So now it's back to games against St. Leo, Radford, Drexel, Campbell and the "directional schools," as North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano calls them. You know, all those Southmidcentrals that flit like gnats across the early-season schedules of our favorite overhyped basketball cartel, uh, conference, sometimes known as the A BigCCEast.
"Back to reality" is how the return to easy wins was described by Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, who, like many of his coaching peers, had to be dragged kicking and screaming into last week's four-night merry-go-round ACC-Big East Challenge—thank goodness, there was no title sponsor (yet) to unload more money on the competing schools and waste more valuable space on this page.
Boeheim should know from reality. His Orangemen, No. 1-ranked nationally at week's end, would close out the month with those veritable juggernauts, Canisius, Marathon Oil, Towson State, C.W. Post and Lafayette. And isn't that far more wonderful than having to coax your young men into battling dynamic Duke, as Boeheim had to do in Syracuse's Challenge appearance, at the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum? And it's certainly a lot easier than having to make two free throws with three seconds left to win one of the true games-of-the-decade 78-76 and save your ranking. Naturally, Boeheim hated it. But the players? "This is the kind of game you work for and dream about," said Billy Owens of Syracuse, maybe the best player of them all.
If the inaugural Challenge proved anything besides the maxim that coaches should never be granted even the slightest credibility—"We can't learn nothin' from this kind of damn game," Georgetown's John Thompson said after learning, in the series's other showcase game, a 93-81 dismantling of North Carolina at the Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., that his Hoyas have a backcourt to go along with their usual panic-inducing inside attack—it was this:
•The ACC can't hold a lead. The conference from the South won the first game in three of the four doubleheaders only to stumble in the nightcaps. The Big East is weak in the middle; its top two seeds—Georgetown and Syracuse—and its bottom two seeds grabbed W's, but it lost the "tweener" games. (The seeding in the two leagues was decided before the season began by a vote of their respective coaches. In the Challenge the ACC's No. 1 played the Big East's No. 1, and so on.) So the Challenge resulted in nothing more than a 4-4 tie. Sort of like kissing your brother. Or P.J. Carlesimo.
•You can't believe what you read in the newspapers. Seton Hall's bachelor coach Carlesimo will not—repeat not—shave off his whiskers "to help my dating," as was reported by the Associated Press. Carlesimo sarcastically confirmed the rumor during a conference call that included Newsday's Sandy Keenan. Vengeance was hers, however, when Carlesimo playfully attempted to snuggle Keenan following the Hall's 76-74 overtime win over Wake Forest in Greensboro. "I don't kiss guys with beards," she said, dropping P.J. for a 10-count.
•Kids say the most confounded, if not the humblest, things. "Adjustment? What adjustment?" snapped Georgia Tech's precocious freshman point guard Kenny (Chibs) Anderson, upon being asked what he'd had to do to acclimate himself and his game to college ball. Anderson, who had 20 points, eight rebounds and five assists before fouling out in Tech's thrilling 93-92 victory over Pittsburgh in the Challenge opener at the Hartford Civic Center, added, "Now, I'm just changing my role. Even Michael Jordan has room for improvement."
•Valvano is cracking funny as ever—even while awaiting sanctions from an NCAA investigation that revealed improprieties at N.C. State. And he's coaching a lot harder. The V-man rarely quit barking during his team's laborious 67-58 victory over St. John's in Greensboro, in which three Italian-American Wolfpackers were among his starters. "I got more Italians on my team than Danny Ferry does," said Valvano.
•Stereotypes die hard. Duke, though it's from the allegedly fragile ACC, plays as tough and physical as any macho-monger could hope for. And from the supposed tower-of-power Big East, Villanova's 7'3", 240-pound center Tom Greis brings new meaning to the word finesse. "There's not much difference in the two conferences," says Gary Williams, the first-year Maryland coach. "Styles develop because of coaches, not schools or leagues. We all get our players from the same talent pool."
Well, Maryland better get back into the pool. Connecticut swamped the Terps 87-65 in Hartford in the Challenge's only blowout.
•North is South, South is North, and the twain have long since collided. Providence Coach Rick Barnes is from Hickory, N.C. He had 43 relatives drive over to Greensboro to cheer for the Friars against Clemson. A band from nearby North Carolina A&T was provided tickets and T-shirts by Providence in exchange for playing the Friars' fight songs throughout their 72-71 defeat. Duke's Christian Laettner is from the Buffalo suburb of Angola, a Syracuse stronghold.
