A STRONG REBOUNDER
Top-ranked UNLV might have four future NBA players at the guard and forward positions, but the center combination of 6'9" George Ackles and 7-foot Elmore Spencer has made this Rebel team potentially stronger than last season's championship squad. Vegas, which was 15-0 at week's end, got 10 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks from the pair in a 97-85 win over stumbling Louisville (7-9) at Freedom Hall last Saturday and has been averaging 16.2 points and 10.2 boards a game at center for the season.
Spencer, a junior from Atlanta, took a hard road to Las Vegas. He originally signed with Georgia for the 1987-88 season, but the summer before he was to enroll he was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence. As it turned out, the erratic driving wasn't caused by alcohol or drugs but by a chemical imbalance that led to symptoms of manic depression.
Spencer spent the next five weeks in the psychiatric ward of Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, where he received medication for his condition. After a medical redshirt year, he played half a season for Georgia before falling behind in his class-work and dropping out. He enrolled at Connors State Junior College in Warner, Okla., where he led the Cowboys to the 1989-90 juco national championship. He then had to spent the first semester of this academic year at Clark County Community College in Las Vegas to get enough credits to enroll at UNLV. He became eligible to play on Dec. 20.
"You know when you've found the right place, when you really feel comfortable," says Spencer. "That's the way I feel now. It's been a ball. And I've only been with the team since December, so I'm only about 80 percent of what I can be."
Spencer downplays the seriousness of his illness, saying the death of his mother less than a year before he was diagnosed and an exhausting schedule of high school all-star games contributed to his condition. "Just say I'm fine," he says. "I've had no relapses, no bad effects, no further problems as far as that goes."
He also had no trouble shrugging off the nasty reception he got at Freedom Hall last Saturday. The fans there haven't forgotten that Spencer seemed to be leaning toward Louisville while at Connors State but went instead to UNLV. He was booed every time he touched the ball. "I didn't take it personally," says Spencer. "One thing I know is that on the list of things in life to worry about, getting booed doesn't rank real high."
Once you get past UNLV's dominance, this has been a most unpredictable college basketball season. Take Connecticut, which opened its Big East schedule with three wins but closed out last week with its fifth straight conference defeat, 76-62 to Seton Hall. Consider Syracuse, which already has losses to Providence, Pitt and Villanova in the Big East. And the ACC's defending champion, Clemson, was 0-6 in league play after last Saturday's 99-70 blowout loss to Duke.
But there may be no more puzzling conference than the Pac-10, which seems to produce at least one confounding result each week. Just when a story line was emerging—the unexpected rise of Oregon State—the Beavers lost 70-68 at home last Saturday to Southern Cal. But Oregon State was still tied with Arizona atop the Pac-10 with a 5-2 record because the fifth-ranked Wildcats lost 85-78 the same day to previously moribund Cal.
Arizona, which was expected to be challenged for the Pac-10 title only by UCLA (we'll get to the Bruins later), might be trailing Oregon State if not for a stroke of good fortune against Stanford last Thursday. With one second remaining and the score tied at 76, Wildcat center Sean Rooks converted an uncontested eight-foot jumper when Cardinal center Adam Keefe, who had thoroughly outplayed Arizona's big men, slipped while trying to stop Rooks. "I hit a wet spot," said Keefe, who wound up with 29 points and 13 rebounds. "It was all slow motion after that. It was a nightmare."
Despite its loss to USC, Oregon State is still having a remarkable season. The Beavers were picked to finish at or near the bottom of the conference following the departure of guard Gary Payton, last season's Pac-10 MVP. But the Beavers have been anything but doormats, thanks largely to Teo Alibegovic, a 6'9" senior forward from Yugoslavia who has blossomed into the team's scoring leader. He had 34 points in Oregon State's 97-96 double overtime victory over eighth-ranked UCLA last week.
