Jam Session

Three teams emerging from the Final Four in New Orleans will be singing the blues, leaving one atop the charts. Who? The cool Cats of Kentucky
November 23, 1992

College basketball is a jazz thing, all about tempo, flow and improvisation, so it's only fitting that the 1993 Final Four will be held in New Orleans, where strains of Dixieland and bebop will waft in from the French Quarter when the lucky teams arrive in April. Like a good jazz piece, the season is sure to take some surprising dips and twists, but we're predicting that the final notes of the season will be a riff on My Old Kentucky Home.

Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, known for making a little go a long way, now has a lot going for him (preceding story). The Wildcats play pressure defense, and on offense they've never met a three-point shot they didn't like, but this year they have more than just a winning system. They also have the star (Jamal Mash-burn) and the supporting players (including hotshot freshman Rodrick Rhodes) to win it all. But they'll have to overcome a group of qualified challengers. Let us introduce you to the rest of the Top 20 band.

The Cool School

The beat goes on and on for these perennials, who, it seems, have been going to the NCAA tournament almost every year since its inception. The beat coming from Kansas is of Jayhawk hearts, which have been racing ever since the signing last November of 6'7" forward Darrin Hancock, the top junior college player of 1991-92. Even coach Roy Williams, usually a master of understatement, is hard-pressed to contain his excitement over Hancock, who he has said may be the best athlete in Kansas basketball history. Williams later amended that to "the best since I've been here. I don't want Wilt Chamberlain calling me."

Hancock is "a human highlight film, with Dominique Wilkins moves," according to junior college talent scout Rick Ball. "Carl Lewis in a basketball uniform" is the estimation of Jayhawk shooting guard Rex Walters. Adds Kansas point guard Adonis Jordan, "I'll throw a bad alley-oop, and Darrin will dunk it anyway. People will be saying, 'Great pass by Adonis.' and I'll be thinking, If they only knew."

Jordan and Walters make up what could be the nation's best backcourt, and if the Jayhawks get some help up front from sophomore forward Ben Davis, a blue-chip recruit from a year ago, they could be scary. Davis was disappointed in his performance last season and admits that he may not have been in the best of shape. "I got down on myself and made too many trips to Taco Bell," he says.

After six Final Four trips in seven years, something almost has to go wrong at Duke, doesn't it? Here's a scenario in which there would be a Final Four without the Blue Devils. First, center Cherokee Parks shows that he's no Christian Laettner, which is no disgrace; it would just mean that the Devils would not be able to stand up to really tough big men like Kentucky's Mash-burn and Michigan's Chris Webber as stoutly as they have in the past. Second, forward Grant Hill continues to be the game's most unassuming star. Even teammate Bobby Hurley says, "I think he could take over more. I think he needs to shoot his perimeter jumper more." That's a nice way to say that Hill needs to become a gimme-the-ball-and-get-outta-my-way-when-the-game's-on-the-line kind of player. If all that comes to pass, disaster would strike Duke, the wheels would fall off, and, horrors, the Blue Devils would only reach the tournament's final eight.

Indiana lost to Duke in last year's semifinals to end a turbulent tournament run (the highlight film could be titled Basketball. Bullwhips and No Banquet and include footage of the controversial photo op of coach Bobby Knight pretending to whip his star, Calbert Cheaney, and of Knight canceling the team's postseason dinner). Afterward Knight assembled his four seniors-to-be, Cheaney, Greg Graham, Chris Reynolds and Matt Nover, and told them, "This is your team. Take over." They did. The entire squad—except for Nover, who toured Europe with a Big Ten all-star team—stayed on campus this summer to play ball and pump iron. Several of the Hoosiers, especially forwards Cheaney and Alan Henderson, fill out their uniforms better these days, which could mean that Cheaney will improve on a slightly subpar year and that Henderson, a sophomore, could be even more of a force inside than he was a year ago.

Knight has at least five guards to work with but not a single complete one, and it's worth remembering that Indiana never seemed more stable last year than when now departed point guard Jamal Meeks was in the game. Junior Damon Bailey can change all that, of course, if he begins to live up to his high school hype instead of being just another player who specializes in intangible contributions.