And John Crotty, a 6'1" guard out of Spring Lake, N.J.—this gets confusing; pay attention—whose father played at North Carolina and whose uncle played at Georgetown, plays for Virginia. He lit up the Meadowlands with 25 points and eight assists as the Cavs beat Villanova 73-65. "I had a couple hundred people here—ticketwise," Crotty said.
•Though the Challenge wound up all even: A) The ACC could easily have won 6-2 if Wake Forest forward Anthony Tucker's 25-footer had stayed in, instead of popping out as the buzzer sounded, and if Syracuse sophomore David Johnson, a career .500 free throw shooter, had missed rather than made two free throws with three seconds left against Duke; and B) the Big East could easily have gone 6-2 if Pittsburgh had shown even the slightest inclination to check Georgia Tech's no-more-pigouts Dennis Scott (42 points) and if Clem-son's Dale Davis, another horrific foul shooter, hadn't converted two clutch free throws at the end of a victory that enabled Tiger coach Cliff Ellis to actually mean it when he said the triumph would have "postseason implications."
•Despite its being made for TV (the conferences have a four-year, $7 million contract with ESPN for the Challenge), its outrageous ticket prices ($30 apiece) and its somewhat disappointing crowds, especially in 15,700-seat Greensboro Coliseum, where fewer than 7,000 fans showed up for the Dec. 5 doubleheader, the Challenge is the best thing to happen to college basketball in December since Dick Vitale contracted/conquered (pick one) the big STP: strep-throat problem.
And the Challenge proved once and for all which is the best conference, too.
The Big Ten.
THE BALL HOG
It's not as if Scott, Georgia Tech's junior shooter, had an ongoing fat attack during his first two seasons in Atlanta, but he had metamorphosed from a svelte 217-pound finesse player into a 251-pound trifecta specialist, the waddling definition of a ball hog. "We looked at game tapes from last year, and he didn't look difficult to guard," said Pitt's Darelle Porter after Scott had gobbled up the Panthers. "Then he came out on the floor and...whew!" No more Roseanne jokes. Having eliminated Wendy's from his diet, Scott is down to 220 and still possesses marvelous touch. Spotting up outside a ridiculous Pitt zone that never did find him, Scott made eight treys and six other shots, the final one for the victory after he fumbled a pass and went sprawling across the lane among a bewildered non-pride of Panthers.
Similarly, Maryland's Williams is not used to his team being outhustled, but that's what Connecticut did, smothering the Terps' woeful guards under hordes of pressing defenders. Guard Chris Smith is the Huskies' star, but the name to remember may be 6'7½" forward Nadav Henefeld of Ramat-Hasharon, Israel, who earlier this season traveled from Storrs, Conn., to Tel Aviv to Anchorage so he could play for both the Israeli national team and U Conn in the Great Alaska Shootout. In 24 minutes against Maryland, Henefeld had 11 points, seven rebounds and five steals.
A SHOW AMONG NO-SHOWS
Almost before the noncrowd of 6,937 had filed into the arena in Greensboro, Challenge officials acknowledged that they had made a mistake by scheduling two consecutive nights in a venue where the lack of interest in anything but fraternal ACC warfare is freely admitted. "The Big East vastly overestimates our fascination with their league," said Lenox Rawlings of the Winston-Salem Journal. "Seton Hall was a nobody before last year."
Well, the Pirates may be somebodies again because of a brand-new backcourt of junior college transfer Oliver Taylor and freshman Terry Dehere, who combined for 44 points, including the last nine in overtime. The visitors were almost Tucker-ed out by the Demon Deacons' new pivotman, a 6'8" transfer from Georgetown. Tucker scored 18 points in the second half, including two free throws to tie the game with five seconds left, and then nearly won it on a jumper that was all the way i...whoops!...before it banged the back rim and flew out. "Wake reminds me of us two years ago," a gracious Carlesimo said. "They may be an NCAA team already."
