When Mississippi coach Rob Evans promised fans at last season's
Midnight Madness that the Rebels would win the SEC Western
Division, "people looked at me like I was nuts," he says. After
Ole Miss made good on that promise--and won 20 games for the
first time since the 1937-38 season, broke into the Top 25 for
the first time in history and earned its first NCAA bid in 16
years--Rebels fans eagerly looked to Evans for another crazy
prediction this year. SEC title? Sweet 16? But Evans promised
nothing. "Last year the pressure on these guys was incredible,"
says Evans. "They were trying to do things that had never been
done here before. I don't want to put that kind of pressure on
them again. This year, we just want to enjoy this team."
What's not to enjoy? Mississippi has beaten nine of 10
nonconference opponents, including Temple and Louisville, and
last Saturday, in a matchup of the SEC's defending division
champions at Tad Smith Coliseum in Oxford, Ole Miss rode
roughshod over 11th-ranked South Carolina, which had handed the
Rebels their worst loss of the season last year. Behind junior
guard Keith Carter's 26 points and a nagging man-to-man defense
that resulted in the Gamecocks' highest number of turnovers (24)
and fewest points this season, Mississippi exacted revenge with
a 73-54 victory that brought its record to 10-1 and its national
ranking to No. 14 in the AP poll. The near-sellout crowd of
8,033 enjoyed every raucous minute of it.
Indeed, Ole Miss basketball fans, a species that was so scarce
just a few years ago that Rebels players could walk the streets
of Oxford without being recognized, are suddenly among the most
rabid in the conference. On Nov. 22, a day on which Mississippi
hosted Georgia in football and Temple in basketball, tickets to
the afternoon football game were scalped for $10, while those to
the evening's basketball game at the Tad Pad went for 10 times
That enthusiasm is a credit to Evans, who has assembled an
exciting, hard-nosed team that is notoriously aggressive on both
ends of the court. "Ole Miss has the best man-to-man defense in
the league," says Gamecocks point guard Melvin Watson. "They
will expose how tough you really are."
Evans should be pleased to hear that, because a player's
toughness is something he probes regularly, especially through
his much-despised Five and Five Club, the five-mile run at 5
a.m. that a player must complete every time he misses a class,
tutoring session or treatment--or forgets to stop by Evans's
office for a daily chat. "If a player misses class, I set up a
tutoring session for him during practice," says Evans, "and if
he doesn't practice, he doesn't play." Needless to say, the
Rebels don't blow off class, or Evans, very often.
It helps that when it comes to being strong in the face of
temptation, Evans practices what he preaches. Last spring he
turned down a lucrative offer to coach at LSU so he could stick
with the program he began to build six years ago against long
odds and rampant skepticism. "Two of the main reasons I stayed
were [seniors] Ansu Sesay and Joezon Darby," says Evans. "I had
told them we could do something special here, and I felt a
responsibility to see that through."
Sesay, a 6'9" forward and an All-America candidate from Houston
who led the Rebels with a 17.7-point average at week's end, was
Evans's most important recruit as well as one of the most
difficult to reel in. Sesay was discouraged from going to Oxford
by family and friends who felt the Ole Miss campus would be an
uncomfortable place for a black player. But Evans, whose son,
Damon, had been the first black to pledge the Sigma Chi
fraternity at Mississippi, in 1992, convinced Sesay he would
thrive in Oxford. "The first two years were rough because I
wasn't used to losing so much," says Sesay, who endured a 20-34
record those two seasons. "I wanted to go home every single day.
But winning takes care of everything."
BILLY BALL IS BACK
Let others wring their hands over the demise of sportsmanship;
when Texas Christian coach Billy Tubbs saw that Long Island had
beaten Medgar Evers College by a record margin, 179-62, on Nov.
26, his first thought was "We need to break that."
