Thursday January 15th, 2004

His team down by seven to Missouri with less than six minutes remaining, Curtis Stinson figured it was time to take care of business.

Three straight trips down the court he drove the lane and beat his man to the basket to cut the lead to one. With 55 seconds left and the deficit still one, he again drove, only this time his defender was cutting him off on the right, so he spun to the middle and hit the go-ahead shot one-handed. Finally, just for good measure, the 6-foot-2 guard rebounded a missed 3-pointer on the other end to help seal a 70-65 upset, finishing with 22 points and six boards.

Back at New York's famed Rucker Park, they've been watching Stinson perform such heroics for years. For the 8,565 spectators at Hilton Coliseum on Jan. 7, however, this was just the beginning.

Just months after their program appeared to be spiraling into chaos, Iowa State fans couldn't be more jacked about the future. The Cyclones -- picked to finish 10th in the Big 12 -- are 10-2, with wins over Xavier, Nebraska and Missouri, thanks in large part to a 20-year-old freshman who ranks among the conference's top 10 in points (15.2), assists (4.6) and steals (1.92) per game as well as the top 20 in rebounding (6.3).

A 20-year-old Bronx, N.Y., native who played the past two years at Massachusetts prep power Winchendon, Stinson spent endless summer hours on playground courts facing NBA stars like Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis and Al Harrington. It was there that he developed his flashy array of moves to the basket, including the patented spin through the lane on his game-winner against Missouri.

"When you have a little playground in you, people don't know what you're going to do sometime," said Stinson. "If you can score when you're getting beat up going in the lane [in playground], where they let a lot of things go, you can score in college."

Add to that exceptional court awareness and tireless defense (he earned the nickname "Blue Collar" in New York for his work ethic), and you have yourself a freshman who plays like a senior.

"In terms of his understanding of basketball, Curtis is a genius," said Iowa State coach Wayne Morgan. "He has the same ability Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had to see two, three plays ahead and where the ball needs to go. He sees all the possibilities right away that other kids might not see."

At this point, you may be wondering, "How come I'd never heard of him before now?"

Good question.

Stinson has had as big an impact on his team as any freshman in the country, but unlike most of the others -- Minnesota's Kris Humphries, Duke's Luol Deng, Connecticut's Charlie Villanueva, etc. -- he was no McDonald's All-America. In fact, he barely cracked the national recruiting rankings.

So how did he and freshman backcourt mate Will Blalock -- who played at Massachusetts prep schools 25 miles apart -- end up in Ames, Iowa? Especially in the wake of last spring's Larry Eustachy debacle?

Call it a case of fortuitous timing.

About 10 months before the scandal that led to his ouster, Eustachy hired Morgan, the former Long Beach State head coach, as his assistant. A Brooklyn native and longtime assistant to Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, Morgan sought out his East Coast connections in his quest for recruits.

It didn't take long to hear about Blalock, who had already drawn the attention of Connecticut and Pittsburgh. But it was a coach he didn't know, Winchendon's Mike Byrnes, who approached him about Stinson, who had yet to attract the attention of major colleges.

About the same time Morgan began his courtship that summer, Stinson exploded, earning MVP honors at the high-profile adidas AAU tournament in Las Vegas. Coaches started to take notice, but Stinson remained loyal to the Cyclones, committing that fall without even visiting the campus.

"A lot of people didn't have faith in me and didn't think I could play at a high [level] college]," said Stinson. "Coach Morgan had faith in me from the beginning; he told me I could play in the Big 12. Because he stood by me, I wasn't thinking about going anywhere else."

That loyalty would pay dividends for both player and coach the following May when Eustachy, the man who once drove 22 hours from Ames to visit Stinson, was ousted. Over the next two weeks, several candidates -- Chattanooga's Jeff Lebo, Creighton's Dana Altman, Wyoming's Steve McClain -- were approached about the job, but they may have been scared off when Stinson and Blalock, as well as several returning players, hinted they'd look elsewhere if Morgan didn't get the job.

He did, and the rest is history. A team that many expected to fall flat on its face is instead inspiring talk of its first NCAA berth in three years. Veterans Jake Sullivan, Jared Homan and Jackson Vroman are all key components, but Stinson and Blalock (4.5 assists per game, fifth in the Big 12), have been, as Stinson puts it, "the missing piece of the puzzle" for Morgan's up-tempo system.

"They give us one of the finest backcourts in the country," said Morgan, "and maybe one day the finest to play at Iowa State."

For the coach of a 7-7 team, the last week couldn't have gone much better for Northwestern's Bill Carmody.

Last Saturday, the Wildcats earned their first win at Iowa since 1994, and they followed it up Wednesday with a rare upset of in-state rival Illinois. But the biggest coup for Carmody's program in recent days was landing 6-10, 245-pound Duke transfer Michael Thompson, a former McDonald's All-America from nearby Joliet, Ill., and the program's highest-profile recruit in decades.

"There's a nice buzz around here," said Carmody.

Since coming to Northwestern from Princeton in 2000, Carmody had struggled to make in-roads recruiting locally and had even more trouble attracting a true center to play in his perimeter-oriented offense. He's hoping the addition of Thompson, who will join St. John's transfer Tim Doyle and three other signees when he becomes eligible in December, will be a shot in the arm for the long-suffering program, which has already accumulated more Big Ten wins under Carmody (15) than in any four-year stretch since 1984.

"I like to press all game, but we haven't been able to because it wears you out," said Carmody. "Next year, with a little depth, we should be able to run up and down the floor. [Point guard] T.J. Parker, he's a little blur, but you have to have someone to throw to. Mike gets up and down the court, and when he gets around the basket, he can score."

Former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett's first season at Washington State has already been a roller coaster.

A 46-29 loss to Fresno State in late December raised more than a few eyebrows across the country, and the Cougars followed that up with a 38-point loss to Gonzaga. A week later, however, they won 55-51 at Cal and followed it up with a wildly successful homestand last weekend against the L.A. schools, routing USC 76-61 and coming within three of resurgent UCLA, 48-45.

At 8-6, long-dormant Wazzu has already eclipsed last season's win total and is off to its best start since 1996-97. As is Bennett's trademark, the Cougars are doing it on the defensive end, leading the Pac-10 in scoring defense at 56.7 points per game one year after finishing last in that department at 78.8.

"Sometimes you have to be empty," Bennett told the Spokane Spokesman-Review. "That is one thing I have truly learned in all the rebuilding projects. At some point, you have got to take a punch to the gut that just empties all the arrogance or pride or false hopes, and then you realize we better face up to who we are."

With a 74-71 win over Notre Dame on Monday, Pittsburgh improved to 17-0 under first-year coach Jamie Dixon and won its 36th straight home game, but the biggest test of its season looms next week when the Panthers play consecutive road games at No. 1 Connecticut and defending national champ Syracuse. ... In his third season at Penn State, 7-footer Jan Jagla has blossomed into an offensive star. He averaged 20 points in wins over Minnesota and Ohio State last week, lifting the Nittany Lions to their first 2-0 Big Ten start in eight years. ... After a promising 10-0 start and ACC-opening win over Maryland, talented but young Florida State has fallen flat, averaging just 50.5 points in consecutive losses to N.C. State and Clemson. ... A year after Central Michigan took the MAC by storm behind eventual lottery pick Chris Kaman, Western Michigan star Ben Reed (20.1 points per game) has lifted the upstart Broncos to an 11-1 start. ... Be careful how you take out your frustrations on the court. Standout Oregon freshman Aaron Brooks is out 6-8 weeks after fracturing a bone in his wrist when he punched the basket support during a loss to UCLA on Jan. 4.

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