Billy
Donovan wasn't enthused about his coming out for
basketball....Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, for one, is happy
that he doesn't have to see Providence's 5'9" senior guard John
Linehan, who is second in the nation in steals with 3.8 per
game, much longer. "I'm going to come to John Linehan's
graduation," said Calhoun last week after UConn's 69-62 victory
over Providence in which Linehan scored 14 points and had six
steals. "I'll give him a limo. He's the biggest pain in the rear
I've ever played against. We played against Alonzo Mourning and
other people, but he's just terrific. You wouldn't think a guy
5'9" could change a game, but he does. He's really almost a
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Williams (25), Ford (11) and Thomas (1) may be young, but they've made an immediate impact.
COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS CARSON/U. OF TEXAS SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: JOE RAYMOND/AP [See caption above]
Player of the Week
JUNIOR, FORWARD, ARIZONA
The week: Walton had the sixth triple double in Wildcats'
history, with 27 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists in a 97-80
victory over No. 18 USC last Thursday, and then scored 14 of his
18 points in the second half of Arizona's 96-86 comeback win
over No. 9 UCLA last Saturday. Here's his dossier.
Major: Family studies and human development
Pregame ritual: For home games [teammate] Jason Gardner gives me
a ride to the arena in his car, and I force him to listen to
classic rock. When we get there, he forces me to listen to rap.
Last movie seen (and rating): Impostor, one star. That's
First phone call after a game: Almost always, I get a
trash-talking call from [Nets forward and former teammate]
Favorite TV show: The Sopranos
Tattoo: Four dancing skeletons, representing me and my three
brothers, spinning basketballs.
Best player ever guarded: Michael Jordan, in a camp last summer.
He's not bad.
In the CD changer: America: A Tribute to Heroes and Bob Dylan