Shaquille O'Neal crashes into this college basketball season like big-foot, half man, half myth. Hulking yet spry, O'Neal, Louisiana State's 7'1", 294-pound junior center, last season became the first player ever to lead the rugged Southeastern Conference simultaneously in scoring (27.6 points per game), rebounding (14.7), field goal percentage (62.8%) and blocked shots (140). Burying soft hooks from the baseline, spinning for pull-up jumpers and muscling in for thunderous jams, he leaves opponents reeling like tenpins.
O'Neal has the talent, daring, physical wallop and stealth to be one of the premier centers in basketball history, let alone the most daunting force in college ball since Wilt. All of which presents a problem for his opponents: how to stop him.
"There isn't a hell of a lot you can do to stop Shaquille," says Marty Blake, director of scouting for the NBA. "The only sure way is to give him the wrong starting time."
When pressed, Blake suggests a variety of trick defenses. "You've got to front Shaquille, back him and side him," he says, doubtfully. "You could shift back and forth from a 1-3-1 to a 2-3 to a 2-2-1. Trouble is, LSU is loaded with pro prospects. If you use a sliding zone on Shaquille, you'd better have the personnel to pull it off."
Most schools don't, including some of the truly talent-laden opponents on the Tigers' 1991-92 sehedule. Then there are those other teams, the ones whose games with Louisiana State will not be nationally televised and whose goal will be not victory but survival. The seven listed below, with the exception of fellow SEC member Vanderbilt, are on LSU's schedule—one of the most difficult in the nation—as tasty appetizers that will help prepare the Tigers for the meaty part of their season. On the teams' rosters are young men who have the unenviable if not unnerving task of unShaqling LSU. They're a cheery but faintly masochistic bunch who face their bleak and barren prospects with charming fatalism. You gotta do what you gotta do, they say.
Nov. 22, Northeast Louisiana
Jeff Murray's face is the color of bad weather. The grim and gaunt Murray, the Indians' 6'10" center, slumps in a chair by his bed at the Glenwood Regional Medical Center in West Monroe, La. Half a dozen wires trail from a heart monitor clipped to his hospital gown. Murray had been brought to Glenwood after he felt a tingling in his arm while jogging on the school track. "The doctors don't know what happened," he says. "They think I either had a strong migraine or a mild stroke." Just by his showing up against Shaquille, Murray will show that his heart can't be questioned. It's his effectiveness that's in doubt.
In high school, Murray was nicknamed Manute. At Pratt Community College in Kansas, the Great White Hope. At Hardin-Simmons, which he attended for one year before transferring to Northeast Louisiana, Ichabod. Today Murray is being billed as Shaq Snack. Because he was redshirted last year, he hasn't faced for-real competition since the 1989-90 season, when he averaged almost two points a game and made nearly a third of his shots for the Cowboys. Oddly, 14 of his 24 points for the season came against LSU.
Murray is hoping to get O'Neal in foul trouble. "I won't blow by him or pump fake," he says. "If I tried to fake him, he probably wouldn't believe me. I'd have a better chance driving around him."
"Something quick," he says, "like a Ferrari."
Nov. 27, Middle Tennessee State
"What fascinates me is how people behave," says 6'9", 220-pound Warren Kidd, one of the best players in the Ohio Valley Conference. "And how the mind works." Still, he hasn't yet decided how he'll psych out O'Neal. "Talking trash won't upset him," he allows. "You've got to straight up face him."
Kidd's face job won't necessarily be face-to-face. "I'll play Shaq with my back to him," he says. "Maybe that'll mess him up."
A little reverse psychology.
Dec. 17, Southeastern Louisiana
The Lions may ambush O'Neal. "I'm sending my four biggest men after him," says Southeastern Louisiana coach Don Wilson, sounding like Mao. "They're my Gang of Four."
Last season O'Neal left Southeastern Louisiana in ruin. The damage included 28 points, 15 rebounds, six rejections, a 117-68 drubbing. Blame poor intelligence reports: Some Lions had anticipated a Buddha-like figure. "I thought Shaq would be fat," says 6'9" Darryl (Ice) Jones, Southeastern Louisiana's starting center. "But he's got no fat, none whatsoever. He's just seven feet of muscle, a muscle monster."
"King Kong," says Marvin Pierre.
"Godzilla," says Keith Dudley.
They are two other members of the Gang of Four, both 6'8" forwards.
"He's a seven-one, 300-pound Mike Tyson," says 6'6" Pete Meriweather.
Voices rise, faces angrily grimace.
"If Christian Laettner can stop him," says Dudley, "so can we." The Duke center held Shaq to 15 points last February.
"Laettner just outsmarted Shaq," says Meriweather.
"There's only one Laettner," says Dudley.
"And four of us," says Pierre.
The Gang exchange conniving glances.
"Man, the dude is human!" says Jones.
"Yeah!" says Dudley. "He ain't no Michael Jordan! He ain't even God!"
"But that name!" says Jones. "Just that name, Shaquille O-Neal, lets him get away with a lot of physical things that average players can't."
"Like us," says Dudley.
Meriweather has an idea. "You know how the Pistons are cheap and illegal," he says. "Well, being from Detroit I thought I'd stuff a stun gun into my jock and pull it on Shaquille during the game."
