Here We Go Again
The unexpected has come to be expected in college basketball, but if some of the games already played are any indication, this season may be more unpredictable than most. Two teams in the preseason Top 10 have already lost, and another found out it was far from invincible.
Indiana, which was ranked No. 2 by the Associated Press, has the least to be embarrassed about, because the Hoosiers fell to another ranked team, No. 11 UCLA—albeit by a convincing 89-72 score—in the Hall of Fame Classic on Nov. 15. But last Friday fourth-ranked Kentucky was blown out on its home court by unranked Pittsburgh 85-67 in the second round of the preseason NIT, and No. 6 LSU needed a desperate comeback to squeeze by Northeast Louisiana 77-76.
Kentucky's loss denied coach Rick Pitino the chance to make a triumphant return to Madison Square Garden, where he had coached the New York Knicks for two years before taking over in Lexington and where the semis and finals of the NIT will be played this week. The Wildcats, as well as their fans, may have been caught taking that trip for granted. When Pitino spoke to a chapter of the Kentucky alumni association in September, the door prize was a trip to New York to watch the Wildcats in the NIT.
Pitino had looked forward to introducing some of his players with small-town backgrounds to the big city. "I'm telling the bus driver to drive right to Times Square," he said during the preseason. "I can't wait to see their eyes when they get out and walk around and meet some of the people there."
Rubbing elbows with New Yorkers was the last thing on the Wildcats' minds after the Panthers shocked them. Kentucky died by the three-pointer, making only seven of 36, and shot 27% overall. Afterward, a chagrined Pitino said, "We can stop talking about the Final Four, and we can stop talking about being in the top five in the country, because we're not."
LSU didn't look much better in Baton Rouge for most of its game against Northeast Louisiana, which had lost four starters from last season's NCAA tournament team. The Indians proved to be more than just a "Shaq snack" (SI, Nov. 25), holding Shaquille O'Neal, the Tigers' dominant center, to 15 points. Some LSU fans were headed toward the exits in disgust before the Tigers scored the last nine points of the game to pull out the victory. Tiger freshmen Clarence Ceasar and Paul Marshall each converted a three-pointer in the final two minutes, and Ceasar secured the win by sinking a free throw with five seconds left.
"Shaquille can't be expected to carry this team on his back," said LSU coach Dale Brown. A good gauge of the Tigers' season will be how many times Brown has to remind his team of that fact.
Women's teams looking for an easy exhibition win shouldn't schedule the New Jersey Alliance, a barnstorming collection of former college players who travel through the Northeast administering friendly whippings to just about every team they play. At week's end the Alliance was 10-2 and had beaten Providence, St. Joseph's and Boston College. Several of the victories have been blowouts, thanks largely to forward Carol (Blaze) Blazejowski, the former Montclair State star (1975-78) who still holds the women's collegiate career scoring-average record (31.7 points).
At 35, Blaze can still light it up. Only once so far has she failed to score at least 30 points. Blazejowski also serves as New Jersey's coach and schedule maker. "Carol's amazing, and her team is amazing," says BC coach Margo Plotzke, whose Eagles lost 102-80 to the Alliance. "Coaches measure their clubs by how close they can stay to Carol's team."
Blazejowski's teammates include former Queens College star Gail Marquis, 37, a member of the 1976 U.S. Olympic team, and, on occasion, Tara Heiss, 35, a onetime Maryland standout who was Blazejowski's teammate on the '80 Olympic team, which didn't get to compete in the Moscow Games because of the U.S. boycott. The average age of the Alliance players is 31. "All of us were much better than average college players," says Blazejowski. "We may not have the athleticism of some of the teams we play, but we make up for that in our knowledge of the game and with our passion. We're playing for no other reason than that we love to."
In all, the Alliance will play 14 games, finishing with the University of Connecticut on Dec. 14. The players fit the games in around their regular jobs—Blazejowski is a director of licensing for the NBA—and they pay their own expenses. "The only thing we gave them were towels and some sodas," says Plotzke.
The Alliance tries to provide advice as well as opposition. "If there's a tip we can give a player after a game, we do it," says Blazejowski. "This is our way of giving something back to women's basketball."
But they also play to win, which comes as a surprise to some of their younger opponents. "Every now and then a player looks at us as if she's thinking, A bunch of old ladies—we're gonna clean their clocks," says Blazejowski. "We like to politely interrupt that thought."
A Family Affair
It wasn't a great week to be an Olajuwon. On Nov. 20, Hakeem, the Houston Rockets' All-Star center, went to a Houston emergency room with an irregular heart beat and three days later was put on the injured reserve list. Then on Saturday night, Taju and Afis, two of Hakeem's younger brothers, played their first game as teammates for Texas-San Antonio but couldn't keep the Roadrunners from being overrun by Kansas State 103-65.
The game marked the Division I debut of Afis, a 6'4" sophomore guard who transferred to Texas-San Antonio from Alvin (Texas) Community College. Taju, a 6'7" starting senior forward known as T.J., is in his third season with the Roadrunners and led the team in rebounding last year. Both struggled against Kansas State. After spraining his right wrist on a nasty first-half fall, Taju finished with four points and five rebounds. Afis came off the bench to contribute six points and three rebounds in 16 minutes, but he also had three turnovers.
It wasn't as memorable a beginning as the brothers had hoped for, but it's understandable if their minds were at least partly on Hakeem, who was released from the hospital on Monday. "Hakeem said he caught an elbow from Patrick [Ewing] in the chest," Taju said, referring to his brother's game against the New York Knicks on Nov. 19. "He called and told us not to be scared when we heard the news. He said everything is under control and he's fine."
Hakeem, who brought Taju and Afis to the U.S. from Nigeria in 1985, keeps a close eye on his brothers, but Afis and Taju aren't nearly as physically gifted as their older brother. "T.J. can sometimes take over a game," says Texas-San Antonio coach Stu Starner. "But he's just 6'7" posting up low, and that limits him a great deal. Afis has a chance to be an accomplished player. He has the same approach to the game that Hakeem does."
Still, the younger brothers insist that they hold their own in pickup games with Hakeem. "It gets pretty intense when we play against each other," says Afis. "When he makes a dunk on us, he reminds us of it all day. But if we beat him, you know that we let him know it."
Kansas's new uniforms, featuring extra-baggy shorts and black sneakers, haven't been a hit with Jayhawk fans. Among those who responded to a Kansas City Star survey, 408 were against the new look, and 216 favored it....
Guard Travis Bice, who transferred from UNLV to San Francisco during the off-season and is eligible to play immediately because the Runnin' Rebels are on NCAA probation, made all eight of his three-point attempts in an exhibition win over a German club team....
Long Beach State forward Kevin Cutler shattered a backboard while dunking last season. Coach Seth Greenberg, whose team shot only 41% in 1990-91, was asked if any of his players could repeat Cutler's feat this season. "With a jump shot or a dunk?" asked Greenberg.
PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Reginald Slater, a 6'7" senior forward for Wyoming, made nine of 13 shots from the field, while scoring 28 points and grabbing 12 rebounds as the Cowboys beat Louisiana Tech 96-78.
Northwestern's Michele Savage, a 6'1" senior forward, totaled 41 points and 15 rebounds in an 89-77 win over Texas A&M and a 73-49 win over Auburn that ended the Lady Tigers' 68-game home victory streak.
Hampton's Joseph Chambers, a 6'6" freshman forward playing in his first collegiate game, pulled down nine rebounds and scored 18 points, including six of his team's last eight, in a 70-65 victory over Cheyney.