Even college students sometimes need a refresher in the simplest
grade school stuff. At Madison Square Garden last Friday night,
in the championship game of the Preseason NIT, Arizona and
Georgetown cracked open their primers for a lesson that went
something like this: See Cats and Dogs run. See Cats run fast,
all at the same speed. See Dogs run very fast and Top Dog run
faster than any other Dog. See Cats beat Dogs.
In the end it was elementary how the Wildcats finished off the
Hoyas 91-81, in spite of 40 points from Georgetown's hyperactive
sophomore guard, Allen Iverson. The game proved anew this
basketball truth: A good team beats a great individual.
Coaches are forever criticizing box scores for how they slight
the player who does "all the things that don't show up" in those
tidy rows of numbers. But every now and then a box reduces a
game to its essence, and that's what happened on Friday night.
For the losers, Iverson got his 40, and no one else had more
than seven points; for the victors, six players went for double
figures, and none scored more than 17. Iverson sank 12 of 27
from the floor while Arizona shot 60%. "If the key guy for them
doesn't shoot as good a percentage as we do as a team, he can
get all the points he wants," Arizona coach Lute Olson said
With last Friday night's numbers, the Wildcats made their case
against another set of integers: the Associated Press's
preseason Top 25. After a streak of 141 weeks in the AP poll,
dating back to 1987, Arizona found itself dropped from the first
poll of this season--apparently on the voters' assumption that
the Cats would flounder without do-it-all point guard Damon
Stoudamire, who's now a rookie starter for the NBA's Toronto
Raptors. Beating three teams in the Top 25 (Arkansas 83-73,
Michigan 86-79 and then the Hoyas) should give the Cats a good
start on a new streak. And the nation's top recruiting class to
date (five high school seniors have already committed to
Arizona, including Mike Bibby of Shadow Mountain High in
Phoenix, the top-rated point guard in the land and a son of
former UCLA and NBA star Henry Bibby) ought to keep the Cats in
the Top 25 until the millennium. But the disrespectful damage
had been done, and as anyone who has been around the college
game of late knows, there's no greater slight you can show a
team than to dis it.
"We got shafted before we even played a game," said Reggie
Geary, the mouthy senior guard who has taken over at the point
for Stoudamire, and whose loquacity is matched only by his
tenacity. "They figured we were dead. But we started breathing.
We're like a newborn baby, and we're cranky."
Center Joseph Blair directed his remarks at the press. "We knew
from the git-go. Was y'all who doubted us. That was a slap in
the face, and we're slapping people back now."
Many of those who doubted the prospects of this Arizona team
wondered whether Geary, a defensive specialist, had the tools to
take Stoudamire's place. Wildcats hearing that are highly
amused, for two seasons ago, when Arizona started a backcourt of
Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves and reached the Final Four, Geary
played the point for the reserve team in practice and, Olson
says, led his crew to victory over the starters more often than
not. At least one Cat implies that Geary's taking over the team
from a first-team All-America is a net plus. "Players win games,
but teams win championships," said reserve swingman Joe McLean,
who drained three three-pointers to help push Arizona to an
early 17-point lead. "Last year we had some players. This year
we're a team--six or seven guys contributing every time out. I'd
rather have a point guard who scores 10 points but is willing to
distribute the ball. You get a player who scores 40 and has a
few assists, you're going to win some games but you're not going
to win a championship."
Just when you thought McLean's remarks were intended as an
indictment of Iverson, he added, "Damon's a great player, and he
scored a lot of points. But we didn't win the games we were
supposed to." An Arizona sub dumping on an ex-teammate who could
turn out to be the NBA Rookie of the Year? They're taking this
team-first business awfully seriously in Tucson.
If you include summer league play, Geary has logged perhaps 300
games alongside his running mate in the backcourt, sophomore
Miles Simon, who was Geary's teammate for a season at Mater Dei
High in Santa Ana, Calif. For all of Geary's expressive energy,
Simon, whose sister Charisse is the current Mrs. Darryl
Strawberry, is smooth and poker-faced. How did he get that way?
Simple, Simon said: "I've played ball with [Strawberry] a couple
of times, and one time I was talking a little bit, having some
fun. He said bragging too much makes people hate you."
