Some folks in college basketball have done a very stupid thing. They've gone and made Shaquille O'Neal angry. They know who they are, and so does Shaquille. We're talking about the poll voters who scratched Louisiana State off their ballots after ugly early losses to UNLV and Arizona, and about people in the media who wondered out loud why the 7'1", 294-pound O'Neal just didn't take the zillion dollars that would have been his for the asking from the NBA if he was going to play so indifferently in his junior season.
Well, Shaquille has a message for everyone, one he likes so much that he repeats it often: "You can write us off, but don't forget about us." He said it again on Sunday afternoon in Baton Rouge after LSU had stomped all over Kentucky, 74-53, before the usual 13,479 maniacs in the Maravich Assembly Center. Despite playing a lot of decoy, O'Neal still had 20 points, 20 rebounds and six blocked shots in 37 thunderous minutes. More important, the win was the Tigers' 10th in their last 11 starts, a run that has inspired a lot of euphoria in Baton Rouge.
But now, O'Neal is determined to make certain that everybody—especially his teammates—understands there's still a lot of work to be done before the team can seriously entertain thoughts of making a run at the Final Four in Minneapolis. "We're not that good," said a frowning (but not quite a sad) Shaq after the romp past the Wildcats. "I think we're mediocre right now."
A smile curled up the right side of his mouth, forming his trademark lopsided grin. Then he betrayed his thoughts. "We're on a mission," he said.
O'Neal on a mission is a frightening thought that should be taken seriously in such places as Los Angeles, Durham. N.C., and Stillwater, Okla., not to mention every outpost of the SEC. He's trying these days to avoid the kind of foul problems that plagued him earlier in the year, so assiduously, though, that he'll often take only the gimme block rather than challenge opponents. He also wants to improve his foul shooting—barely above 50% for the season—a weakness that could be fatal in a close game.
It seems so mundane to talk about free throws when the subject is O'Neal. It's a measure of his vast talent that he could be perceived as being a disappointment and still rank first in the nation in rebounding (14.2 a game), third in blocks (4.7) and 13th in scoring (24.5). Some bad year, huh? Yet even O'Neal will admit that some of the early criticism leveled in his direction was justified.
"I got a couple of phone calls from relatives and friends," he said. "They said I wasn't moving. Just standing around in the blocks. But now I'm moving pretty well. A moving target is hard to defend."
That's one critical part of LSU's resurgence. Another is that O'Neal's teammates, after some early confusion, seem to have discovered their roles. "I said it would take time," LSU coach Dale Brown says. "On the road early, I wasn't sure about the combinations or the rotations. I'm sure it was tough on Shaquille."
Even now, the 13-4 Tigers are not great, but at least they have become dangerous, as befits a team that is built around the best amateur player on the planet.
The Wildcats, whose personnel has apparently been vastly overrated, don't deserve to be ranked 14th, as they were last week, anymore than LSU deserves to be ranked nowhere. In fact, Kentucky's matchup problems with LSU were so severe that Wildcat coach Rick Pitino had to rewrite his playbook.
On offense, Kentucky abandoned its uptempo style for a half-court perimeter game designed to keep the ball as far from O'Neal as possible. On defense, the Wildcats planted 6'8" Jamal Mashburn behind O'Neal and 6'7" Deron Feldhaus in front of him. Oh, yeah, another guy or two also sagged inside whenever possible, meaning that sometimes O'Neal had as many as four defenders stationed around him.
No matter. LSU made seven of 12 three-point attempts in the first half, and anytime Kentucky dared take the ball inside, O'Neal either smashed it or forced ugly trajectories. The halftime score was Tigers 34, Wildcats 23. The game was, for all intents and purposes, over.
For LSU, the most heartening thing was that it could win easily despite such outrageous tactics to negate O'Neal. That freshman forward Clarence (Hail To) Ceaser had a team-leading 21 points (along with seven steals) and senior guard Justin Anderson added 12 means future opponents won't be able to beat the Tigers simply by smothering O'Neal.
"Some people think we're a one-man team," O'Neal said. "They haven't realized yet that there's a lot more out there than me. I don't need to score 29. As long as LSU is winning, I'll be happy."
At the very least, these Tigers deserve to be considered a factor in the hunt for the national title. Even Duke's Christian Laettner, for all his myriad talents, can't make plays like the one O'Neal made late in the first half against Kentucky: Playing defense, Shaquille reached in and snatched the ball from Wildcat guard John Pelphrey. Then he served as the ball-handling middle man in a three-on-one break. When he reached the key and seemed ready to dish off the ball, O'Neal changed his mind and took off from about the free throw line for the most spectacular dunk...but the ball hit the back of the rim and bounced back toward midcourt.
"I was going to pass it off," O'Neal said, "but I saw the defensive player take a step backward, so I just decided to go for it."
Smart kid, that defensive player. It's extremely unwise these days to step into O'Neal's path—or to make him angry. But it's happened now, and that's reason enough to keep LSU in mind, if not in the Top 25. And it adds a fascinating dimension to the remainder of the season.