So far the verdict on that supposed "best recruiting class ever" that North Carolina brought in two years ago is "Good, not great." That's in keeping with Tar Heel tradition of winning a lot of games but falling a bit short in March. Look for the Heels to stick to that script this year. Guard Hubert Davis has taken most of the Tar Heels' outside scoring with him to the pros. Some of his points will be picked up by 6'7" forward George Lynch, but North Carolina's hopes for anything more than a routinely successful season rest largely on the progress of the tallest member of that celebrated class, 7-foot center Eric Montross. The Tar Heels are hoping Montross can match his play in three NCAA tournament games last year, when he averaged 18.3 points and 10.3 rebounds, but this fall he didn't sound very hopeful that that would happen. "I may not start off at the point I left off in the NCAA tournament," he said. Coach Dean Smith thinks Montross may have had his confidence damaged a bit over the summer in pre-Olympic scrimmages against the Dream Team. "Your confidence would be hurt a little bit, too," says Smith, "if you had to go against [David] Robinson and [Patrick] Ewing."

The Soloists

These are the players who can step up to the mike and blow the room away, making their teams better as they do. For instance, it hardly matters that Memphis State has little experience at point guard, because at crunch time the ball will be in the hands of 6'7" swingman Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway, one of the few players we can, with a straight face, compare to Magic Johnson. Last season Hardaway was the only Division I player to rank in the top six in his conference in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.

Unlike the humbled Montross, Hardaway was impressive against the Dream Team—Larry Bird called him Mr. Defense—and he's obviously brash enough to believe he can carry a team. After playing golf last summer in a foursome that included the Chicago Bulls' Scottie Pippen, Hardaway said Pippen "has a golf bag with his name on it and fancy clubs, and he can't even play. He's terrible. He was worse than me, and I was pretty bad." Imagine what Pippen would like to give Penny for his thoughts.

Michigan senior James Voskuil, a 6'7" forward, stumbled while walking on a beach in Nice, France, this summer. He looked down and saw that the obstacle was a topless sunbather. He and the woman began talking, and Voskuil, an aerospace engineering major, discovered that her father works at NASA. He came away with her phone and fax numbers. No wonder there's a sense that everything comes too easily to the Wolverines.

That was certainly the feeling last season after Michigan's celebrated five freshmen ignored all the pretournament hot air about inexperience and took the Wolverines to the NCAA title game. They seem like a logical pick to step up a notch this year, especially since Webber and guard Jalen Rose both already qualify as go-to guys. Yet the Big Ten beat writers didn't even pick the Wolverines to win the conference. (Indiana was picked first, Michigan second.) Why? Probably because it's hard to imagine this season going as smoothly as last. Sure enough, Webber, Rose and backup center Eric Riley, a senior, got into mildly hot water during the summer for accepting $300 each to play in a charity game, though they were later absolved of blame by the NCAA. Furthermore, Webber and Rose figure to be dogged all year with questions about when they plan to turn pro. The Wolverines may make the disbelievers look silly again, but sometimes it's harder being a sophomore than it is being a freshman.

We tried so hard to take a wait-and-see attitude toward California freshman Jason Kidd (page 68), but when Kidd won the MVP award in a San Francisco pro-am league this summer, outplaying teammates Brian Shaw and Gary Payton of the NBA, we had to give the Golden Bears a seat in our Top 20 band. And it's not as if Kidd, a 6'4" guard, won't have help. Senior center Brian Hendrick, Cal's leading scorer, is back after missing part of last season with a dislocated kneecap, and the Bears have a gang of talented sophomores who gained valuable experience during last year's 10-18 season. But to be fair, we'll let Lou Campanelli, Cal's coach and spin doctor, try to keep the pressure off his young team. "We were ninth [in the Pac-10 at 4-14] and still have nine freshmen and sophomores on our roster," says Campanelli. "I'll let you know when we're good."

