Horns of Plenty
Deep and relentless, Texas has emerged as a national title
Moments after snapping No. 9 Oklahoma State's 15-game winning
streak with a 78--65 victory last Saturday, Texas players stood
on the floor of the Frank Erwin Center, raised their right
pinkies and index fingers in the Hook 'em Horns salute and joined
most of the 14,804 in singing the school's alma mater, The Eyes
of Texas. That sort of postgame scene is familiar in Austin, but
there are a few new wrinkles this year. The fans are turning out
in droves, the Longhorns are playing entertaining, fast-paced
basketball (averaging 79.3 points a game through Sunday), and the
team has emerged as a national-championship contender. "I told my
teammates before the game that this place is usually laid-back,"
said Oklahoma State senior guard Victor Williams. "That wasn't
the case today. These people were amped."
For good reason. Had the Longhorns not lost 90--87 at Kansas
earlier in the week, the victory on Saturday would almost
certainly have catapulted them to No. 1 in the nation. As it is,
though, the Longhorns improved their record to 14--3 (5--1 in the
Big 12) and maintained their No. 3 ranking in the AP poll. Texas
has now been in the Top 10 every week this season, which is
stunning for a program that had previously spent just three weeks
there in its entire history.
All of which is raising hope that the Longhorns, who have no
seniors in their regular starting lineup and have never won a
national title in basketball, can make it to their first Final
Four since 1947. Asked last week if Texas had proved itself to be
championship caliber by taking Kansas down to the wire, sophomore
point guard T.J. Ford said, "We went there to win, not to prove a
point. The way I see it, we didn't get the job done."
The reliable Ford, who at week's end led the team in scoring
(14.8 points a game) and was seventh in the nation in assists
(7.1), is one of 10 Longhorns who average at least 13 minutes a
game, making Texas the only team in the country with as much
quality depth as No. 2 Arizona. Opposing defenses can't focus on
only one threat, as eight players have led the Longhorns in
scoring this season. Against Kansas, for instance, Ford scored 25
points, and 6'8" junior forward Brian Boddicker scored a
career-high 20; Royal Ivey, a 6'3" junior guard, went for 17
points, a season high, in the win over Oklahoma State.
Still, as Texas coach Rick Barnes points out, depth is worthless
if a team doesn't have good chemistry. "I can honestly say our
guys pull for each other," he says. "They all want to play, but
they also realize that if you don't have it one night, you have
to let someone else have a shot at it."
Most Marked Improvement
Going from Role Players to Stars
Last year Indiana forward Jeff Newton was a role player who gave
the Hoosiers a defensive lift when he came off the bench and
chipped in with 8.1 points a game on offense. This season,
however, the 6'9" senior had started every game for Indiana
through Sunday, and he was only one of two players in the Big Ten
to be ranked among the league leaders in scoring (13th, with 14.2
points a game), rebounding (first, with 9.1 a game) and blocks
(tied for sixth, with 1.4 a game). "I know he's the most improved
player in the Big Ten," Indiana coach Mike Davis says. "Jeffrey
has carried us at times this season. When he plays well, we play
Newton is not the only player who is dramatically better than he
was a year ago. Here are five other candidates for most improved
Torris Bright, LSU
For the last three years Bright, a senior point guard, has been
coach John Brady's favorite whipping boy. But this season
Bright has silenced Brady by taking much better care of the
ball. After having almost as many turnovers (123) as assists
(129) last season, Bright had 96 assists and just 41 turnovers
Matt Carroll, Notre Dame
The 6'6" senior guard has always been one of the Fighting
Irish's top shooters, but he has thrived this season as a focal
point of Notre Dame's offense. At week's end he was averaging
21.1 points per game (up from 14.1 last year) to lead the
Irish, and he had a career-high 36 (hitting 6 of 12 from
three-point range) in Notre Dame's 93--92 double-overtime win
over Georgetown last Saturday.
Arthur Johnson, Missouri
The 6'9" junior center has improved his scoring (16.5 points a
game, up from 12.2) and rebounding (9.6, from 7.9) while
showing a consistency that Tigers coach Quin Snyder attributes
to better conditioning. Says Snyder, "Instead of us demanding
that he be in shape, he's demanding it of himself."
Dahntay Jones, Duke
Jones, a 6'6" senior swingman who transferred from Rutgers in
2000, shot just 23.1% from three-point range last year, but
this season he had made 43.9% of his threes through Sunday
while leading the Blue Devils in scoring (16.7) and is tied for
the lead in rebounding (5.1).
