With a flashy guard leading a frenetic attack, Oregon has risen
to the top of the Pac-10
Oregon coach Ernie Kent knew Luke Ridnour was the perfect player
to run his high-octane offense the minute Ridnour arrived in
Eugene for his official visit as a high school senior three
years ago. "When he stepped off the airplane, he was carrying a
basketball," Kent says. "That's what I call a pure point guard.
I knew right then, he was a gem."
A McDonald's All-American at Blaine (Wash.) High, the 6'2",
165-pound Ridnour was arguably the most heralded recruit in
Oregon history, and he hasn't disappointed the Ducks. Last year
he became the first Oregon player to be named Pac-10 freshman of
the year. This season he's having an even greater impact,
leading the No. 13 Ducks--picked in the preseason to finish
sixth in the conference--into first place in the league with a
9-2 record (17-5 overall) after last week's home wins over UCLA
With plenty of offensive firepower (Oregon led the league in
scoring, with 85.5 points a game) and a balanced attack (all five
starters were averaging between 8.0 and 16.8 points), the Ducks
are one of the season's biggest surprises. Ridnour, confirming
Kent's initial assessment, is the player who makes them go on and
off the court. "He has elevated our team work ethic," says Kent.
"He even gets the other players to work out behind my back."
Midway through last season Ridnour rigged the back door to the
Ducks' locker room at McArthur Court with tape so it wouldn't
lock, making it possible for the players to get into the gym late
at night. Kent put the kibosh on that when he discovered it, but
he was pleased when the entire team spent last summer in Eugene,
where their days began with 8 a.m. workouts and often ended with
two-on-two games that lasted until 2 a.m. "When you have everyone
playing together all summer, you really bond," Ridnour says.
Through Sunday, all of Ridnour's offensive stats were better than
last season's--his scoring had jumped from 7.4 points a game to
14.7, his field goal accuracy from 33.9% to 48.0%--and he was
third in the Pac-10 in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.9 to 1)
despite playing at breakneck speed. "Coach likes us to make the
game fast, but he trusts us to make smart plays," Ridnour says.
Fast-break basketball begins with strong performances on the
glass, which Oregon gets from 6'8", 235-pound forward Robert
Johnson (7.7 rebounds a game) and 7'2", 300-pound Danish center
Chris Christoffersen (5.4). Strong finishers on the wings are
essential, too, and there the Ducks have a deadly tandem in 6'4"
senior Freddie Jones, their leading scorer, and 6'7" sophomore
guard Luke Jackson (15.2 ppg).
A significant home court advantage at raucous McArthur Court,
where Oregon was 13-0 through Sunday, has also helped propel the
Ducks atop the Pac-10, but can they stay there? Oregon last won
a league crown 57 years ago. As for the national title, that
drought has lasted even longer. The Ducks won the first NCAA
tournament, in 1939, and haven't been back to the Final Four
The Rankings Raise Eyebrows
The Pollgate scandal came to a merciful end last week when Utah
coach Rick Majerus confessed to having "voted" for Temple for
several weeks in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll despite the
Owls' woeful record (8-12 through Sunday). Majerus, who was
removed from the 31-man selection panel, admitted to delegating
the task to an assistant coach who obviously hadn't been doing
At least Majerus had an excuse. Many other coaches who vote in
the poll, not to mention the 72 sportswriters who select the AP's
Top 25, still have some explaining to do regarding some of their
voting patterns, which seem screwy in light of some conference
standings. To wit:
--Despite having been in sixth place in the Big 12 with a 4-5
record through Sunday, Oklahoma State (17-5 overall) is still
14th in the writers' poll and 12th in the coaches'. The Cowboys
had a worse league record than Texas (14-7 overall), Missouri
(16-6) and Texas Tech (16-4) when the votes were taken--all three
were 5-3--but Oklahoma State remains ahead of all three in the
--Virginia was in fifth place in the ACC (4-4 and 14-5 overall)
when the polls were taken, yet it is ranked 10th in the writers'
poll and eighth in the coaches'. That's ahead of 16-6 N.C. State
(which is unranked despite having beaten the Cavaliers in
Charlottesville) and 16-6 Wake Forest (No. 19 in the AP and No.
16 in the coaches'), which are third and fourth, respectively, in
the ACC standings.
