ONE TOUGH TARGET
Coach John Calipari calls it "the golden, 400-pound bull's-eye."
For the past month, ever since Massachusetts became major
college basketball's last remaining unbeaten team, his Minutemen
have carried the imaginary bull's-eye with them to every game.
"We like it," Calipari says. "You see, we think the pressure is
on the other team because they're going to have to play great
for 40 minutes to beat us. They know that, and we know that. So
what we try to do every night is take the bull's-eye, hand it
over to the other guys and say, 'Here, you hold this for a
couple of hours.'"
The UMass bull's-eye has never loomed as large as it did last
Saturday in Blacksburg, Va., where the top-ranked Minutemen
faced 10th-ranked Virginia Tech in what was arguably the biggest
game in the 35-year history of Cassell Coliseum. Tech had won 17
straight games in Cassell, an old barn of a place whose seating
is so steeply banked that a sellout crowd of 10,052 looks and
sounds twice that size. Revved-up Hokies fans were saying their
team was ready to snap the UMass streak.
February 26, 1996
Virginia Tech trailed just 56-48 with 4:33 left, despite a
Marcus Camby masterpiece (31 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks).
But over the next 1:15, UMass scored seven consecutive points,
and the rout was on. Final score: Massachusetts 74, Tech 58.
The Minutemen improved to 25-0 (while dropping the Hokies to
19-3). At week's end they needed just four more victories to
become only the fourth Division I team in the last 20 years to
finish the regular season undefeated. But more than a few people
argue that UMass would be better off if it lost a game before
the start of postseason play.
Nevada-Las Vegas was the last team to reach the NCAA tournament
unbeaten, in 1991. The Runnin' Rebels were the defending
national champions, and they rolled through 34 games without so
much as a scare. Their first tight game was in the national
semifinals against Duke, and they couldn't handle it, blowing a
five-point lead with 2:31 to play and falling to the Blue Devils
Jerry Tarkanian, who coached that UNLV team, thinks his team
would have benefited from a pretournament loss. "The biggest
problem with the win streak is that the pressure mounts with
every win," says Tarkanian, now the coach at Fresno State. "We
destroyed everybody all year, and it got to the point where it
was hard to get the players up. Even Duke. We had beaten them by
30 the year before. It's easier to get a team back down to earth
if it's been humbled once."
The Minutemen haven't been humbled, but they have been scared.
They trailed Maryland by 16 in the first half before winning by
three. Against Memphis they squandered a 16-point lead and fell
behind late in the game before again winning by three. They
needed overtime to beat St. Joseph's, Pittsburgh and Xavier.
"People keep saying they shouldn't be Number 1 because they're
in the Atlantic-10 and they keep playing close games," Virginia
Tech coach Bill Foster says. "I've faced five or six Number 1
teams in my career, and they can play with any of them."
Camby insists a perfect regular season isn't that important.
"Our goal has never been to go undefeated," he says. "Our goal
is to go undefeated in March and April."
It was an emotional day at Bowling Green on Feb. 14. Five hours
before the Falcons hosted No. 23 Eastern Michigan, point guard
Antonio Daniels sat in coach Jim Larranaga's office. It had been
only six days since his older brother, Chris, Dayton's starting
center, died suddenly. "I told Antonio, 'You don't have to play
tonight,'" Larranaga says. "He hadn't slept all night, and he
hadn't eaten all day. But he said he had to play. He said Chris
had planned on coming to this game."
Daniels didn't just play, he played all 40 minutes, wearing the
number 33 that his brother had worn at Dayton. He scored 20
points, outplayed Eastern Michigan point guard Earl Boykins and
went the length of the court in the final seconds for the layup
that gave Bowling Green a 72-70 victory.
"In the 25 years I've been coaching," Larranaga said afterward,
"I've probably never had a day when it was more difficult to
understand and control emotions."
Despite the loss, the Eagles have been one of the better stories
in college basketball this season. Eastern Michigan is the
school that produced George Gervin, and it reached the Sweet 16
of the NCAA tournament in 1991. But until three weeks ago, the
program had never been ranked by the Associated Press.
The Eagles, 19-3, are led by the diminutive Boykins, who is
listed as 5'7" and 140 pounds. As a kid he learned to dribble
with a tennis ball. He still does dribbling drills with one
because, he says, "it makes a basketball feel like a beach ball."
Coach Ben Braun likes to use as many as 10 players, and traps
and presses all over the floor. "The thing about our players is
that they're versatile," Braun says. "They can play more than
Braun, who has been at Eastern Michigan for 11 years, wins with
players the big schools tend to ignore. Guard Brian Tolbert
didn't receive any other Division I offers, and small forward
Derrick Dial (14.1 points, 6.1 rebounds) paid his way to school
for a year. Boykins was overlooked by a lot of schools because
of his size. Now some NBA scouts believe he may have a chance to
play at that level.
The spat between Dean Smith of North Carolina and Rick Barnes of
Clemson continues. Last March, during a quarterfinal game in the
ACC tournament, the two coaches almost came to blows. Barnes was
angry because Smith was yelling at one of the Tigers, Iker
Iturbe. Smith thought Iturbe had fouled Jerry Stackhouse too
hard on a drive to the basket.
Last week, when the Tar Heels played at Clemson, Smith was at it
again, yelling at Clemson's Bill Harder, who he thought was
holding Dante Calabria's jersey throughout the game. "I was
telling him, 'You're a better defensive player than that; move
your feet,'" Smith said afterward.
Harder's version was different. "He kept yelling that I was a
dirty player," he said.
As the teams left the court after Carolina's 53-48 victory,
Barnes sought an explanation from Smith. Referee Larry Rose got
between them, and Smith's parting words to Barnes were, "Call me."
Barnes hasn't called. Last Thursday, Smith released a statement
in which he said it was unfair of the press to keep bringing up
the issue. Tar Heels athletic director John Swofford also issued
a "so what's the big deal" statement.
To Barnes it is a big deal. "I don't understand why he keeps
talking to my players that way," he says. "I wouldn't do that to
his players, and I don't know any other coach in this league who
ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan is said to be furious. According
to the officials' report filed after Carolina's 86-53 victory
over Clemson last month in Chapel Hill, Smith yelled at Harder
during the game. ACC sources say Corrigan has repeatedly told
Smith to back off, but he hasn't. Corrigan also pleaded with
Barnes not to keep bringing the matter up publicly, but Barnes
has failed to comply. Now Corrigan is considering suspending
both coaches the next time the schools meet.