THE CARDS ARE FLYING AGAIN
This is an article from the Feb. 3, 1997 issue
Next to the desk in his office, Louisville coach Denny Crum
keeps an hourglass the size of a night table, a gift from a fan.
Except for a small pile of granules at the bottom, most of the
sand lingers in the top half of the glass. "Some moisture must
have gotten in there," says Crum. "It seems to be stuck." Or
maybe it's just moving at a leisurely pace, which makes it
perfect for measuring what could be Crum's finest hour, one that
may stretch across the 1996-97 season.
What elevates this half-finished campaign above Crum's
others--including 20 that ended in the NCAA tournament, with six
Final Four appearances and two national titles--is how he has
taken an undersized team and made it a winner, and how
enthusiastic he has been while doing it. Observers in Kentucky
say that in the decade after he won his last championship, in
1986, Crum lost his fire, got lazy and let the Cardinals'
program slide. The nadir came last season when amid allegations
of NCAA violations in the recruiting of center Mark Blount (who
ended up at Pitt) and reports of illegal benefits given to
center Samaki Walker, assistant coach Larry Gay was forced to
Early this season the NCAA completed its investigation of those
matters and handed Louisville a two-year probation but no other
sanction. With all that behind him, Crum took a team that
assistant coach Jerry Eaves, a member of the 1980 national
champion Cardinals, calls "one of the least talented teams we've
ever had here" and turned it into a juggernaut that was 16-2
through Sunday and ranked ninth in the latest AP poll. "This
team has far outdone my expectations," says Crum, who scheduled
a typically tough slate of opponents this season, including
Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky and Texas. "On paper you couldn't
do what they've done. But they keep finding ways to win."
Louisville has won three times in overtime and another time in
double OT. Last Saturday it beat a talented UCLA team 74-71 at
Freedom Hall in just 40 minutes, thanks to clutch three-point
shooting by former walk-on B.J. Flynn (whose father, Mike,
played on Kentucky's 1975 Final Four team). "This team reminds
me of our championship team in '80," says Eaves. "Not in terms
of talent but in terms of unselfishness. You never know who will
step up and have a big night."
The Cards have no starter taller than 6'7", and there's not an
NBA lottery pick among them, but they have a couple of things
many of Louisville's recent teams lacked--namely, good chemistry
and a strong work ethic. The player with the most press
clippings is the one who seems least likely to be impressed by
them: senior point guard DeJuan Wheat, who grew up in
Louisville's West End watching the Cardinals on TV. As different
teammates have stepped into the spotlight each game, Wheat has
been Louisville's one reliable scorer, with an 18.7-point
average through Sunday, down from 20.8 after the Cards' first
eight games of the season. "My average is dropping," he says,
"but I don't care."
Another steady and self-sacrificing force has been Alex Sanders,
Louisville's 6'7" sophomore center, who had to endure two years
of academic ineligibility before his learning disability was
discovered and addressed last year. Sanders, a native of
Houston's grim Fifth Ward, has a deep Barry White voice, a goofy
charm and a theory on why these Cards are clicking so well.
"We're a team full of winners, and we stick together," he says.
"There are no loners on this team. It seems like we've been
together since high school."
If it sometimes seems that they are still in high
school--freshman Nate Johnson, another goofball who gives his
teammates the giggles, couldn't keep a straight face through one
of Crum's recent chew-out sessions--that doesn't bother the
coach. "If it seems that I'm rejuvenated in my 38th year of
coaching, if it seems like I'm enjoying myself more, it's
because these kids are giving it everything they have," says
Crum. "You can't ask for much more than that."
No matter how ugly it gets for Missouri this year--the Tigers
dropped to a woeful 2-5 in the Big 12 after losing to Texas
78-74 on Sunday--the team as a whole can't possibly absorb as
much abuse as Mizzou's senior shooting guard, Jason Sutherland,
whose aggressive tactics have earned him the abiding wrath of
Big 12 opponents and their fans, the grudging respect of coaches
around the conference and our selection as the Most Annoying
Player in Division I.
