Out came the Arkansas Razorbacks last Friday night at the Springfield (Mass.) Civic Center, baggy shorts flapping like circus tents, confidence in their eyes, defiance in their stride. Downplay that defending-champion thing? Not these guys. As soon as the Hogs hit the floor to warm up for their game against Massachusetts in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off" Classic, their spiritual leader, point guard Corey Beck, raised the index fingers of both hands and turned around and around, so the whole crowd could see just how much—or how little—the pressure to repeat was bothering Arkansas.
How many fingers would you raise now, Corey? Two?
Coach Nolan Richardson had ranted and raved throughout the preseason about how "every one of our opponents will be playing a national championship game," but his team, in its season opener at least, either did not hear him or did not heed him. UMass dismantled Arkansas 104-80. But before you could say "Soo-eeey," the Hogs regrouped on Sunday afternoon, routing Georgetown 97-79 in the first Martin Luther King Jr. Classic, at the Pyramid in Memphis, thereby establishing, if anyone had a doubt, that the defending champs have no intention of sliding into the mud.
Considering what hath been wrought in college basketball thus far this season, a loss by the consensus No. 1 team (though not SI's) was almost to be expected. Eleven of SI's Top 25 teams have already gone down, and No. 6 North Carolina barely escaped with a win over Texas.
Arkansas's hellish weekend excursion—"We should probably fire the coach who made this schedule," said Richardson, who made the schedule—included the introduction of a couple of intriguing subplots to this college season. First, it appears that UMass has adopted the same we-don't-get-no-respect mantra that Richardson used last season to prime the pumps of his feisty Hogs. Many of the Minutemen's postgame comments carried that theme. But though UMass has recently taken shots in the press about academic difficulties (SCORECARD, Oct. 31), it's hard to see how a No. 3 ranking in the preseason AP poll represents a lack of respect. Anyway, the real dis to the Minute-men was shown not by the press but by Arkansas All-America Corliss Williamson, whose preseason claim that "our second team could beat UMass" ended up posted in the Minutemen's locker room.
"He poured fuel on the fire," said UMass power forward Lou Roe, who poured water on Williamson with a monster 34-point, 13-rebound effort in the Tip-Off. "That pissed me off a little bit."
"Upset, Lou," corrected coach John Calipari. "It made you upset."
"We were a little upset by it," said Roe, smiling.
The second subplot concerns Georgetown and its sudden reinvention as Loyola Marymount East. All speculation about whether John Thompson would turn the reins of his usually conservative sleigh over to quicksilver freshman point guard Allen Iverson ended when Iverson pushed the ball upcourt after both makes and misses, took three-point jumpers whenever and from wherever he damn well pleased, scolded his teammates when they screwed up, and in general conducted himself like the second coming of Isiah Thomas. Which he is. Never mind the ugly numbers that Iverson put up on Sunday—5-for-18 shooting (19 points) and more turnovers (eight) than assists (two). He is one of the most exciting guards to come along in years, and Thompson should be praised, not buried, for giving Iverson a lot of rope. If his young supporting cast (Michael Jordan's Chicago Bull teammates never liked that phrase, either, but there it is) can keep up with Iverson, the Hoyas will be a factor come tournament time. "We've added six new faces, and we played the national champions on November 27," said a sanguine Thompson. "You expect some things to go wrong."
Nobody, however, expected things to go as wrong as they did for the Razorbacks in Springfield. Throughout the preseason Calipari had kept an Arkansas cap on his desk to remind him of the arduous task that lay ahead; as it turned out, Calipari ended up, symbolically speaking, with Richardson's head. Certainly the Hogs' weak showing had something to do with their failure to follow Richardson's Five-P credo—Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. The distractions of the road, combined with Tip-Off responsibilities (luncheon, Hall of Fame tour, visit to a children's hospital), left the Hogs with no time for a team meeting and with only a semblance of a game plan. Then, too, once the game started, Arkansas seemed to replace effort with bravado, intensity with haughtiness.
But the main reason for Arkansas's failure was that the Minutemen—come on, let's give 'em some respect now—are an outstanding team. Roe attached himself to Williamson and did not let go until he had limited college basketball's top strongman to an insignificant 15 points and seven boards. And whatever Roe didn't do, forward Donta Bright (24 points) and center Marcus Camby (13 points and 12 rebounds in 17 minutes) did.
In all phases of the game the Minute-men out-Hogged the Hogs, even in celebratory chest-bumping. Late in the first half Roe did the bump so forcefully with so many teammates that it's a wonder he didn't come away with a bruised sternum. (Mark this down: Somewhere, somehow, someone will miss a game this season because of a chest-bumping injury.) In effect, the game was over with 13:02 to go when with Arkansas trailing 64-40, Williamson blew a wide-open layup and then compounded the error by committing an over-the-top foul. That was around the time that Thompson, watching the game at home in D.C., turned it off in dismay. "I knew then we'd have no chance of sneaking up on them," he said of the Razorbacks. "They were going to be fired up."