By using the same approach that earned Oklahoma a Final Four
berth when Tubbs coached there in 1988--a 40-minute press
executed by gunslingers plucked from the juco ranks--the Horned
Frogs have taken their shots at LIU's mark. Though the Frogs
have fallen to Kansas and Syracuse, their only two ranked
opponents so far, and to undefeated Oklahoma State, they were
11-3 through Sunday and averaging 104.8 points per game, tops in
the NCAA (and good enough to be second in the NBA, for that
matter, behind only the L.A. Lakers).
TCU had so thoroughly pounded the weaker teams on its
slate--Delaware State and Texas Pan-American, for instance,
succumbed by 63 and 66 points, respectively--that, going into
their game against New Mexico on Monday, the Frogs had two
players in the nation's top 20 scorers: 6'9" center Lee Nailon
(24.8 points per game) and 6'3" guard Mike Jones (22.9). Malcolm
Johnson, the Frogs' 6'4" shooting guard, wasn't far behind at
According to Jones, who transferred to TCU from Northeastern
Oklahoma A&M in 1996, playing for Tubbs is an ideal situation
for juco transfers like him and Nailon and Johnson: "When you're
coming out of a JC, you want to go to a program that's rising,
and, deep down, running and gunning is every player's dream."
Of course, one man's dream is another man's nightmare. Tubbs's
lust for triple digits is so acute that, with 10 seconds left
and his team leading Baylor 97-74 on Dec. 13, he stood on the
sideline wildly exhorting the Horned Frogs to "shoot the three."
When point guard Prince Fowler instead drove the lane for an
easy two points, the players got an earful from Tubbs. "That
could have been a critical last-minute situation," Tubbs barked.
"You have to be able to execute."
It certainly wasn't a critical last-minute situation that
compelled Tubbs to keep his press on late into a 138-75 blowout
of Delaware State. "That was an abomination of basketball,"
Hornets coach Jimmy DuBose fumed afterward. "If I'm up like
that, I'm taking my starters out. When you have your press on
with four minutes to go, that's ridiculous."
But Tubbs, the unapologetic opponent-crusher who says that one
of his goals at TCU is to have "a real classy program," has
about as much sympathy as he does mercy for his victims. "Our
job as coaches is to make our team look as good as it possibly
can, and the other team as bad," he says. "That's called winning."
After Hawaii upset Kansas 76-65 in Honolulu on Dec. 30 in front
of 10,300 screaming fans inside the Special Events Arena,
Rainbows senior guard Alika Smith said the win was "better than
the invention of the plate lunch," a popular local repast that
consists of meat, rice and macaroni salad. Lest anyone mistake
that for faint praise, it should be known that Smith, a
Hawaiian, holds the plate lunch in particularly high esteem. "I
love it," he says. "Honestly, that's the best comparison I could
make. I'd never heard anything like the noise that night. It
gave you chicken skin. To beat Kansas and Indiana in the same
year is a dream come true."
Like Tulane and BYU, Kansas and Indiana fell to Hawaii by
double-figure margins, as did Norfolk State, which left Honolulu
last Saturday with an 86-67 loss and the distinction of being
the last team to face the Rainbows while they were still a
well-kept secret. Now 11-1 and among the ranked (at 21 in the AP
poll) for the first time in 24 years, Hawaii, which felt
slighted by the NCAA tournament selection committee despite its
21-8 record last season, has finally gotten some respect.
Much of the credit for that goes to senior point guard Anthony
Carter, a 6'2" former high school dropout with a 40-inch
vertical leap and rare court vision who has helped coach Riley
Wallace, a former mortician, resurrect a moribund program. When
Wallace took over at Hawaii in 1987, the Rainbows had done
little of national note since '71, when Hawaii's Fabulous Five
arrived in New York City for the postseason NIT with their own
hula dancers. Wallace's first team went 4-25 and earned The Salt
Lake Tribune's tribute as "the worst basketball team in the
world." Since then the Rainbows have had seven winning seasons,
but acclaim hasn't come as easily as ignominy. Though Hawaii is
probably the most popular road destination in the country--since
1968-69 the Rainbows have averaged 19 home games a season
because opponents enjoy traveling to the islands--the Rainbows
have been strangers in their own land. Until last year women's
volleyball consistently outdrew men's basketball.