With the ACC behind in the Challenge for the first—and last—time after the Seton Hall victory, the N.C. State-St. John's game turned suddenly when Redmen guard Greg (Boo) Harvey angrily slammed the ball against the floor after being called for a foul with St. John's ahead 50-44 and 11:11 left. Boohoo. State scored the next eight points—the Wolfpack backcourt of Rodney Monroe and Chris Corchiani accounted for 15 baskets in the game—which sent Valvano into paroxysms of jolliness. He even acknowledged using the conferences' rivalry as motivation. "Sure," he said. "I told my guys I didn't want us [the ACC] to go down 3-1."
OWENS, OH MY!
Providence's take-no-prisoners, 94-foot style made Clemson look chaotic, even for Clemson, before Davis shockingly made his winning free throws. "[Rick] Pitino stuff," Tiger coach Ellis sneeringly called the Providence strategy. "Nobody in our league plays like that."
Nobody in the ACC plays like Duke, either. Top-ranked Syracuse knew it was in for something special when the well-heeled Duke student zoo turned up in seemingly full force, chanting its favorite printable epithet at the poor little orange fuzzball, "Stu-pid mas-cot."
By the end of the nerve-racking struggle in which the Blue Devils emerged from a 32-17 first-half deficit to make a game of it—there were 13 ties in the last 15:17—a single message stood out: The only difference between the teams was a new Big O, the brilliant 6'9" sophomore Owens, who had 18 points, nine rebounds and seven assists while playing center, point guard and everything in between—and who made it abundantly clear that Syracuse is promoting the wrong guy (senior Derrick Coleman) for player of the year.
"It felt like a Final Four game," said Duke center Alaa Abdelnaby, who has played in a couple of those encounters. "When you lose, you're supposed to go down in the rankings—but Duke should move up," said Syracuse's Johnson, the man whom Owens, while dribbling over midcourt near the left sideline, spotted underneath the Duke basket with time running out. Despite stiff pressure from the Blue Devils' Robert Brickey, Owens somehow lasered an astounding across-the-body bullet pass to Johnson to set up the winning free throws.
The one desolate face in the Duke locker room belonged to freshman guard Bobby Hurley—a Sean Penn look-alike—who was burned for 21 points by Syracuse senior Stephen Thompson. "We can't be losing this type of game," he lamented. But then Hurley's national high school champion team, St. Anthony's in Jersey City, N.J., lost only one game in two seasons.
TWIN TOWERS OR TERRORS?
Put yourself in the sneakers of two of North Carolina's leading scorers, Kevin Madden and Rick Fox. Whenever they looked up at the ceiling of Brendan Byrne Arena, all they saw were the hands, arms and facial pores of Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, 6'10" and 10'6", respectively. Only kidding, Dikembe, babe. While Madden and Fox were making only one of 13 shots, Tar Heel center Scott Williams was getting a different view, mostly from flat on his back after having been blasted to the hardwood by another Mourning or Mutombo nudge, push, elbow or block.
It's difficult to understand how Carolina could have outrebounded Georgetown 50-47 and how Williams could have had 19 points and nine rebounds without either the team or the player being a factor. But that's what happened. This first meeting between old coaching friends Thompson and Smith since the storied 1982 NCAA title game—the real uno màs—turned early, when it became obvious which team had the better guards. Georgetown's Mark Tillmon embarrassed the Tar Heels' playmaker. King Rice, outscoring him 27-3.
But even with Tillmon and an excruciatingly wild and wonderful little freshman guard named David Edwards—"He'll either kill me or I'll kill him," said Thompson—it is the Hoyas' twin terrors who will cause opponents nightmares all season. Mutombo, actually listed as 7'2" (uh-huh, sure), seems benign enough—he rejected Tar Heel shots, his face bearing the hint of a smile each time. Conversely, Mourning (18 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks) is the Hoyas' warrior, staring and jawing to such an extent that long after the outcome became inevitable, he was chastising Williams, "Don't be goldbricking, man."
Lynch impersonated former Carolina star James Worthy, with 19 points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes, and seemed to be the only unintimidated Heel. "We wrote Mourning's number (33) on the chalkboard instead of his name so the players wouldn't realize it was him," said Smith. "It didn't help."
Inevitably both Smith and Thompson—who, like Boeheim, spoke out against the Challenge as being too much, too soon—couldn't help but acknowledge that the competition would benefit their teams. Smith said he likes the concept because the players like it.
"Players?" boomed Thompson. "At Georgetown the players don't make decisions. I get paid to do that. This ain't no democracy. I don't care what the players think! But, yes, since you asked, I will play this thing again next year."