Play to Play-in

Some of last week's best action came not from major powers jockeying for NCAA tournament seeds or from bubble teams trying to impress the selection committee, but from several of the less prominent conference tournaments. Some of the highlights:

•In the Southland, Northeast Louisiana beat Texas-Arlington 87-60 last Saturday for the championship, but the tournament's most remarkable performance came earlier in the week. On the night of Feb. 25, Texas-Arlington forward Titus Howard allegedly stabbed a teammate, guard Glover Cody, three times in the back during an altercation. Howard was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder and released on $50,000 bail the next day. Cody not only played in both of the Mavericks' tournament games but also set a conference-tournament record with 12 assists in a 97-91 win over North Texas and made the all-tournament team.

•Jackson State forward Creig Charles, the Southwestern Athletic Conference's defensive player of the year, took two key charges and scored 12 points in the last 5:19 of the tournament championship game to help the Tigers erase a 56-51 deficit and go on to defeat Texas Southern 70-66.

•In the Mid-Eastern Athletic, fifth-seeded Florida A&M upset top-seeded Cop-pin State 74-70 in the semifinals and third-seeded Delaware State 84-80 in OT in the finals. Both teams had defeated the Rattlers, who were only 17-13 going into the tournament, twice during the regular season.

•The Patriot, a first-year league, will eliminate athletic scholarships beginning with the 1992 freshman class. In keeping with that philosophy, the first order of business following Fordham's 84-81 overtime victory over Holy Cross in the championship game was not to present the MVP trophy or to name the all-tournament team. It was to hand out the conference's scholar-athlete award, which went to Crusader center Jim Nairus, a senior premed student with a 3.38 grade point average.

•The Big South's top seed, Coastal Carolina, rudely ushered Augusta out of Division I with an 89-54 victory in the title game. Augusta will move to Division II next season. Sophomore forward Tony Dunkin, the league's two-time player of the year, scored a game-high 22 points for the Chanticleers in the finale.

•Mike Iuzzolino of St. Francis (Pa.) made six of nine three-point attempts while scoring 32 points in the Red Flash's 97-82 defeat of Fairleigh Dickinson in the finals of the Northeast Conference tournament. (More on Iuzzolino later.)

On March 6, the champions of these six leagues were to pair off to determine which three would receive NCAA bids. Most of these conferences approach the new "play-in" format with mixed emotions. The MEAC, Northeast, Southland and SWAC lost automatic bids, and MEAC commissioner Kenneth Free said, "We'd rather have the guaranteed bid, but I can see why it had to be done, with the increasing number of conferences. This was the best option."

To the NCAA's credit, it has ensured that the format won't hurt the schools financially. The three losers in the play-in games will receive what they would have gotten had they lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. However, that can't completely compensate for having to win an extra game to reach the tournament. Said Fordham coach Nick Macarchuk after his team had won the Patriot title, "We decided not to cut down the nets today. Some of the guys are a little unhappy about that, but we have one more game to finish. Besides, we couldn't because the women's semifinal came right after our game."

One for the Books

Iuzzolino's performance in the Northeast Conference title game isn't the only thing that makes him worth mentioning. He's probably as close to the NCAA ideal of the student-athlete as a player can come, and he's living proof that hard work really does pay off.

Iuzzolino, a 5'10" senior, has put in innumerable hours both on the court and in the classroom, and the extra work has brought about a remarkable transformation in both areas. He was nearly a forgotten player at Penn State, where he played his first two years and averaged 2.8 points a game. Now he's a star at St. Francis, where he was scoring 24.5 points a game going into Wednesday's NCAA tournament play-in game against Fordham and was eighth in the nation in three-point shooting accuracy (53.9%).

That's almost as impressive as his academic story. Iuzzolino narrowly avoided sitting out his freshman season as a Prop 48 case, having scored a meager combined 760 on his SATs. Now he carries a 3.8 grade point average as a secondary-education major with an emphasis in political science. He has made the dean's list five times and has a good chance to be a first-team Academic All-America for the second straight year.

"I just believe in hard work," says Iuzzolino. "You can't control height or physical talent, but you can't be outworked unless you allow yourself to be. When I came to college, I promised myself that no matter what happened with basketball, I'd do well in school. If I put in four hours of practice, I try to make sure I put in four hours of studying."

Four hours of practice sounds like one of Iuzzolino's easy days. He's a gym rat who has been known to work on his jump shot in the wee hours of the morning. He has been given the key to the gym at St. Francis and to another in his hometown of Altoona, Pa., so he can work out whenever he wants.

Iuzzolino realizes that his lack of height and quickness makes him a long shot for a pro career, but he hasn't given up hope. "I'm not in any hurry to get into the work force," he says.

It sounds as if he already has.

The Unknown Freshman

Take a poll to determine the nation's best freshman and Damon Bailey of Indiana, Shawn Bradley of BYU, Jamal Mashburn of Kentucky and Rodney Rogers of Wake Forest would all draw quite a few votes. Jarvis Lang of North Carolina-Charlotte wouldn't. He should.

Lang, a 6'6" forward from Farmville, N.C., is the leading freshman scorer (19.6 points a game) and rebounder (10.6) in the country. The 14-14 49ers have finished their season, so if no one catches Lang—and no one is close—he will join Oklahoma's Wayman Tisdale (1982-83) and Jeff Ruland of Iona ('77-78) as the only players to lead the country's freshmen in both categories. And Lang hasn't put those stats together just against patsies. He had 30 points and 12 rebounds against Duke, 22 and 10 against Syracuse and 20 and 13 against East Tennessee State.

