BURIED IN THE PIT
For two days before Utah's showdown on Sunday with New Mexico,
Salon A of the Albuquerque Marriott resembled a war room. The
Utes' tapes of Lobos games were stacked on a table near a video
projector. Walls were papered with diagrams of New Mexico's
plays and Utah's counters to them. Flip charts detailing each
Lobos starter's strengths and weaknesses stood in the front of
the room. It seemed that everything that could possibly be known
about New Mexico was contained in that room, and the Utes spent
hours committing it to memory.
But all that time spent in preparation still wasn't enough.
After leading the game for all but the last 22 seconds,
previously undefeated Utah lost 77-74, a victim of the New
Mexico press late in the game. In falling to the top threat on
their regular-season schedule, the Utes, who are 18-1 and ranked
No. 5, exposed flaws in themselves and in the Lobos that suggest
neither team is headed for an NCAA regional final.
For Utah, its biggest strength--total preparation--may end up
being its biggest weakness. "I spent so much time on defense, I
didn't prepare us enough offensively," Utes coach Rick Majerus
said after the game. Utah has 17 baseline out-of-bounds plays in
its playbook, but Majerus couldn't draw up a single one when the
Utes needed to go the length of the court with 4.6 seconds left
after the Lobos went up by three. The reason: He was out of
timeouts. "I need my timeouts," says Majerus, who used his last
one with 59.3 seconds left.
How far can a team go in the NCAAs when it can't rely on sheer
athleticism, especially when facing unfamiliar teams on a day's
notice, which is the case in the second and fourth rounds of the
NCAAs? Last year the Utes had Keith Van Horn and what Majerus
says was "a much better team," and made it to the final eight.
This year their depth and stifling defense could take them to
the Sweet 16--but no further.
The prospects for the 16-3, 12th-ranked Lobos aren't much
different. New Mexico, the second-best team in the nation in
three-pointers made (9.9 per game), depends on arc artillery to
get defenses off the back of 6'8" junior center Kenny Thomas.
"We shoot post shots, and we shoot threes," says New Mexico
coach Dave Bliss. "We don't shoot too many of those 12-footers,
and a lot of that is to protect Kenny." Its offense tends to
founder, though, if the threes aren't falling, as it did in the
first half against the Utes when the Lobos made only three treys
and scored a mere 24 points.
Also, the tremendous home court advantage the Lobos enjoy in the
Pit may be a mixed blessing for them come tournament time. New
Mexico has won 38 straight over the last 2 1/2 seasons in its
deafening hole in the ground but has gone only 15-13 on the
road. "We play so many games here [18 last year, 16 this year],
we get used to 18,000 people shouting in your favor," says New
Mexico senior guard Royce Olney, who knocked down the winning
three-pointer against Utah from 22 feet. "On the road we
sometimes let little things get us down that we don't sweat at
home. I think we almost take it for granted that calls are going
to go our way here." (Certainly they did on Sunday. Utes guard
Andre Miller was poked in the eye on one play and knocked to the
ground on another--both without a whistle--while committing two
turnovers in the last 90 seconds.)
While both Utah and New Mexico have teams that deserve to be
ranked, this isn't the year either will break into the nation's
elite. Says Bliss, speaking perhaps for both teams, "We are only
what we are, and when we don't do what we are, we're not even
THE MAGIC IS BACK AGAIN
After Michigan State beat Indiana 84-66 in East Lansing last
week, Spartans coach Tom Izzo received a congratulatory phone
call from his old boss, Jud Heathcote. "I didn't realize you
were that good," he said.
Among those who are surprised by the Spartans' surge to the top
of the Big Ten, where they sat with an 8-1 record at week's end
and a No. 16 ranking in the latest AP poll, no one is more
stunned than Izzo. His Spartans, after all, are callow (along
with Ohio State, Michigan State is the youngest team in the Big
Ten) and injury-riddled (Izzo's one senior starter, guard Thomas
Kelley, is out for the season with a broken foot). "I don't know
how we're doing this," says Izzo. "We're not that good."