Counterweights to the backcourt duo are frontcourtmen Blair, who
goes 6'10" and 265 pounds, and Ben Davis, who is 6'8" and 255
pounds. They played off each other deftly in the semifinals
against Michigan, reading the Wolverines' double teams well
enough to combine for 33 points and eight assists. In the final,
despite foul trouble of his own, Blair fouled out Georgetown
center Othella Harrington and his backup Jahidi White, the 6'9",
270-pounder who looks as if he slipped his moorings at Macy's
Thanksgiving Day parade. When Blair was on the bench,
Davis--who's finally flourishing in the desert after an odyssey
that took him through three high schools, Division I stopovers
at Kansas and Florida and a year at junior college--stepped
forward and made good on five of six free throws before adding
an old-fashioned three-point play with 6:26 remaining that
spelled Hoya sayonara.
Georgetown had stormed into New York vowing to atone for the
unsightly crimes against the game it committed last season when
Iverson matched every assist with a turnover and a Connecticut
player described the Hoya offense as "a one-man fast break."
Harrington, then a junior, struggled for much of the season; he
never seemed able to dance to the tune Iverson called. But the
two got to know each other better on and off the court over the
summer as teammates on the USA Basketball squad that competed in
the World University Games in Fukuoka, Japan.
When practice opened this fall, Georgetown coach John Thompson
seemed to have resurrected the marauding spirit of the teams
that lorded over college basketball through the mid-1980s. The
Hoyas convened their first Midnight Madness (though in typically
contrarian fashion, Thompson held it six days after practice
opened), and workouts became so spirited that players needed a
total of 27 stitches in the first month of practice. "We're
going to return to the days of yesteryear," Thompson said after
the Hoyas whupped Colgate 106-57 in their opener, using an
attack that seemed like a race to the basket on every
possession. "We're going to play a lot of people, press and try
to get the game as ragged as it can become. We're taking
patience and leaving him home."
But there's an inherent contradiction in making a game "as
ragged as it can become" and having the kind of order that
frontcourt players like Harrington and Jerome Williams, and
shooters like Jerry Nichols and Joseph Touomou, need to get
reliably involved. Thompson says that Iverson "is inviting
Othella to the party this year," but in last Friday's final,
Georgetown's offense consisted of little more than Iverson and
freshman running mate Victor Page repeatedly dashing hell-bent
for the hoop. The Hoyas' half-court offense made for an
indecorous and ineffectual spectacle to rival the budget battle
back home in Washington.
Arizona exposed Georgetown's fundamental flaw by cool
counterexample. "We're a team here," said Geary, who was
Iverson's counselor at a Nike camp two years ago. "We're not a
one-man dribbling exhibition." But the Wildcats also showed up
the Hoyas with efficient execution. They doubled up on Iverson
when he came off screens. "Late in the game he got tired, and
his teammates weren't helping him," Simon would later say.
"Maybe he was wasting some oxygen running his mouth with
Reggie." The Cats also broke the Hoya press with surgical passes
up the floor, leaving Georgetown in much the same quandary as
the 1988 U.S. Olympic team Thompson coached to a disappointing
bronze medal finish: When the team's furious defense provided
few chances to score, there was little else to fall back on
Mention to Geary that the teams the Wildcats beat in the
Preseason NIT are all young ones, and you do so at your peril.
Geary thinks that observation is encoded with the dreaded
disrespect. "Don't be telling me all those excuses," he said.
"They'll say Georgetown's young, Coach Thompson had a cold, that
their mascot wasn't loud enough. This ain't no fluke. We got
down and got dirtier than they did."
Indeed, the Wildcats, representatives of the supposedly
pantywaist Pac-10, beat the bloody Big East's tone-setting team,
in that league's flagship arena, with gnomelike conference
officials Jim Burr and Tim Higgins refereeing the game. Arizona
did everything a team isn't supposed to be able to do until the
end of the season, and here it was, only the beginning of the
With Arizona, alas, much hangs on a prefix. This after all was
the Preseason NIT, and it's in postseason play that Arizona has
had much trouble, dropping first-round games in three of the
past four NCAA tournaments. Geary seemed to have that in mind in
his remarks following last Friday's final. "This is not the
watch I want," Geary said, contemplating his freshly awarded NIT
The more Geary regarded the timepiece, the more convinced he
became that several of his teammates had been fools to patronize
Manhattan sidewalk vendors who sold them watches, which, in
Geary's words, "are going to turn green and break in about 15
Sort of what the AP preseason poll did. Which raises the
question: Where should Arizona be ranked now? "Thirty-seven,"
Geary said. "Forty-two, 44. Who cares? We just proved rankings
don't mean nothin'."