Which brings us to the Bruins. With a 13-1 record, they were off to their best start in 13 years before a tough 82-77 defeat at Arizona. UCLA then lost 89-82 to Stanford at home before the Oregon State defeat, which left the Bruins at 4-3 in the conference and coach Jim Harrick scratching his head. "I thought when we left Arizona we had as good a chance as anyone to win the league," says Harrick. "But maybe someone could lose three or four games and still win it."
Given the developments so far, that's not a bad bet.
OUT OF THE SHADOWS
Indiana's 6'6" sophomore forward, Calbert Cheaney, has spent the last few years on the brink of fame. Every time he has been in position to move into the spotlight, someone else has beaten him there.
For instance, Cheaney lost any chance of winning Indiana's coveted Mr. Basketball award as a senior at Evansville Harrison High when he missed the state tournament because of a broken foot. The award went to Floyd Central High's Pat Graham, currently a Hoosier teammate of Cheaney's. Cheaney also should have received notice as the best prospect in Indiana's heralded 1989 recruiting class, but he has been overshadowed by the presence—and absence—of the wayward Lawrence Funderburke, a member of that class who transferred to Ohio State two weeks ago. And Cheaney surely would have been the center of attention for Indiana going into this season if not for the ballyhooed arrival of last year's Mr. Indiana, guard Damon Bailey.
Cheaney, however, has been the Hoosiers' best player. As of Sunday, he had a 21.9 average, and if he maintains his .602 field goal percentage, he'll break Steve Alford's school record of .592. Cheaney has even earned praise from coach Bob Knight, who doesn't toss around compliments lightly. Knight went so far as to invoke the names of two sainted former Hoosiers, Scott May and Mike Woodson, in describing him.
"May was really a good outside shooter and he read things well," Knight said. "Woodson was a real scorer. He could do a lot of things. Cheaney is a combination of both of them."
That doesn't mean Cheaney isn't capable of working his way into Knight's doghouse. That's where he appeared to be for much of the first half of the Hoosiers' Jan. 21 game against Ohio State. After scoring only six points before intermission and seeing Indiana fall behind by 19 points, Cheaney was benched at the start of the second half. Once he was reinserted, Cheaney scored 22 points in 17 minutes as the Hoosiers rallied to within three points before falling 93-85.
Last Saturday Indiana bounced back to dismantle Michigan State 97-63. Cheaney got 17 points and had help from Bailey, who scored a career-high 19 points, and guard Greg Graham, who finished with 16. "It takes some pressure off," said Cheaney. "People tend to concentrate on me and [center] Eric [Anderson], and they forget about Greg or maybe Damon."
Pay attention to Cheaney and forget about Bailey? There's a switch.
After Illinois State opened the season with 11 consecutive defeats, Redbird coach Bob Bender took away his team's practice uniforms and made the players wear gray shorts and white T-shirts with their numbers drawn on with Magic Marker. He also made them wash their own practice clothes. Illinois State lost No. 12, and then won three straight.... Many New Orleans fans dressed appropriately for the Privateers' 81-70 win over Alabama-Birmingham last Friday. The game started at midnight for television purposes and a lot of fans showed up in pajamas.... St. Louis coach Rich Grawer suspended assistant John Mulroy for three games after Mulroy looked at a TV monitor during a timeout to learn the opposing team's strategy. St. Louis was leading Southern Illinois 57-56 with :02 left, and Mulroy watched as Salukis coach Rich Herrin drew up a play. The Salukis didn't score, but Grawer insists he didn't get any information from Mulroy.
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Eric Murdock, a 6'2" senior guard for Providence, set a Big East scoring record with 48 points in a 92-79 loss to Pittsburgh and led the Friars with 23 points in a 92-82 upset of sixth-ranked Syracuse.
Bobbie Bean, a 6-foot junior forward for Lamar, scored 49 points as the Lady Cardinals ran their winning streak to 14 games With an 83-72 win over No. 22 Louisiana Tech and an 89-79 defeat of Arkansas State.
South Carolina-Spartanburg's 6'2" senior guard, Willie Murdaugh, made 19 of 24 shots, including 13 of 14 treys, and scored 60 points as the Division II Rifles beat Lander 86-60 and Georgia College 86-67.