Joe Shipp, Cal
In the past, Shipp was a prolific scorer around the basket but
couldn't beat you from the outside. This year the 6'5" senior
forward added a deadly jumper and was making 43.7% of his
three-point attempts, up from 35.2% as a junior. Shipp led the
Pac-10 in scoring, with 21.3 points per game, and he had made
59.0% of his field goal attempts in league play.
Hakim Warrick, Syracuse
A lanky 6'8" sophomore forward, Warrick benefited by playing on
a team of collegiate all-stars that toured Italy and Turkey
last summer, and he has emerged as a surprise complement to
freshman Carmelo Anthony. Through Sunday, Warrick had vastly
improved his scoring (16.4 a game, up from 6.1) and rebounding
(9.1, up from 4.8), and he had connected on 56.8% of his field
Read Hoop Thoughts by Seth Davis every week at
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Ford was one of Texas's four double-figure scorers in the win over Oklahoma State.
COLOR PHOTO: KEVIN RIVOLI/AP Improved conditioning has helped Missouri's Johnson become dominant in the post.
COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS LIVINGSTON/ICON SMI
1. Gene Keady is doing a masterly job at Purdue. The Boilermakers
were picked in the preseason to finish no higher than seventh in
the Big Ten, but thanks to the leadership of the 66-year-old
Keady and the stellar play of senior shooting guard Willie Deane
(17.8 points per game), the Boilermakers were in sole possession
of first place with a 6--1 record (14--4 overall) at week's end.
2. Don't underestimate Dayton (15--3). The Flyers' 75--70 win at
La Salle last Saturday left them as the only undefeated team in
the Atlantic 10, raising the stakes for their showdown at No. 20
Xavier on Saturday. Dayton also had an RPI of 22, thanks to a
tough nonconference schedule that has included games against
Duke, Marquette, Cincinnati and Villanova.
3. This season will probably be Larry Shyatt's last at Clemson.
The Tigers' fifth-year coach has been rumored to be on the
chopping block for the last two years, and Clemson was 1--6 in
conference play through Sunday, bringing Shyatt's career record
in the ACC to 16--55.
Baxter to the Rescue
South Florida's Jimmy Baxter scored his biggest victory by coming
to the aid of two victims of a serious car accident
Among the 4,215 fans on hand for South Florida's home game
against Alabama-Birmingham on Jan. 8 were Narcis Pavlov, a
Pinellas Park, Fla., hotel worker, and his 19-year-old son,
Ernesto. The Pavlovs had come to thank Jimmy Baxter, the Bulls'
6'5" junior swingman, who had pulled them from a car wreck on
Dec. 12. The postgame reunion was filmed by a CBS camera crew,
which had accompanied the Pavlovs to shoot footage for an
"American Hero" segment of The Early Show that aired on Jan. 23.
"It made me feel good to see them--especially alive," Baxter
says. "I'm just glad I could help."
Baxter was heading to St. Petersburg in a torrential downpour
when he saw the Pavlovs' 1988 Chevrolet Corsica hydroplane off
Interstate 275, flip over and land in a ditch. Baxter pulled
over, ran to their car and, seeing that they were trapped and
their car was filling with water and smoke, unsuccessfully tried
to kick in the rear window. Baxter then ran back to the highway
and flagged down a driver, who had a crowbar in his small truck.
It took Baxter three swings to bash in the Pavlovs' rear window,
and he pulled both men out just before the car filled with water.
For saving the Pavlovs, Baxter was given a commendation by the
Tampa city council. In November, Baxter had also chased away an
assailant who was choking a woman near Baxter's Tampa apartment.
On the court Baxter was second in scoring (15.2 points a game)
and assists (2.5) through Sunday for the Bulls, who were 10--8
(3--4 in Conference USA), but he has a brighter future as a high
jumper. (He is the reigning two-time Conference USA champ in the
event.) Baxter says he has not had any nightmares about what
happened on Dec. 12, but the incident had a profound impact on
him. At Baxter's behest his fiancee, Monica Thompson, calls him
every day after she drops off their daughter (Jadaja, six months)
at day care and arrives at her job as a fourth-grade teacher in
Tampa. "I know she has to fight a lot of bad traffic to get to
her school," Baxter says. "This has made me really cherish my
family and be thankful for what I have. You never know when your
time is going to come." --S.D.