Last Thursday night's Minnesota-Iowa game was the only
nationally televised ESPN game from Minneapolis all season, and
Golden Gophers swingman Sam Jacobson was enjoying the rare
opportunity to bask in the spotlight. At halftime, Jacobson had
already drained four three-pointers on his way to scoring 29
points in a 66-51 blowout of the Hawkeyes that gave Minnesota
sole possession of first place in the Big Ten. Back in the
studio, ESPN commentators were reviewing the game's first-half
highlights when flushed anchorman Chris Fowler referred to
Jacobson as "the Jewish Jordan." It was a nice compliment, but
alas, Jacobson is no Jordan. And he's Catholic.
Such is the fickle nature of celebrity for No. 6-ranked
Minnesota and a bevy of other previously anonymous teams that
have joined the nation's elite this season, creating a New World
Order in college basketball. Depending on your point of view,
the Golden Gophers and their ilk are either
pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps outfits that should be
applauded for bringing fresh blood into the ranks of the
Establishment or a gang of upstart punks running loose on the
grounds of the country club.
Heck, Miami has beaten Georgetown this season. Twice. In
basketball. Mississippi whipped Kentucky on Jan. 11 and cracked
the rankings for the first time since the Rebels started playing
hoops, which takes us back roughly to the Battle of Vicksburg.
Likewise, No. 18 Colorado is enjoying the fruits of 28
consecutive rebuilding seasons, appearing in the AP poll for the
first time since 1969. Three of last year's Final Four teams
(Massachusetts, Mississippi State and Syracuse) are currently
AWOL from the rankings. Pacific is 15-1. BYU is 1-15. We're not
even sure which is the best team in Cincinnati: Is it the 14-3
University of Cincinnati, which some experts predicted would win
the national title, or is it 13-3 Xavier, whose victories
include a 71-69 defeat of the Bearcats on Nov. 26? South
Carolina, ranked 25th, was still perfect in the SEC through
Sunday. On Jan. 4 Wisconsin beat Indiana for the first time in
17 years, thereby dropping the Hoosiers into the middle of the
pack in the Big Ten, chasing Minnesota, which hasn't won the
conference title since '82. Maryland, picked to finish eighth in
the ACC, knocked off undefeated Wake Forest--on the road--on
Jan. 19 and at week's end stood second in the conference, a game
ahead of No. 7 Clemson. Even Prairie View A&M, long the nation's
chew toy, won three of its first five Southwestern Athletic
Conference games, and the good folks at the league office are
still plumbing the archives to find the last time that happened.
All of which leads us to ask the musical question, Where have
all the powers gone?
Who thought we'd see a week like this, when the Top 25 doesn't
include Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Georgetown, Georgia
Tech, Massachusetts, Memphis, Oklahoma State, Providence,
Purdue, St. John's, Syracuse, Temple or UCLA?
And North Carolina, an 84-71 loser to Florida State last
Wednesday, is hanging on at No. 19 partly on reputation. Funny,
we began this season speculating on the possibility that Tar
Heels coach Dean Smith might break Kentucky legend Adolph Rupp's
record for most career victories. Now we're talking about Smith
setting personal records for futility. North Carolina lost its
first three ACC games for the first time ever, and the Tar
Heels, with a 3-4 league record at week's end, are in danger of
finishing out of the top three in the conference for the first
time since the 1963-64 season, Smith's third year at Chapel Hill.
North Carolina is enduring the kind of decline all traditional
basketball powers fear may beset them in this new era of
babysitting for the NBA. Three seasons ago the Tar Heels were so
loaded with talent that superfreshmen Jerry Stackhouse and
Rasheed Wallace were bench players. Still, the presence of those
two budding stars was enough to scare off top recruits for the
following season, and Smith signed only Shammond Williams and
Ryan Sullivan. Stackhouse and Wallace then left for the NBA in
1995, after their sophomore seasons. Junior guard Jeff McInnis
followed last year. All of a sudden this program, which more
than any other has preached the gospel of depending on seniors,
can barely muster any. As a result, the Tar Heels, who might
have started an imposing lineup of McInnis, Stackhouse, Wallace,
Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison this season, have instead given
crunch-time minutes to three walk-ons. "These things happen, and
individuals have to do what is best for them," says Smith, who
has always encouraged his players to leave for the NBA if they
project as high draft picks. "I'll bet Stanford's golf team
won't be as good this year without Tiger Woods, either."
Similarly, the losses of Shareef Abdur-Rahim at Cal, Ray Allen
at Connecticut, Allen Iverson at Georgetown and Stephon Marbury
at Georgia Tech to the 1996 NBA draft have crippled those teams.
And pity poor UMass, which handed the NBA not only the college
player of the year, Marcus Camby, who had finished only his
junior year, but also the foundation of its program, coach John
Calipari, who took over the New Jersey Nets. The Minutemen were
limping along at 10-9 at week's end.
It's no coincidence that Kansas and Wake Forest are the top two
teams in the polls; they're there primarily because two of the
nation's best seniors, the Jayhawks' Jacque Vaughn and the Demon
Deacons' Tim Duncan, stayed in school. Both Kansas and Wake
start three seniors, which is virtually unheard of in the 1990s.