The Bass Players

A good big man is like a bass player, thumping away in the background, laying down that solid beat. Some teams' fortunes will depend on what kind of bass line, uh, baseline play they get. After last season at Seton Hall, 6'7" forward Jerry Walker did everything but deliver a carton of Slim-Fast to the front door of portly center Luther Wright. The 7'2" Wright was 20 pounds overweight at the start of last season and never was much of a factor, leaving the stalwart but out-of-position Walker to slug it out with bigger centers. "After the season I said to Luther, 'It's up to you to get into shape,' " says Walker. "I want to play my natural position and have a shot at going to the pros." Walker's brother Jasper supervised Wright's summer workouts, which included running the stairs of St. Peter's Church in Jersey City, N.J., for half an hour every day. Wright also spent a lot of time in the weight room. He's down to 270 not-so-soft pounds, which means he could transform the Pirates from a solid but undersized team into a serious Final Four contender. Walker and shooting guard Terry Dehere can carry Seton Hall part of the way, but if coach P.J. Carlesimo is still answering questions about Wright's weight in January, the Pirates will be in trouble.

Don't be alarmed if you're in East Lansing, Mich., and a 6'10", 270-pound hulk with a Polish eagle and the words PURE BRED tattooed on his ankle comes vroom-vrooming up next to you on a motorcycle. It's just Michigan State biker-center Mike Peplowski. He may not be quite as intimidating on the court as he is on the streets, but he's close. Peplowski, the second-leading rebounder in the Big Ten last season, behind Michigan's Webber, has fought back from four knee operations to become a controlling force under the basket. Guard Shawn Respert, a 45.5% three-point shooter last season, will handle the outside shooting. Coach Jud Heathcote is still looking for a point guard, however.

With apologies to Peplowski, the real intimidator in the Big Ten is 6'10" center Acie Earl of Iowa, who has led the Big Ten in blocked shots for the last three years. Earl isn't exactly smooth on offense—the form on his jump shot has been likened to that of a man falling out of a tree—but he was effective enough to lead the Hawkeyes with 19.5 points per game last year. He'll get help from forward Chris Street, who is a solid rebounder, and highly regarded freshman forward Kenyon Murray, Michigan's high school player of the year last season.

Louisville coach Denny Crum loves the ponies. He's part owner of 14 thoroughbreds, so he no doubt realizes that intrastate rival Kentucky has moved several furlongs out in front of his program. Cardinal fans certainly do. It should help that 6'9" forward Cliff Rozier, a transfer from North Carolina, gives the Cards the kind of inside strength they lacked last season, when they were downright tiny. Rozier didn't get a chance to show the full range of his talents with the Tar Heels, and he could blossom now that he'll get more minutes. Point guard Keith LeGree, who is a promising shortstop in the Minnesota Twins' farm system, will help if he can improve his jumper enough so that his shooting percentage doesn't resemble his batting average.

The Up-Tempo Crowd

These are the teams that like to pick up the beat and run, run, run. At the moment the only thing Charlie Ward of Florida State is running is the Seminoles' football offense. Ward, the Florida State quarterback, is also the basketball Seminoles' point guard and chief stabilizing influence, which is why coach Pat Kennedy is praying that Ward doesn't get folded, spindled or mutilated before he trades his helmet for hoops in January.

Everything else is set for Florida State, which has a guard rotation that, in addition to Ward, includes leading scorer Sam Cassell and ACC Rookie of the Year Bob Sura. The front line features 6'9" Douglas Edwards, who is already a star, and 6'9" Rodney Dobard, who may become one. Assuming that Ward does return with all his limbs intact, his absence during the first part of the season may turn out to have been a good thing for the Seminoles, who are certainly the quickest team in the ACC and might be the quickest in the country. "Great teams build during the season," says Kennedy, "so by the time they reach the tournament, they're at their best."

Arizona has rarely been at its best in the NCAA tournament, including last spring when East Tennessee State raced past the slower Wildcats in the first round. Arizona will have no choice but to pick up the pace this year, because the days of the multiple 7-footers are over for the Wildcats. Fortunately for coach Lute Olson, fleet guards Khalid Reeves and Damon Stoudamire are on hand to up the tempo. But Arizona's fortunes rest largely on the shoulders of two seniors, 7-foot center Ed Stokes and 6'6" forward Chris Mills. They once showed promise of being future All-Americas. They have one last chance to deliver.

A piece of fan mail from Archbishop Desmond Tutu hangs on Tulane coach Perry Clark's office wall. Tutu obviously was unaware of how often the Green Wave breaks the Seventh Commandment. Tulane stole the ball more than 12 times a game last season and forced opponents into an average of 22.1 turnovers in the process, making most of its opponents play at a faster pace than they wanted to. Don't expect the Green Wave to reform its thieving ways this year. Starters Anthony Reed, a 6'9" forward, and Kim Lewis, a 6'4" guard, will take care of the bulk of the scoring, and Clark will again turn loose the Posse, his band of sticky-fingered subs, to run down opposing ball handlers.