Williamson had no explanation for his desultory play, but it represented the big guy's most crushing defeat since Richardson vetoed the dreadlocks Williamson showed up with at practice a few weeks ago. After the UMass game, Beck munched on a bilious combination of fast-food burgers and rueful analysis. Among the words and phrases he used to describe his team's performance: "Terrible. Awful. Stunk out the joint. Couldn't have been worse. A disgrace. A big embarrassment." Was there a bright side? "None," he said. "Only dark."
It wasn't a loss, for heaven's sake, it was a Camus novel. "I know this," Beck said. "If we're any kind of team, we're going to take it seriously."
They did. After arriving in Memphis at 3 a.m. on Saturday, Richardson had his players working hard at the Pyramid that afternoon. "We shouldn't have been tired," Richardson said later. "We didn't play against UMass."
From a technical standpoint the main thing the Hogs talked about was showing patience on both offense (making the extra pass rather than letting fly quickly) and defense (not rushing pell-mell and getting into foul trouble). From a mental standpoint they talked, as guard Clint McDaniel said, about "showing up as the NCAA champs instead of what showed up against UMass."
Beck made a brief refueling stop at his home in Memphis for turkey, greens and spaghetti ("Spaghetti's a vegetable in Memphis," he said) but returned to the hotel by nightfall to be with the team. The Razorbacks had a players-only meeting on Sunday morning, and it had a single theme: taking care of business.
Richardson, meanwhile, had all kinds of other business. He and Thompson, along with Temple coach John Chaney and former Southern Cal coach George Raveling—who is still recovering from injuries suffered in a serious car accident two months ago and could not attend—had come up with the idea of a doubleheader that would increase awareness of the Black Coaches Association. (Temple beat USC 65-54 in Sunday's all-but-ignored nightcap.) It was promoter Russ Potts's idea to name the event after Martin Luther King Jr. and stage it in Memphis, in part because that is where King was murdered in 1968. Consider what confronted Richardson and Thompson at Saturday night's banquet for the BCA. They had to make speeches, present any number of awards (including one to Michael Jordan), digest the rubber chicken and try to get Jesse Jackson to stop talking by sunrise.
"If Jesse can say 'thank you' in one minute," joked Thompson before presenting the rainbow reverend with a BCA award, "I'm going to make him a donation."
Thompson was as unsuccessful in that attempt as he was in stopping the charged-up Hogs the following afternoon. Oh, the Hoyas hung around for the first 10 minutes, during which Iverson canned three brassy three-pointers and missed another. In fact, the Hoyas attempted 18 treys in the first half alone (they made seven), which may explain why center Othella Harrington got only three shots before intermission and finished with seven points. "I was saying, 'Look at them lettin' 'em fly!' " said Thompson, who will no doubt be less giddy if the Hoyas are practicing such long-range masonry in February.
Gradually Arkansas's experience took over. For every Georgetown mistake or weakness, the Hogs found a way to exploit it. Each time Iverson penetrated, Arkansas took the ball back the other way in a hurry. "He does get to the basket," McDaniel said of Iverson, "but he doesn't always get back."
Every time Georgetown trapped, Arkansas patiently found a seam, usually with Williamson in it. The big man redeemed himself with a nearly mistake-free 22-point, 16-rebound effort. The Hogs' other forward, 6'6" junior Scotty Thurman, as efficient a player as there is in the college game, posted up the Hoyas time and again and finished with 16 points.
The most telling snapshot of the game, one that suggests the relative status of the two teams, occurred on an inbounds play with about 10 minutes left and the Hogs ahead by 20 points. Iverson found himself chest-to-chest with junior forward Reggie Garrett, another in a long line of lean, mean Arkansas defensive machines. The 6'5" Garrett put his body on Iverson and, like a boxer at the prefight instructions, stared down into Iverson's eyes, daring a challenge. The Hoya freshman never met his gaze. The day will come when he will stare right back.
Then again, the Hogs are good enough to stare anyone down. Yes, the loss to UMass was bothersome, particularly because it was so decisive, but gone are the days when powerhouse teams can cha-cha-cha through November and December. One could, in fact, advance the theory that some coaches don't mind losing a couple of tough early nonconference games because they help guard against peaking too soon. By Sunday night that was the spin Richardson was putting on the Hogs' eventful weekend.
"What we've got to do with the UMass game is paint a picture and keep it in our heads," he said. "Somewhere near the end of the season, I might be saying, 'If it weren't for UMass, we might not be where we are today.' "
And clearly, where the Hogs expect to be is at the top.