At most schools, if a talented player hasn't gone to the pros,
he's probably auditioning for them. "Too many of our guys are
thinking about their NBA futures, and most of us don't have
one," UCLA junior Kris Johnson said after the Jayhawks crushed
the Bruins 96-83 in December. "You don't hear the Kansas guys
saying, 'You didn't give it to me on the break.'"
In the New World Order it may be shrewd to recruit players who
are good--but not too good. Take Clemson, which reached the Top
10 for the first time in its history this season and clawed its
way as high as No. 2 before losing to Wake and North Carolina
last week. Can anybody name a Tiger player? "We don't have a big
problem with guys itching to go early to the NBA," Clemson coach
Rick Barnes says. "Most of our guys were not highly recruited,
but we have been able to promise them some playing time, and
sometimes a no-name kid with a year of experience can prove to
be better than a blue-chipper who sits on the bench."
Some top recruits have purposely signed with lower-profile
schools, in part to ensure that they will play right away.
Minnesota's Jacobson, Colorado's Chauncey Billups and BJ McKie
of South Carolina each chose playing time over national
recognition. Jacobson is one of five upperclassmen on a
Minnesota team that is 10 players deep and does not include a
single guy who will sniff the NBA lottery, a fact that permits
coach Clem Haskins to sleep well at night.
Haskins has also benefited from an NCAA ruling that over a
two-year period, beginning with the 1992-93 season, reduced the
number of scholarships for basketball from 15 to 13. It allowed
him to recruit key players from areas once dominated by the
powers located there. He signed Courtney James from
Indianapolis, Quincy Lewis from Little Rock and Charles Thomas
from Harlan, Ky. Says Haskins, "In the old days, with 15
scholarships Arkansas would have pushed hard to sign Quincy, if
only to have him sit on the bench, and Kentucky probably would
have given Charles a scholarship. They would do that just to
keep those guys away from schools like us."
Transferring has also become epidemic, further redistributing
talented players who are impatient to show off their skills to
the NBA. Indiana, Michigan and Purdue have all lost an average
of one player a year through transferring in the 1990s. The
practice has wounded major programs so much that both North
Carolina's Smith and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski accepted their first
transfers this season. Vagabonds like Larry Davis (North
Carolina to South Carolina), Roshown McLeod (St. John's to
Duke), Martice Moore (Georgia Tech to Colorado) and Dedric
Willoughby (New Orleans to Iowa State) have all helped alter the
balance of power this season. "The high number of transfers is a
by-product of the generation, a combination of low tolerance and
high expectations," says Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson, whose
former starting point guard Prince Fowler transferred to TCU
after the '94-95 season. "A player comes in with expectations,
and if those aren't met immediately, he wants to move on."
Toughened academic standards have also contributed to the
diffusion of talent. The ACC, Big 12 and SEC don't accept
nonqualifiers (student-athletes who fall short of NCAA standards
in both their high school classwork and their board scores, and
therefore are ineligible to play as freshmen or receive a
scholarship), and the Pac-10 will most likely follow suit next
season. Those conferences are also limiting the number of
partial qualifiers (players who aren't eligible to play but can
receive a scholarship because they have high-enough grades but
not the necessary test scores) that each school can sign. And
all colleges are increasingly wary of potential academic
headaches. Syracuse lost Winfred Walton, one of the top five
freshmen this year, after the school challenged Walton's SAT
score and he didn't meet the required number when he took the
test again. Walton withdrew from school, leaving a gaping hole
in the Orangemen's lineup that has ruined their season.
It is this newly unstable nature of the college landscape that
has sent tremors through the polls all season. In the seven days
between the release of the Jan. 13 and Jan. 20 AP polls, 15 of
the Top 25 teams lost at least once. It should be noted that
because of the advent of superconferences, which have as many as
16 teams, some of this season's apparent young turks could be
impostors. A number of them have put together gaudy records by
chewing up bottom-feeders but have yet to face the traditional
powers in their conferences. Colorado, for example, jumped into
the rankings with an impressive win over another upstart, Iowa
State, but came up short on Sunday, falling 77-68 to Kansas.
South Carolina could be next in line at the slaughterhouse when
the Gamecocks finally encounter Kentucky on Feb. 4. Perhaps by
season's end we will have restored a measure of order, and Bob
Knight will be back in his comfort zone, chewing out some
unfortunate NCAA tournament men's room attendant. For now,
though, we have chaos, and maybe chaos isn't so bad for a
change. Says Barnes, "What's wrong with some new teams dreaming
about their one shining moment?"
Absolutely nothing. Just ask Division III Rutgers-Camden, which
enjoyed the season's most momentous reversal of fortune. On Jan.
7 the Pioneers defeated Bloomfield (N.J.) College 77-72 to snap
a 117-game losing streak that had spanned nearly five years.
Most of the 150 or so fans at the gym in Camden that night
stormed the court and looked on in wonder as the winning players
cut down both nets. Coach Ray Pace finally got to pop the cork
on a bottle of champagne that his wife, Susan, had been carrying
in her purse to every game. In the aftermath of the victory Pace
shared some sound advice with his team that might also apply to
all of college basketball's nouveaux riches. "We're on cloud
nine right now, but we can't get too wrapped up in our success,"
Pace told his players, who had never won a college basketball
game before. "We have to be careful not to rest on our laurels."