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AFTER A SLOW START, SOUTH CAROLINA HAS STREAKED TO THE TOP OF THE SEC CINCY REVISITED MR. MEAN IS BACK

Feb. 17, 1997
Feb. 17, 1997

Table of Contents
Feb. 17, 1997

AFTER A SLOW START, SOUTH CAROLINA HAS STREAKED TO THE TOP OF THE SEC CINCY REVISITED MR. MEAN IS BACK

THE OTHER CAROLINA

This is an article from the Feb. 17, 1997 issue Original Layout

How does South Carolina, the only SEC team undefeated in
conference play, prepare for a game? Sophomore guard BJ McKie
listens to mellow jazz. Junior point guard Melvin Watson pours a
few drops of oil blessed by a preacher into a whirlpool and hops
in for a spiritual soak. Coach Eddie Fogler, the brains of the
outfit, takes a nap.

Not that the Gamecocks don't take their opponents seriously. A
team doesn't knock off No. 3 Kentucky 84-79 in overtime on Feb.
4 and beat Florida 76-68 four days later for its 10th and 11th
consecutive SEC victories by taking things lightly. It's just
that this team has already done all the cracking under pressure
it can stand for a year. You may have to reach back a few
decades to find the last really good South Carolina team, but
you only have to go back about six weeks to find the last really
bad one. Despite high expectations in the preseason, the
Gamecocks were 5-5 in late December, having been defeathered by
the likes of North Carolina-Asheville and Charleston Southern.
"Perhaps we let the pressure of being ranked get to us, and
maybe we were playing not to lose rather than to win," says
McKie, the team's leading scorer, with a 17.6 average. "But I
know our chemistry wasn't good, and we were second-guessing our
coach and not understanding our roles. So we had a players-only
meeting and straightened things out. I really think that if we
hadn't lost those games then, we wouldn't be undefeated in the
SEC now."

At week's end the Gamecocks were 17-5 and ranked No. 12 in the
country. They're No. 1 in the hearts of Columbians, many of whom
have called Fogler's radio show to thank him for "bringing
Gamecock basketball back." And unlike Frank McGuire, who stocked
his powerful teams of the late 1960s and early '70s with fellow
New Yorkers, Fogler, a New Yorker as well, has thrived with
local talent. Nine of his 12 players and four of his five
starters are from in-state.

The Gamecocks' main strength is their three-man backcourt.
Besides the silky McKie, whose first name is really Bjorn--"I
think it's Swedish for Bernard," he says--there is senior Larry
Davis, who scored all of 84 points in two seasons as a backup at
North Carolina before transferring to South Carolina three years
ago. Davis felt right at home in the system used by Fogler, a
former Tar Heel player and 15-year Dean Smith assistant whose
practices mirror Smith's down to the number of laps run before
practice (five) and the seconds allotted freshmen for water
breaks (fewer than the seniors get). "The system is the same and
the expectations are the same," says Davis, whose role is
decidedly not the same. A pine rider no more, Davis is the
Gamecocks' second-leading scorer, at 15.7 points per game.

The other member of the backcourt trio, the sweet-tempered
Watson, played erratically in December but has been making
amends ever since. Against Kentucky he had 15 points, six
rebounds, five assists and the final basket in regulation that
forced the game into overtime; against Florida he scored 12
points and had 11 assists, the first double double of his
career. For Watson the dark days of December are ancient
history. "The winning streak has been great," he says, "but I do
have one fear. If we lose, how will we respond?"

THE CATS MEOW

There is one important difference between Alice, the 11-year-old
bear cat mascot that pads around Cincinnati's Shoemaker Center
on a leash, and the Cincinnati basketball team. Alice, a furry,
squat creature with a sharp little bear face, can be much
fiercer than she looks. The Bearcats' team, on the other hand,
has turned out to be much tamer than expected by the preseason
prognosticators (including SI) who ranked them No. 1.

