When Tyrone Branyan graduated from high school four years ago, he was all but ignored by the country's major-college recruiters. When Rudy Woods graduated last spring, he was all but surrounded. Yet last week these two very different players had one very similar distinction. Branyan's Texas Long-horns and Woods' Texas A&M Aggies were tied for the Southwest Conference lead, and they were the most important reasons why.
Another pretty big reason was Sidney Moncrief, whose 23 points led Arkansas to a 68-58 upset at Texas last Thursday night. That loss dropped the Longhorns into a tie with the Aggies and lifted the Razorbacks to within 1½ games of the top. The race remained that way on Saturday when Texas defeated TCU 73-60, A&M beat Houston 66-58, and Arkansas steamed Rice 68-50.
Texas lost just when the Longhorns, who had won eight straight games after a shaky start, appeared ready to stampede the rest of the league. Instead, they have now learned a lesson that most other conference favorites had already painfully absorbed in this most topsy-turvy season—it ain't going to be easy. Or, maybe, it just ain't going to be. With its three-team race, the Southwest Conference joins the SEC, the Pac 10, the Big Eight and the Big Ten as leagues in which the preseason favorite has no clear advantage or has disappeared from sight. Among the biggest basketball conferences, only the ACC, in which Duke is more comfortably in control than its half-game lead might indicate, and the Metro, in which Louisville is enjoying a runaway, are holding true to form.
At least the Longhorns are tied for first, which is more than Michigan State (which was supposed to be a cinch to repeat as Big Ten champ), or Kansas (the heavy preseason choice in the Big Eight), can say. And Texas can thank Branyan for its semi-lofty status. The 6'7" senior forward does not run fast or jump high or shoot in the accepted manner, and he is so unassuming that he says he cannot imagine starting for any of the nation's other top teams. Nevertheless, he is averaging 18.2 points and 7.4 rebounds and has been the only consistent performer during Texas' 16-5 season.
Woods, a talkative 6'11" freshman center, has all the physical attributes a good player could ever need and most of the confidence, too. He flat out maintains that nobody can stop him man-to-man. Though he got off to a disappointing start this season, Woods is playing superb defense and averaging 15 points and 9.2 rebounds for the 20-4 Aggies.
Although the two players may be off in their self-appraisals, Branyan's modesty and Wood's brashness accurately reflect their differing personalities. Branyan plays a lot better than he looks, and Woods does not play as well as he eventually will. But there is no denying the significant contribution each has made to his team's 9-2 conference record.
Last year, when Texas tied for the SWC title and won the NIT, Branyan played a supporting role of almost comic relief. This season, while the heroes of a year ago faltered, he all but carried the team through a shaky December and was the dominant force in impressive January blowouts of USC and A&M.
Without Woods to fill the middle, the Aggies struggled to a 12-15 record last season, their worst in seven years. Now that they have already won 20 games, Woods says, "I was the missing piece we needed. When I got here there was a lot of pressure on me to put the team where it is now."
Branyan and Woods arrived in the Southwest Conference by decidedly diverse routes. Texas Coach Abe Lemons took Branyan without ever having seen him play, which may have been to Lemons' advantage. A&M Coach Shelby Metcalf had known Woods for years. Metcalfs wife Janis taught Rudy's siblings in junior high school, and Woods would occasionally hang around the Aggie gym as a kid. In fact, his high school is so close to the A&M campus that Metcalf can see it from the window of his eighth-floor office.
Lemons probably would never have seen—or even heard of—Branyan had it not been for George Brewer, a friend of Tyrone's father and a former football teammate of Texas Athletic Director Darrell Royal. When Branyan was a sophomore at Cypress Junior College in California, Brewer wrote Royal about him, and Royal passed the letter on to Lemons. Abe had never heard of Branyan, but the letter sounded so interesting he sought out a more detailed evaluation from Tyrone's junior-college coach. Lemons liked the coach's report enough that he decided to give Branyan a scholarship sight unseen. Only then did he dispatch Assistant Coach Barry Dowd to check him out.
After watching Branyan play in a junior-college tournament, Dowd called Lemons and said, "Picture a guy who can't jump, can't run and shoots funny. Now picture him with 24 points, 17 rebounds and the Most Valuable Player trophy in the championship game."
Lemons was overjoyed—until he actually saw Branyan himself the next fall. As is his custom, Branyan was in poor shape when he showed up for preseason workouts, and he was anything but impressive on the practice floor. When he got a chance to play, Lemons says, "People were aghast." However, by the second conference game Branyan was a starter, and he finished the year with respectable averages of 12.8 points and 5.7 rebounds. "If Tyrone could jump up and spin around twice and then score," says Lemons, "everybody would ooh and aah. But he isn't that kind of player. He's exceeded my expectations by about a million."
The oddest thing about Branyan is the way he shoots his jump shot—off his chest. The best thing about him is the way his teams always win. He led El Dorado High in Placentia, Calif. to two CIF Southern Section titles, and he paced Cypress to the state junior-college championship. With all of this in his favor, he was not completely overlooked by recruiters. Cal State-Fullerton wanted him, and several black colleges contacted him, apparently because his name seems so, well, soulful.
Unlike Branyan, Woods received letters from just about every school. No wonder. He was good enough to win the MVP award in two of the biggest schoolboy all-star games, the McDonald's Capital Classic in Washington and the Big Brothers Classic in Houston. He was also on the gold-medal-winning South team at the National Sports Festival. He finally decided to stay home and be an Aggie, turning down, he claims, some eye-popping offers in the process. "I didn't want to feel owned," he says. "A few schools made it clear that if I came I would be 'taken care of,' but I didn't want that. That's not how I was brought up. I have goals and values that make me different."
It took a while for Woods to show what all the fuss had been about. When the Aggies knocked off Indiana, Las Vegas, USF and Kentucky in late November and December, they were led by sophomore forwards Vernon Smith and Rynn Wright. Woods didn't score in double figures in any of those games. But since the conference season began, he has emerged as the team's leading scorer and rebounder and a proficient shot blocker. "Early in the year he looked like a high school player," says teammate David Britton. "Now he's an intimidator."
Woods has the right attitude for that role; he considers the area around the basket as his private domain. When a Houston guard tried to penetrate all the way to the hoop last Saturday, Woods not only blocked the shot but he also wagged his finger at the intruder. "A guard is only supposed to do that if I'm not looking," he said. "He should give me more respect."
Respect is something Branyan has learned to live without. Instead of reveling in his success, he questions it, scoffing at the suggestion that he or his team is anything special. "It's hard for me to think we're as good as the top teams," he says. "I guess I still look up to those people, because I never thought I could play with them."
Whether he thinks so or not, it is clear that he can. He just needed more time than Woods did to prove it.