--Illinois was tied for sixth place in the Big Ten (4-5), but the
Illini are 14th in the coaches' poll and 21st in the AP.
--Gonzaga (20-3 overall) has only defeated one Top 25 team and is
in second place in the West Coast Conference with a 7-1 record,
yet the Zags climbed to ninth in this week's AP poll and 10th in
the coaches' poll. Meanwhile, 15-6 Pepperdine is unranked in both
polls despite an 8-0 mark in WCC play and three wins over Top 25
teams, including a nine-point decision over Gonzaga on Jan. 18.
Then there's Hawaii, which is in first place in the WAC with a
10-1 record and at 19-3 is off to its best start in 30 years. Yet
the Rainbows remain unranked. In an attempt to rectify that,
coach Riley Wallace called several coaches and writers to lobby
for their support. "None of them knew how good our record was,"
Wallace says. "Our games usually start at 2:30 a.m Eastern Time,
so I said I would fax and e-mail them our scores. It's worth the
effort because, for us, getting ranked would be a big deal."
Tide Rises to Top of SEC
Alabama coach Mark Gottfried still has a chip on his shoulder
from the snub the Crimson Tide got from the NCAA tournament
selection committee last season, despite having spent 13 weeks
in the Top 25 and having finished the regular season with a
21-10 record. So with 'Bama ranked No. 5 in this week's poll and
in possession of the best record in the SEC (7-1 and 19-3
overall through Sunday), Gottfried was discussing whether the
Tide had assured itself a spot in this year's Big Dance. "If we
won the rest of our games, I wouldn't be convinced we'd be in,"
Gottfried was exaggerating, of course--if Alabama runs the table,
it would get an automatic bid for winning the SEC tournament--but
he hasn't forgotten the sting of being relegated to the NIT. Now
in his fourth year at his alma mater, Gottfried took his lumps by
starting three freshmen two years ago, but those players are
paying big dividends. Gottfried has also ended up relying largely
on home-grown talent. "When you win here, you feel like you're
doing something for your home state," says 6'8" junior guard Rod
Grizzard, the Crimson Tide's leading scorer (15.1 points a game),
who hails from Birmingham.
Two shortcomings the tournament committee saw in Alabama last
season were its weak schedule (which included Arkansas-Pine
Bluff, Grambling, Wofford and Alabama State) and dreadful record
on the road (2-7). The Crimson Tide has improved on both counts:
It has defeated strong nonconference opponents Memphis, Utah,
Temple and Notre Dame while suffering "good losses" to Missouri
and UCLA, and it was 3-1 on the road through Sunday, including
wins at Georgia and Kentucky.
Alabama's improvement is attributable in large part to its
improvement on defense. Much of the credit goes to first-year
assistant coach T.R. Dunn, who played for the Tide in the early
1970s and earned a reputation as one of the NBA's toughest
defenders during his 14-year pro career. He has brought that
attitude to 'Bama, which was ranked first in the SEC in
field-goal-percentage defense (39.0%).
As the Crimson Tide's top NBA prospect, Grizzard gets most of
the pub, but the most valuable Alabama player might be 6'8",
260-pound junior forward Erwin Dudley, who was first in the
conference in field goal percentage (.584) and second in
rebounding (8.8 a game). Having grown up on a farm near
Uniontown, Ala. (pop. 1,636), Dudley embodies Alabama's
hardworking approach. "I was raised to get the job done," he
The Tide is also getting major contributions from a couple of
out-of-staters. Freshman point guard Maurice Williams, a
Mississippian, was fourth in the SEC in assists (4.5 per game)
and has a fine complement in Tennessean Earnest Shelton, a
reserve freshman guard who was making 39.7% of his
Gottfried gets excited when talking about the Tide, and he's not
shy about articulating how far he hopes to go. "Other coaches
tell me I shouldn't say things about winning the national
championship because it gets expectations too high," he says.
"Hey, if you're afraid to play for the top prize, why play at
An Old Power Gets Recharged
Stanford Women Are Back
Stanford sophomore guard-forward Nicole Powell can't tell you
much about the Cardinal's NCAA title teams of 1990 and '92, but
she has vivid memories of watching Stanford on TV while it
progressed to the '97 Final Four. "That team was so much fun to
watch," says Powell, who grew up in Phoenix. "They played with so
much passion and intensity. That's why we all came here, to be
part of a team like that."