The Bearcats (17-4, 6-1 in Conference USA through Sunday) won
two home games last week and improved their ranking to No. 8
from a season low of 12, but they are still struggling to find
the beast within. Their 65-64 win over then No. 21 Tulane last
Thursday, their first win against a ranked team all season, was
decided on a last-second layup by junior forward Danny Fortson,
a play on which, even Fortson admitted, he took "about six
steps." And Cincinnati's 91-70 rout of faltering Marquette two
days later, while impressive in some respects--the Bearcats shot
55% against an opponent with the nation's best
field-goal-percentage defense and demonstrated their own
suffocating pressure D for an entire game--still did not reveal
a team that looks ready to roar to the Final Four.

Cincinnati's biggest flaw, which was acutely obvious in losses
to Temple and Louisville, is at point guard. Junior Charles
Williams is flashy but often ineffective, and senior Damon
Flint, who plays the position about as much as Williams, is a
terrific defender but not a natural playmaker. Against the
Cardinals the two combined for 11 assists and 11 turnovers.

After the Louisville game, Bearcats coach Bob Huggins said,
"There were 13 people in both cities who didn't know that this
was a big game and that we'd have to play hard. Unfortunately,
all 13 of those people are on my team. We haven't had a
championship approach to things. We've played hard for a while,
and then we've played lackadaisical. I hope that they understand
our backs are against the wall."

Fortson seems to believe that predicament has helped motivate
his team. "At the beginning of the season we were the poodle
carrying the bone, and every other dog wanted it," he said after
the Tulane win. "Now that we've lost it, we have something to
prove."

A SCREAMING SUCCESS

Bill Musselman, whose near pathological need to win has marked
his work at every collegiate and professional coaching stop he
has made in the last 32 years, may have met his match in
doggedness two years ago. South Alabama president Frederick P.
Whiddon was so impressed with him in an interview that he
persuaded Musselman to stay in Mobile for three days--buying him
fresh clothes as needed--until the man who was fired by the
Minnesota Timberwolves in 1991 for wanting, as he put it, to
"win too much" agreed to coach the Jaguars.

After nearly two seasons with Musselman at the helm, Whiddon's
tenacity seems well justified. Employing a crammed playbook with
more than 70 half-court offensive plays and an adhesive
man-to-man defense, Musselman has guided South Alabama to a 16-5
record through Sunday, the Jaguars' best start in 16 years and a
major improvement over last year's 12-15 finish. "Colleges
weren't knocking his door down to hire him," says South Alabama
athletic director Joe Gottfried of Musselman, "but he has a
reputation for turning teams around very quickly."

Musselman has other reputations as well. In his last college
coaching job he led the University of Minnesota to the 1971-72
Big Ten title--the Golden Gophers' first outright conference
championship in 53 years--in his first season. But he is better
remembered for the vicious brawl his team started against Ohio
State that same season, in which Buckeyes center Luke Witte
suffered a horrific beating. Musselman stayed on for three more
seasons, but when he left Minnesota in 1975, he was relegated to
stints at an alphabet soup of leagues (ABA, WBA, CBA),
interspersed with brief NBA tours with the Cleveland Cavaliers
and the Timberwolves. "That fight almost ruined my career," says
Musselman. "I was a saint before that fight. It was terrible
that it happened."

Of course, Musselman's on-court intensity was one cause of the
brawl, and that intensity has not diminished. Musselman yells on
the sidelines with a ferocity that borders on lunacy. But his
Jaguars players and assistants swear by him. "He is the most
intense guy I've ever come across and the most detail-minded
person I've ever met," says assistant coach Tommy Wade. "We know
our opponents inside and out. But my first year working for him
was a living hell."

"Off the court he's a real nice guy," says senior guard Brandon
Peterson. "He talks a lot and tells stories. But as soon as he's
back on the court, he's a different person. He's a Dr. Jekyll
and Mr. Hyde guy. But look how much better we are this year than
last."

That Musselman, 56, has turned the South Alabama program around
in the face of numerous handicaps--a local populace largely
uninterested in basketball, a musty 3,138-seat home court and a
recruiting budget that this year was slashed from $30,000 to
$10,000--speaks to a singular thirst for competition that shows
no signs of mellowing as he enters deep middle age. "I put
everything I've got into it," says Musselman of coaching. "I
don't need this, but I love it."

COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND McKie (3) mellows out with jazz and then scorches foes for a team-high 17.6 points per game. [BJ McKie in game]