Enter Carter, 22, a playground phenom from Atlanta who earned
his high school equivalency degree with the help of the I Have a
Dream Foundation before enrolling at Saddleback Community
College in Mission Viejo, Calif., where he led the California
Association of Community Colleges with a 27.4 scoring average as
a sophomore. After moving on to Hawaii for the 1996-97 season
Carter earned the WAC Pacific Division player of the year award,
and at week's end he was averaging 17.7 points per game and was
seventh in the nation in assists, with 8.0 a game, in the most
recent NCAA statistics. "A.C. has made everyone on this team 110
percent better," says Smith, who was averaging 18.0 points per
game, tops on the team. "He has eyes everywhere, he gives you
the ball where you want it, and he makes the big shot when we
Indeed, Carter has made a fairly seamless adjustment to both
Division I ball and Hawaiian life. He has even taken up surfing,
though he hasn't gone completely native. He can't yet rank the
plate lunch as his favorite meal.
THE LAST WORD
Butler coach Barry Collier, on 13th-ranked Xavier's withering
full-court press, which his Bulldogs faced unsuccessfully on
Dec. 30: "Their pressure is a little like old age. You don't
like it, there's nothing you can do about it, and eventually it
WEEKLY SEED REPORT
Ask any coach whether he'd rather be highly ranked in the polls
or highly seeded in the NCAA tournament, and he'll take the high
seeding quicker than an LIU fast break. So we've convened a
panel of media experts across the country to act as a kind of
tournament selection committee. Each week panel members will
vote as if the season had ended that Sunday. They'll select the
top seeds for the four NCAA regions and tip off SI readers as to
who the true title contenders are, because only three times
since seeding began in 1979 has a fifth seed or lower won the
This week's results are noteworthy for their near unanimity.
North Carolina, Duke and Kansas were on almost every ballot as
No. 1 seeds, in the East, South and Midwest, respectively.
Arizona and Utah split the vote for No. 1 in the West, with
Stanford getting the support of a couple of voters, so the
committee chair gave the nod to the defending champs.
The most tenuous seeds, of course, are our No. 4s, which barely
outpolled other notable teams like New Mexico, Michigan and
surprising Oklahoma State, still undefeated at week's end. The
team most on the bubble is probably Princeton (page 62), which
has a high enough RPI rating to justify a fourth seed--at least
for now. In the coming weeks that number is bound to drop, even
as the Tigers keep winning, because their all-Ivy diet will
undermine their strength-of-schedule ranking.
1. North Carolina
3. Florida State
MATCHUP OF THE WEEK
Duke at Florida State
Saturday, Jan. 10
Florida State is one of the early-season surprises, having
knocked off then No. 5 Arizona on the way to a 12-2 start
through Sunday. But are the Seminoles for real or just
semicontenders in the ACC? This home game against No. 2 Duke
will be a good litmus test.
New Florida State coach Steve Robinson is technically not a Dean
Smith disciple. But from 1988 to '95, as an assistant to Roy
Williams at Kansas, Robinson studied under the man who studied
under the Man, and he employs an offense that is virtually a
clone of the one Smith used at North Carolina. The last thing
Duke needs now is to face a team that resembles the Tar Heels;
the Blue Devils have lost eight times in their last nine
meetings with North Carolina.
Worse still for Duke was the loss on Dec. 27 of freshman forward
Elton Brand, the Blue Devils' top scorer and rebounder, to a
season-ending foot injury sustained in practice. Without him,
Duke could be susceptible to a strong inside attack--like
Florida State's, which features a rotation of 6'9" Corey Louis,
6'11" Randell Jackson and 7'2'' freshman Karim Shabazz (below).
The flight to Tallahassee certainly won't seem the same to the
Blue Devils as the bus ride to Chapel Hill, but Robinson and the
Seminoles will do their best to make their guests feel as if
they never left Tobacco Road.
For the latest scores, polls and recruiting news in men's and
women's college hoops, check out www.cnnsi.com