Final Four appearances were commonplace for Stanford and coach
Tara VanDerveer, but since losing to Old Dominion in the national
semis in 1997, it has suffered a string of devastating injuries
and early-round NCAA tournament exits, including a humbling
defeat to 16th-seeded Harvard in '98. As a result Stanford looked
to be drifting off the national radar screen.
This year, however, the Cardinal is showing its old colors.
After beating Cal in back-to-back games last week, Stanford was
22-1 and ranked second in the nation, its best start and highest
ranking since the 1996-97 season. Though it is again missing
Jamie Carey and Susan King, the two point guards who were
injured for most of last season, the Cardinal doesn't lack for
much else. It has size at every position (only two of its 12
active players stand less than 6 feet), is loaded with perimeter
shooters (its 40.9% three-point accuracy was tops in the Pac-10)
and can put the clamps down on defense (it was holding opponents
to 34.7% from the field, also best in the conference). "This is
probably the most versatile team I've had," says VanDerveer.
One example of that versatility is the play of the 6'2" Powell,
who played center in high school and earned last year's Pac-10
freshman of the year award while spending most of the season at
point guard, a position she had rarely played. Splitting time
among both guard and both forward spots this year, Powell was
averaging 14.9 points a game, second on the Cardinal behind
senior forward Lindsey Yamasaki (16.3), and was leading in
rebounds (10.0), assists (5.9) and, shall we say, emotional
conductivity. "Whenever Nicole gets excited about something, like
making a three-pointer, the whole team feels it, like a chain
reaction," says freshman guard Sebnem Kimyacioglu. "She raises
our intensity in so many ways."
Says Powell, "I've seen the level of passion and intensity it
takes to reach the Final Four. We're not there yet, but we're
For complete scores and stats, plus more from Seth Davis and
Grant Wahl, go to cnnsi.com/basketball/college.
COLOR PHOTO: ERIC EVANS Ridnour (13), the most heralded recruit in Oregon history, has been a leader on and off the court.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO The stellar efforts of Williams and Grizzard are two big reasons that Alabama is on top in the SEC.
Weekly Seed Report
With March not far off, SI's selection committee is back to pick
the top four seeds (with their records as of Sunday) in each
region as if the NCAA tournament were starting this week. Keep in
mind, though, that under new rules, the NCAA will try to place
the top seeds close to home in rounds 1 and 2. For example, our
fourth seed in the East, Gonzaga, could play two games in
Sacramento before advancing to Syracuse (the East's regional
site) if it wins both. Similarly, Oklahoma could be No. 1 in the
West and open in Dallas (170 miles from campus) before heading to
San Jose (1,370 miles away) for the West Regional if it advances.
It's all designed to cut down travel for the top four seeds and
1. Duke (20-1)
2. Florida (16-4)
3. Miami (19-3)
4. Gonzaga (20-3)
1. Kansas (19-2)
2. Cincinnati (20-2)
3. Ohio State (17-3)
4. Georgia (17-5)
1. Maryland (18-3)
2. Alabama (19-3)
3. Arizona (15-6)
4. Marquette (19-3)
1. Oklahoma (17-3)
2. Kentucky (15-5)
3. Oregon (17-5)
4. Virginia (14-5)
Player of the Week
JUNIOR, GUARD, RUTGERS
The week: Coleman made 7 of 12 three-point attempts en route to
scoring a career-high 27 points in the Scarlet Knights' 82-74 win
over No. 14 Syracuse last Saturday. Three days earlier Coleman
scored 26 points, including 14 of Rutgers' final 17, in a 61-53
victory over No. 17 Connecticut. Here's his dossier.
Major: Administration of Justice
Pregame ritual: I call my grandma Evelyn back home in Brooklyn.
Last movie seen (and rating): How High (three stars out of five)
Tattoo: An eagle holding a basketball, on my left shoulder, from
my days as a Seahawk at Cecil Community College in North East,
In the CD changer: Aaliyah, Michael Jackson, Donell Jones, R.
Favorite road trip readings: Vibe and Slam magazines
Favorite pastime: Playing pool at local Red Lion Cafe with
teammate and roommate Mike Sherrod
What would you do if not playing basketball? I hope to someday
run a restaurant or club.