What's this? Oklahoma getting stodgy? The Sooners averaged only 94.8 points per game last year, which was tops in the Big Eight, as was their average of 74.8 shots per game. That might sound like runnin' and gunnin' to you, but it's all coach Billy Tubbs can do to stifle a yawn. "I think there's been a drift toward us being conservative," he says. "We've got to get back into the hundreds on a regular basis. I have never won a game when our defense was better than our offense."

The rise of so many talented teams in the Big Eight in the last few years has seen Oklahoma struggling to keep up. Tubbs would feel better about his chances this year if coveted junior college forward Anthony Cade hadn't decided to turn pro instead of joining the Sooners.

Sitting In

A few chairs are always reserved for teams that are only occasional visitors to the Top 20 band. Sitting in is what Florida coach Lon Kruger does when one of his players has an operation; so far in his career Kruger has scrubbed for surgery four times. That's grisly duty for Kruger, but it must engender a sense of togetherness, because the Gator whole is certainly greater than the sum of its parts. Senior forward Stacey Poole, who has come back from operations on both of his Achilles tendons and on his left knee, is still the only Florida player you would take if you were choosing up sides for a pickup game. But the Gators somehow won 19 games last season and reached the semis of the NIT, despite being at or near the bottom of the SEC in just about every offensive category. With all five starters back—some will be pushed for their jobs by a strong group of freshmen—and with competition in the SEC weakened, the Gators should be even better this season.

Justus Thigpen Jr. is a 6'2", 195-pound scoring machine from Iowa State. He's the son of a former NBA player, wears a gold necklace that spells JUST ICE (his nickname) and lit up some of the country's best teams last year, including a 32-point scorching of Kentucky in the NCAA tournament. How someone like that could escape attention is beyond us, but for the most part Thigpen has. He and the rest of the sweet-shooting Cyclones, who have all five starters back from a surprise team that won 21 games last year, will be even stronger this season. How far they go may depend on whether coach Johnny Orr can keep Ice out of the refrigerator; Thigpen's effectiveness decreases as his weight increases. Julius Michalik, a 6'11" forward from Czechoslovakia, could use a few of those pounds, but he's a fine shooter.

Nebraska shows signs of becoming a regular member of the band. The Cornhuskers added one of the nation's best recruiting classes to a nucleus of four returning starters, only one of whom, center Derrick Chandler, is a senior. Coach Danny Nee has a long-range bomber in forward Eric (the Polish Rifle) Piatkowski and the Big Eight's best shot blocker in Chandler. The Huskers will be formidable under the boards with the addition of 6'8" Toledo transfer Tom Best, a rebounding specialist.

If you thought the nickname Minutemen referred to how long Massachusetts would be among the country's elite, think again. UMass probably won't roll up another 30-5 record, as it did a year ago, but even with the loss of leading scorer Jim McCoy, there is plenty of talent left, including an impressive front line that features 6'7" senior Harper Williams, the Atlantic 10 player of the year. Hot young coach John Calipari, whose name has been mentioned in connection with every job opening except the one in the White House, apparently is convinced the cupboard isn't bare, because he signed a new four-year contract. The Minutemen are scheduled to move out of intimate Curry Hicks Cage into a new $43 million arena in February, launching the big-time era at UMass. Alas, however, it also means that fans will no longer be able to rage in the Cage.

PHOTOBRIAN SPURLOCKWebber's rim shots will help make Michigan one of the teams to beat. PHOTOBRIAN SPURLOCKLynch figures to score more for Carolina. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONHardaway ranked high in five categories. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERSeminole Sura was ACC Rookie of the Year. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOWell-heeled Poole is the top Gator operator.

SI's Top 20

1. Kentucky
2. Kansas
3. Michigan
4. Memphis State
5. Duke
6. Florida State
7. North Carolina
8. Seton Hall
9. Indiana
10. Iowa State
11. Tulane
12. Iowa
13. Oklahoma
14. Arizona
15. Louisville
16. Michigan State
17. Massachusetts
18. Nebraska
19. California
20. Florida