If Lang has escaped your notice, you're not alone. "I was kind of a late bloomer," he says. "I got cut from my middle school team, and I was only 6'1" when I started high school. I got a few letters from some bigger schools like Duke, but none of them made me feel like they were really that interested."

They did become interested when Lang, a remarkable leaper, blossomed in his senior season, but by then he had committed to the 49ers. "I don't regret coming to Charlotte," he says, "but when we play some of those big schools, I feel like I owe them a little something."

The competition Lang now faces can't be any more intimidating than what he encountered while growing up as the ninth of 13 children. He played against his older siblings, including sister Lisa, who was a women's junior college All-America at Louisburg (N.C.) College last season and is now a starting forward for 11th-ranked Western Kentucky. "She used to push me around on the court," says Lang. "She told a reporter earlier this season that I'm still a wimp. I think she was only kidding."

He must have thought that the Sun Belt Conference also was only joking when it named forward Kendrick Warren of Virginia Commonwealth as its Freshman of the Year, even though Warren averaged only 15.7 points and 8.5 rebounds. Warren had a fine season, but there has been speculation that Lang was passed over because North Carolina-Charlotte is planning to leave the Sun Belt for the Metro Conference next season. Whatever the reason, it wasn't the first time Lang got overlooked.

Just Say No

It's getting increasingly difficult for college players, even non-seniors, to avoid being approached by agents at this time of year. Georgia Tech sophomore Kenny Anderson recently had to change his phone number because of constant calls from agents hoping to represent him should he decide to leave school early to enter the NBA draft.

It's against NCAA rules and some state laws for agents to contact players with college eligibility remaining. In Georgia, for instance, agents face a maximum fine of $100,000 for such an offense. But according to some players, that hasn't kept them from being bombarded with calls.

Litterial Green, a junior guard at Georgia, says seven agents have contacted him in recent weeks, usually by phone in his dorm room. "I don't know how they get my number, but they get it," says Green. "I don't want to talk to them, but there's no way you can get around talking to them."

In some cases agents try to persuade non-seniors to enter the draft early. At the very least, they hope to establish a relationship with them that will pay off down the road, after the players' eligibility expires. "I get calls weekly from guys wanting to get in before anyone else," says junior forward Don MacLean of UCLA. "The same guys keep calling. It gets bothersome. And it's a distraction, something I don't want to concentrate on right now. Nobody's telling me whether to go pro or not. Mostly they want to get an edge, develop a relationship. It's really ridiculous."

Such premature contact distracts players from schoolwork and from basketball. Worse, even if agents' advances don't actually plant the thought of leaving college early in players' minds, they cultivate it—often to the detriment of the players' basketball careers. Green, for instance, is exactly the kind of player who could turn pro early only to find that his draft prospects aren't as rosy as an agent might make them appear.

A player would be wise to keep in mind that any agent unethical enough to pursue him prematurely probably isn't the kind of person he wants to represent him.

Tip-ins
Virginia, the top-ranked women's team, made only five of its 31 second-half shots and was upset by Clemson 65-62 on Sunday in the semifinals of the ACC tournament. The loss means that No. 2-ranked Penn State will probably supplant the Cavaliers as the nation's No. 1 team and the Nittany Lions might also take the Cavs' top seed in the East regional of the NCAA Tournament. Virginia, however, won't lose its first-round bye. The top four seeds in each region receive byes.... Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun needed 10 stitches in his forehead and two on the bridge of his nose after he hit his head on a curb as he dived out of the way of a car while jogging near the Huskies' hotel before their 78-68 victory at Pitt last Saturday. "The only unfortunate thing was, I looked up, and the car had Connecticut license plates," says Calhoun.... Danny (Pearl) Stubbs, a 6-foot junior guard for DeVry Institute in Decatur, Ga., was on pace to lead the NAIA in scoring with a 41.1 average, but he lost his chance to win the title because 3-33 DeVry exceeded the NAIA's limit of 32 games in a season. Officials at DeVry plan to appeal. Meanwhile, Peter Martin, a 7-foot junior center for MidAmerica Nazarene in Olathe, Kans., took over the lead last week with a 35.6 average.... It's hard to believe, considering how many outstanding players have gone to UCLA over the years, but when Don MacLean scored 33 points and Darrick Martin 31 in a 99-91 defeat of Washington last Thursday, it was the first time in school history that two Bruins had 30 or more points in the same game.... Big Five basketball in Philadelphia may be coming to an end. The alliance of La-Salle, Penn, St. Joseph's, Temple and Villanova that began in 1955 is threatened by other scheduling commitments. With the addition of Miami to the Big East next season, Villanova will have 18 conference games, plus possibly one more game in the ACC-Big East challenge. That leaves the Wildcats with only eight other games, given the NCAA's limit of 27 games a year, and they are reluctant to commit to playing four of them against Big Five teams.

PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERReginald Finney had 23 points for the Rattlers in the MEAC final. PHOTOJIM GUNDThe unheralded Lang may be the nation's best freshman. PHOTOJERRY WACHTERUnscrupulous agents are a nuisance for leading non-seniors like Anderson.

PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

MEN
Damon Lopez, Fordham's 6'9" senior center, scored 52 points and got 19 rebounds as the Rams won the Patriot League tournament by defeating Bucknell, 82-76, and Holy Cross, 84-81 in overtime.

WOMEN
Guard Felisha Edwards, a 5'7" senior, had 53 points and 10 rebounds to lead Northeast Louisiana to a 97-73 rout of Southern Mississippi. She also scored 27 in a 74-71 win over Northwestern Louisiana.

SMALL SCHOOLS
Chris Fite, a 6'8" junior center for Rochester, got 28 points in a 73-69 victory over RPI in the first round of the NCAA Division III tournament and 36 points in a 71-67 secondround defeat of Stony Brook.

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