That, of course, is just his opinion. "They have the best roster
in the Big Ten in the last five years," Indiana coach Bob Knight
said after the Spartans had knocked the Hoosiers into fourth
place in the conference.
Foremost on that roster is sophomore point guard Mateen Cleaves,
a former high school All-America from Flint, Mich., who is now
fully recovered after being hampered by a back injury during his
freshman season. He's the latest in a line of charismatic and
court-savvy point guards at Michigan State, where Magic Johnson
and Scott Skiles were stars. Cleaves had 13 assists against
Indiana to raise his average to 7.7 per game, tops in the Big
Ten. He followed that up with a 34-point, nine-assist, six-steal
performance in a 72-66 overtime defeat of Northwestern last
Saturday. "Last year I felt like I was playing with seven winter
coats on," says Cleaves. "Now I feel like I've taken them off."
Freed of back pain, Cleaves has helped establish a strong work
ethic among the Spartans. Against Indiana, Michigan State had 14
steals and a 46-26 advantage on the boards. (The Spartans led
the Big Ten in rebound margin, with a +9.6 at week's end.)
"Loose balls and deflections are what win games for us," says
assistant Tom Crean, who charts deflections, along with points,
rebounds and assists, at every practice and game. "This isn't a
team that can just show up and win and they know it."
THE RACERS ARE IN HIGH GEAR
It may sound redundant to say that Murray State senior guards
De'Teri Mayes and Chad Townsend came out of nowhere to form the
best backcourt you've never seen, but it's true. Each took a
roundabout path to Murray, Ky., where the Racers, despite six
NCAA berths in the last 10 seasons and a 20-3 record at week's
end, toil out of sight of myopic TV programmers and poll voters.
Mayes, who was averaging 20.8 points through Sunday, never
played high school basketball. Now he scores as if he's making
up for lost time. When Murray State defeated Middle Tennessee
State 78-75 last Thursday to move into a first-place tie in the
Ohio Valley Conference, Mayes scored eight of his 30 points in a
span of a minute and 35 seconds.
Townsend, the point guard, is a 25-year-old Air Force veteran
who handles the ball with military precision (117 assists, 44
turnovers). After his second season at St. Edward's University,
a Division II school in Austin, Townsend paid his own way to a
junior college camp in Florida, hoping to catch the eye of a
Division I coach. That's where Murray State assistant Tevester
Anderson discovered him.
"D.T. and I have talked a lot about getting where we are,"
Townsend says. "We were unknown, unheard of." They're now well
known in Fayetteville, Ark. The Racers celebrated Christmas Day
in Puerto Rico by drumming Arkansas (now ranked No. 14) 94-83.
Mayes scored 42 points. He's the human Drudge Report--he tosses
up shots from all over, and he's accurate nearly half the time.
He's shooting 46.6% from the field, including 42.8% from
three-point range. "He doesn't get his points just one way," his
coach, Mark Gottfried, says. "There aren't a lot of guys like
him who can make a 22-footer, a 12-footer, a 16-footer and an
eight-foot bank shot."
Mayes spent his high school years in Montgomery, Ala.,
struggling both on the court and in the classroom. One high
school coach told him not to bother coming out because the team
was already set. Mayes settled for playing summer league
"ratball" at a local community center. A cousin convinced Glen
Hicks, then coach at Wallace State Community College in
Hanceville, Ala., to give Mayes a shot, and in his second year
in Hanceville, Mayes hiked his three-point accuracy to 42.2% and
began to attract the attention of big-time recruiters.
Though being coveted was a new experience for Mayes, he caught
on quickly. He took his five recruiting visits--to Austin Peay,
Georgia State, North Texas, Troy State and Murray State--and
verbally committed to every one of them. "I asked D.T. about
that," Racers student assistant Darron Boatright says. "He said,
'Man, you have to get those nice suppers.'"
"They're going to take you out to dinner," Mayes explains, "but
if you commit to them, they'll take you to a nicer place."