A decent guy and good student off the court, Sutherland is a
consensus pain in the neck on it. He gets booed almost every
time he touches the ball when the Tigers play at Kansas, and on
Jan. 11 at Oklahoma State his aggravating, in-your-face play was
rewarded with the most hostile razzing ever heard at
Gallagher-Iba Arena. In a fairly typical game last week against
Nebraska, Sutherland was charged with two intentional
fouls--first for undercutting a Cornhusker on a layup, then for
hacking another--in the first seven minutes, and early in the
second half he was in the middle of a pileup that brought both
teams' coaches snarling onto the court. Sutherland, who
typically fans his opponents' fury by calmly walking away from
the melees he instigates, escaped unpenalized, but his coach,
Norm Stewart, was charged with a technical for screaming at his
Nebraska counterpart, Danny Nee. After that storm had passed,
Sutherland iced the game for Missouri with a clutch shot from
the foul line.
"I play very aggressive, I always have, and I know it gets
people mad at me," says Sutherland, who got into another dustup
on Sunday with Texas swingman Kris Clack, who complained that
Sutherland had been grabbing him throughout the game. "If I
cause my opponents to lose their concentration, to be thinking
about something other than what they should, great. That gives
our team an edge."
"There's not a coach in our league who wouldn't love to have
Sutherland on his team," says Iowa State coach Tim Floyd. "He
and Jerod Haase at Kansas are two of the fiercest competitors in
the nation. I love to watch kids play with that kind of passion.
It's infectious to teammates. It instills the kind of
competitiveness that you need to win on the road. I love Jason
Not everyone is so admiring. By the time Sutherland was a
sophomore, one TV broadcaster had labeled him the Bully of the
Big Eight, and another had called him the dirtiest player in the
Big Eight. Says Sutherland, "I'm definitely not a dirty player."
Growing up in Spearfish, S.D.--where his parents ran a
pest-control business, believe it or not--Sutherland became an
age-group champion swimmer at 10. In high school he was state
champion in the high jump and all-state as a quarterback and
safety in football and was named the state's Mr. Basketball.
Connie recalls that one year, after Jason made the winning shot
in overtime in a basketball game between two undefeated schools,
"we had to have a police escort out of there, the fans were so
mad at him."
Sutherland finds a certain honor in drawing the ire of so many
people. Of the cascade of boos that rained down on him in
Stillwater, he said, "I'll always remember it. At least they
recognize me for something."
It's hard to imagine that any team with Michael Jordan in the
backcourt would struggle to have a winning record, yet that's
the case with Penn, which was 6-7 at week's end after having
upset La Salle 67-60 last Thursday. Still, in the Ivy League the
Quakers were 2-0 and tied with Princeton for first place, thanks
in no small part to a freshman who shares his name with the best
basketball player of all time. "People hear me get introduced,
and they assume I'm going to come out and light it up," says
Michael Hakim Jordan, a 6-foot shooting guard. "But I know I'll
never play like Mike. I'm even 0 for 1 on dunks this year."
After enduring more than a decade's worth of wisecracks, Jordan
has cultivated a good sense of humor about his nominal
coincidence. Hence his choice of uniform number 23. At the
urging of older teammates, Jordan started wearing the number at
Abington Friends School near Philadelphia, where he was an
all-state guard his last two years. "When I got to Penn and 23
was available, I thought, Why not take it again?" says Jordan,
who denies that his parents were prescient about his hoops
talent when they named him. (After all, he was born in 1977,
about a year before His Airness failed to make the varsity at
Laney High in Wilmington, N.C.)
Not only does this Michael Jordan share a name and number with
the Bulls' star, but he also has an all-around game. He is
second on the Quakers in scoring, assists and steals, and he
was named Ivy League Rookie of the Week three times in January.
"Michael has the whole package, and he's done a great job," says
Penn coach Fran Dunphy. "But to us he's just another basketball
player whose name happens to be Michael Jordan." Perhaps so. But
Jordan's 10.5 average through Sunday was only three points below
his namesake's average in his first year at North Carolina. And
it wasn't immediately obvious how good the original Michael
Jordan was going to get, either.