Arkansas's 100-76 rout of Texas in the Southwest Conference tournament final, coupled with its regular-season title, confirmed Razorback coach Nolan Richardson's assessment that "there's no doubt left in anyone's mind who the best team in this conference is." Regrettably, the league's biggest winner also turned out to be its biggest whiner.
After Arkansas guard-forward Lenzie Howell was named the tournament's outstanding player, Richardson complained about Howell's being left off the all-conference team. And when it was announced late in the finale that the Razorbacks would begin NCAA postseason play in Indianapolis rather than in Dallas, their fans booed lustily. Said Richardson, "I'm terribly disappointed, and disappointed for our great fans."
Richardson ought to have concerned himself more with the behavior of his center, Mario Credit, who was thrown out of two tournament games for flagrant fouls. After Credit's ejection from the final, Richardson protested so vehemently that he was hit with a T and had to be restrained by his assistants.
Meanwhile, in the losing locker room, coach Tom Penders, who turned Texas from a 16-13 team in 1987-88 to a 24-8 club in this, his first, season, said he was "thrilled" because "to be in the NCAA tournament is a heckuva way to start a new era at Texas. Now we're going to go out and have fun."
Good idea, Coach. Here's hoping the Razorbacks adopt the same spirit.
Alabama beat Florida 72-60 in the Southeastern Conference tournament final in Knoxville, but Crimson Tide coach Wimp Sanderson will tell you that the title was really won in Tuscaloosa. That's where a midseason revival of fan support helped Alabama become the only SEC team to go unbeaten at home.
After the 1986-87 season, in which 'Bama went 28-5 and won the SEC in a walk, center Derrick McKey was ruled ineligible for having signed with agent Norby Walters. Without McKey, who became a first-round draft pick of the Seattle SuperSonics, the Tide was only 6-12 in SEC play last season, and fan interest dwindled. When the malaise carried over into this season—'Bama got off to an 0-2 league start—Sanderson went to work. "We have to find out how to turn the crowd on," he said. "Our people are knitting or playing checkers."
His solution was to make basketball fun again. For example, before the Tide's home game against Vanderbilt on Feb. 4, he endorsed a Wimp Sanderson Look-Alike Night in which Sanderson masks were handed out and hideous plaid jackets were de rigueur for all participants. Said Auburn coach Sonny Smith, "To look like Wimp, I think I'd either sit in a refrigerator for a week or go to a cemetery to get real depressed." When police confiscated a beach ball that students were batting around the stands during that same Vanderbilt game, Sanderson brought another ball to the next home game against LSU.
The change in the fans' attitude was amazing. The Crimson Tide averaged more than 14,000 for its nine conference home games in 15,043-seat Coleman Coliseum and sold out its last six home dates. And the team apparently found that response invigorating, especially after Sanderson put guard Alvin Lee in the starting lineup in late January. Lee gives Alabama a three-point threat who can keep defenses from jamming inside against 6'7" Michael Ansley and 6'8" David Benoit. Said an exhausted Sanderson after the SEC final, "Only those of you who have children and have seen them grow in the right direction since infancy can know what I'm feeling."
After what happened last week in Fort Worth, Odessa College forward Larry Johnson, the nation's best junior college player, probably can't wait to get to Nevada-Las Vegas next season. At least in Division I, the No. 2 team in the nation gets invited to the national tournament.
Four teams in the juco final Top 20 are from Texas, but the two regions in which they play are allowed to send only one team between them to the 16-team NJCAA tournament, which began this week in Hutchinson, Kans. That representative turned out to be fourth-ranked San Jacinto, which beat No. 2 Odessa 84-76 in a regional game in Fort Worth, mainly by holding the 6'7" Johnson to 16 points. Also eliminated in regional competition were 10th-ranked Jacksonville and 16th-ranked South Plains, the other Texas teams in the Top 20. They stayed at home while 13-14 Gogebic Community College of Ironwood, Mich., played in Hutchinson.
Johnson, who scored 32 points a game this year, will be replaced next season by 6'9" Kenny Miller, who as a freshman last season at Loyola of Chicago was the leading rebounder in Division I. After being declared academically ineligible for 1988-89, Miller turned up at Odessa, where he needs 24 credit hours to regain his eligibility.
THE PERFECT MIXER
An 89-73 blowout of Michigan in Ann Arbor on Saturday gave Illinois a 27-4 record and its most wins ever. The victory also certified a return to form by the Illini, who were 17-0 when junior guard Kendall Gill went down on Jan. 22 with a stress fracture in his left foot. Without Gill, Illinois was only 8-4, but since his return on March 8 the Illini have won two straight, to remain undefeated in games in which he played. After watching Gill score 19 points against the Wolverines. Illinois coach Lou Henson said, "He's good now, but not as good as he was. It's what he does for the other guys that's most important."
In the NCAAs, however, history, not chemistry, will be the most important subject for the Illini. They have never won a national championship, or even made the title game. They haven't been to the Final Four since 1952. And Henson, like Bill Frieder of Michigan, has been saddled with the reputation of being a terrific recruiter who can't win when it counts. In 13 NCAA tournament appearances, including six while he was at New Mexico State, Henson's only Final Four appearance came in 1970 with the Aggies.
Frieder, whose hot Wolverines were cooled off by the Illini, thinks Illinois may be good enough to overcome the past. "With the possible exception of the Indiana teams of the mid-1970s," he says, "this is the best Big Ten team I've seen in my 16 years at Michigan."