With his quick smile, Mayes has become one of the most popular
Murray State players ever. A woman stopped Gottfried at a local
restaurant last week to tell him how Mayes had walked into her
church unannounced to ask if he could help teach a children's
Townsend and Mayes have a story to tell. The problem is getting
anyone to pay attention to Murray State. --Ivan Maisel
For the latest scores, polls and news in men's and women's
college hoops, check out www.cnnsi.com
WEEKLY SEED REPORT
Last week was a time for the top contenders to solidify their
standing--and for some pretenders to be exposed. Stanford, which
lost twice on its home court, to Arizona and Arizona State, fell
from a No. 2 seed (with pretensions to being a No. 1) to a
wobbly No. 3 as it faces a big cross-country test at Connecticut
this week. Utah, the only other unbeaten team entering last
week, fared better than the Cardinal, holding on to its No. 2
seed despite losing a squeaker at New Mexico. The biggest losers
were Michigan (beaten by Purdue before bouncing back to win at
Iowa) and Mississippi (loser to Georgia and Auburn), both of
which dropped off our radar screen.
The big winners--cracking our seedings for the first time--were
Michigan State (with an impressive victory over Indiana) and
Cincinnati (which beat Louisville before dropping a heartbreaker
at South Carolina). Also moving up in our voters' estimations
were UConn and Arkansas.
Our mock-tournament selection committee started to tweak the
pairings a little, too, necessitating some subtle moves. A few
voters noted that the two first-round sites in the East Region
are Hartford and Washington, D.C. Since Connecticut can't play
in Hartford, according to NCAA guidelines, and since the
committee is unlikely to send the East's top seed, Duke or North
Carolina, north of D.C. (an ACC stronghold), UConn has to move
from the East to the South. Similarly, Kentucky, victim of a bad
home loss to Florida on Sunday and host of first-round action at
Rupp Arena, moves to the East, setting up a possible rematch of
the 1992 classic with Duke.
1. Duke (20-1)
2. Kentucky (19-3)
3. Stanford (18-2)
4. Princeton (16-1)
1. Kansas (24-3)
2. UCLA (17-3)
3. South Carolina (16-3)
4. Michigan State (15-4)
1. North Carolina (22-1)
2. Connecticut (19-3)
3. Purdue (19-4)
4. Cincinnati (16-4)
1. Arizona (19-3)
2. Utah (18-1)
3. Arkansas (18-3)
4. New Mexico (16-3)
MATCHUP OF THE WEEK
UMass at Xavier
Sunday, Feb. 8
Don't look now, but the Minutemen aren't playing so minutely.
With its 85-69 defeat of Dayton on Sunday, 23rd-ranked
Massachusetts ran its win streak to 10 and remained the lone
undefeated team in the Atlantic 10.
For 21st-ranked Xavier, guards Lenny Brown (16.3 points per
game) and Gary Lumpkin (12.4) get most of the ink, but the
Musketeers also boast a top sixth man in 6'8" junior James Posey
(15.8) and a rising star in junior swingman Darnell Williams
With 6'10" Lari Ketner, 6'7" Tyrone Weeks and 6'9" Ajmal Basit
leading a defense that tops the Atlantic 10 in blocked shots
(6.2 per game), UMass hopes to counter by riding a frontal
assault to victory. --Seth Davis
HOME SWEET HOME
Last week two teams continued incredible strings of road-game
futility against conference opponents. Clemson traveled to
Chapel Hill to play second-ranked North Carolina and lost there
for the 44th consecutive time. Washington State kept alive its
own sorry streak by losing to UCLA in Los Angeles for the 42nd
straight time. Here's a look at the longest active home winning
streaks over a specific opponent.
TEAM VICTIM CONSECUTIVE YEAR WIN
GAMES STREAK BEGAN
Princeton Brown 47 1929
North Carolina Clemson 44 1926
UCLA Washington State 42 1950
Kentucky Mississippi 41 1929
Indiana Northwestern 26 1969