The rest of the Gang thinks it's worth a try.
"Whatever happens," says Dudley, "it won't be near as bad as last year."
"Damn right," says Meriweather. "If we stay within 40, I'd call it a success."
Dec. 28, Northern Arizona
O'Neal doesn't frighten David Wolfe, the Lumberjacks' center. "Not at all," he says. "The Wolfe from Northern Arizona is going to huff and puff and blow the Shaq down." Does he really think he stands a chance? Not by the hair of his chinny-chin-chin.
This big (6'9", 230-pound), bad Wolfe will have to perform a minor miracle. Or maybe a major miracle. The Lumberjacks are rebuilding after a 4-23 year in which they didn't fell many big trees. "I'd be happy if we kept LSU to double digits," he says.
In total points?
"No, margin of victory. My expectations aren't great."
At least he has expectations. Lumberjack fans don't. Everywhere Wolfe goes, they tell him, "Shaquille is going to break you in half!"
"Uh-huh," he says.
"He's going to eat you alive!"
"What are you going to use to stop him?"
"I'm a Wolfe, remember?"
You don't have to be Little Red Riding Hood to detect the sheep in Wolfe's clothing. He had hoped O'Neal, a sophomore last season, would turn pro over the summer. "But I was glad when he didn't," he says. "Playing Shaq will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one I just hope I won't have to experience ever again."
Dec. 30, Nicholls State
Gerard King believes in—his word—"destiny." He's matched against O'Neal for the second straight season. Who knows when destiny might strike?
To King, the solution is simple: "If Shaq doesn't get the ball, Shaq won't score." Unfortunately, against the Colonels last season, Shaq got the ball and Shaq scored: 11 times in 15 attempts. Toss in six blocks and 20 rebounds, and it's not hard to figure the reason behind LSU's 118-76 rout.
King's problem was that there was too much of O'Neal to cover. "He was just so heavy, and his drop step took so much space that he didn't leave me any room," says King, a 6'7", 185-pounder. "It was like I was guarding the Washington Monument."
King had prepped for the encounter by studying Shaq's moves on TV. He went slack-jawed when O'Neal made a backdoor cut and dunked uncontested off an alley-oop pass. "I paid very close attention to that," King says. "I vowed that Shaquille would never embarrass us with an alley-oop. Maybe he did embarrass us, but not with an alley-oop. That's one play you never forget."
Alas, memory fails. If you look at the play-by-play, you'll see that O'Neal did alley-oop the Colonels. Perhaps it all came too suddenly for King to recall. After all, it happened only two minutes into the game.
Jan. 20, McNeese State
"Nobody," says Cowboys coach Steve Welch. "And I mean nobody."
He has been asked to name a college player capable of staying with O'Neal. He can't. "Maybe Pat Ewing could, or David Robinson," he says, "but nobody at this level can win the battle one-on-one."
That's why Welch will have a couple of junior college transfers, 6'1" point guard Terrence (T-Bone) Gabriel and 6'6" swingman Melvin Johnson, battle O'Neal two-on-one. Gabriel will pester Shaq, while Johnson plays toll-booth defense on him. "I'll be a housefly," says Gabriel. "He'll be swatting at me, trying to kill me, but I'll never stop bugging him."
While T-Bone buzzes, Johnson, a grain silo of a guy, will try to push O'Neal out of the paint. "I'm only 225 pounds," Johnson concedes, "so I can't do that much pushing." That responsibility may be left to Martin Yokum, McNeese State's 6'10" Q-tip of a center. "If I foul Shaq, it ain't going to be no touch foul," he says. "It's going to be an obvious foul that the whole arena can see. A touch foul ain't going to do nothing. Hammer him, and it'll stop something."
"If Shaq hammers back," volunteers Johnson, "I guess we'll be banged and bumped and bruised."
Memo to Shaquille: Please hammer, don't hurt 'em.
Feb. 15, Vanderbilt
Todd Milholland has The Hobbit habit. He couldn't put the book down. "I like the adventure of the book, the surprise," says Milholland, the Commodores' center. But his read on O'Neal is right out of the Brothers Grimm: "There's really no surprise in Shaq. I know what's coming—there's just not a whole lot I can do about it."
Though Milholland is 6'10" and 229 pounds, the first time he sighted O'Neal he felt like Bilbo Baggins in the presence of the horrifying Balrog. "I was amazed at how big and massive he was," he says. "I glanced up. I glanced down. I had to glance up again to make sure I got it right."
O'Neal proved as unyielding as the Lord of the Black Riders on the road to Mordor. "It was very frustrating," Milholland says. "I had to push on him as hard as I could just to keep him standing still."
As with most fairy tales, Milholland says, the ogre has a fatal flaw. "Shaq's one weakness is his turnaround jumper," he says. "If you hold him far enough from the basket, he'll have to kick the ball out to his guards."
That's as good as it goes—which last season wasn't very far. In their lone meeting, an 87-70 LSU thumping of Vanderbilt, O'Neal made 15 of 18 shots. "I wasn't humiliated by anything Shaq did," says Milholland, even when O'Neal beat him on a backdoor alley-oop jam. "If it had been anyone else," Milholland says with a sigh, "I would have crawled into a hole."
Nodding to himself, he adds, "Yes, like a hobbit."