A trying year is turning out happily for Wildcats coach Lute

Arizona coach Lute Olson is still the Cary Grant of college
basketball, preternaturally unruffled, not a hair out of place,
though the past year has been hard on him. Last March his
defending national champs, with all their top players back, lost
to Utah in the West Regional final. This season, having lost
three players to the NBA, Olson has had to rebuild the Wildcats
by mixing two seniors, point guard Jason Terry and center A.J.
Bramlett, with five talented but error-prone freshmen. Yet those
trying experiences have been trifles compared to the ordeal that
began last June for Lute's wife of 45 years, Bobbi, during a
visit to Europe.

Lute had just given a clinic in Vienna when he and Bobbi drove
to Budapest for some sightseeing. Once they arrived there, the
stomach pains she had begun feeling in Austria became
excruciating. She assumed the cause was food poisoning, but when
a doctor was summoned to examine her, he immediately called for
an ambulance. What ensued was "a nightmare," Lute says. As the
Soviet-era ambulance lurched through Budapest's cobblestoned
streets, Lute crouched over Bobbi, his white-knuckled hands
pressing down on the sides of her gurney to keep it still.
"Bobbi was conscious," he says, "but she was in enormous pain."

Semmelweis Hospital, touted as Hungary's finest, was little
comfort. Medics wheeled Bobbi through a construction site to the
emergency room, where they pounded on the door for 10 minutes
before a doctor finally answered. He did a quick exam and then,
through a translator, offered his diagnosis: Bobbi's small
intestine was blocked, and she needed emergency surgery. "There
was no other option," says Lute. "The doctor said if we didn't
get her in the operating room right away, she wasn't going to
make it." Two hours later the surgeon returned to report that he
had removed the blockage but that it was only part of a larger
tumor--the size of a baby's head--which tests in Tucson later
revealed to be stage-three ovarian cancer, an advanced form.

After fighting postoperative infections for nine days in
Budapest and Vienna hospitals, Bobbi was taken by Medivac plane
with Lute, their daughter Jodi and two doctors from Arizona's
University Medical Center back to Tucson, where she began
undergoing twice-monthly chemotherapy treatments. Lute, for the
first time in his 25-year coaching career, stayed home during
the July recruiting period, sending associate head coach Jim
Rosborough in his place. After some soul-searching he decided
not to take a leave of absence. "If this had happened during the
school year instead of the summer, I never would have coached
this year," he says.

The prognosis for Miz O, as the Arizona players call her, is
good. A second operation in September showed that chemotherapy
had dissolved the tumor, and her last set of scheduled
treatments were to take place early this week. "Everything is
going well," says Bobbi, who advises women to get tested for
ovarian cancer. "I think I'm on every prayer list in Tucson."

Remarkably, Bobbi has attended most of Arizona's games, home and
away, where she has witnessed the rise of a surprisingly
dangerous team. With a 78-76 upset of No. 3 Stanford and a 91-74
rout of Cal last week, the No. 10 Wildcats improved to 15-3,
thanks primarily to Terry, last year's sixth man, who is now one
of the nation's top point guards and a serious contender for
national player of the year honors. Through Sunday he led the
Pac-10 in scoring (21.4 points a game) and assists (5.4) and was
second in steals (2.6). He has been helped by three of the
freshmen--6'8" guard Rick Anderson, 6'6" forward Richard
Jefferson and 6'7" forward Michael Wright--who have cracked the
starting lineup and begun making fewer silly mistakes. "I think
this team can be as good as last year's, I really do," Olson
said last week, and who could question his optimism?

Missouri Valley Conference

Quick: Name three teams from the Missouri Valley Conference.
Can't do it? You're not alone. But if the NCAA tournament
selection committee has the same problem come March 7--Selection
Sunday--it will have absolutely no excuse. The Missouri Valley
has undergone an RPI renaissance, rising from 21st in the
1991-92 conference rankings to an alltime high of No. 7 through
Sunday. That's better than several so-called power conferences,
including the Big 12 (8th), the Atlantic 10 (9th) and the WAC

The Missouri Valley's secret is simple: Schedule tough
nonconference games--at home when possible--and win a few of
them. Take 14-5 Creighton (30 in the team RPI rankings). Led by
6'5" senior forward Rodney Buford, the league's probable MVP,
the Bluejays have beaten Iowa on the road and Oklahoma State at
home. Then there's 16-5 Southwest Missouri State (RPI 26), which
has defeated Missouri on the Tigers' home court and lost to
Stanford and TCU. Still in the hunt for an at-large bid is 12-7
Bradley (RPI 68), which has beaten Penn State, while 16-6
Evansville (RPI 83), the coleader in the conference and
second-best shooting team in the country, could easily win the
league tournament.

Since roughly 50% of the RPI is based on strength of schedule,
teams in most mid-major conferences usually start to drop once
they begin playing in their own league. That's not the case in
the Missouri Valley. "Our strength," says Creighton coach Dana
Altman, "is that all the teams are fairly strong." The
conference had seven teams in the RPI's top 100 through Sunday,
while its worst team in the RPI standings, 9-11 Wichita State,
at 154, was still barely in the top half of the 310 Division I
teams. Moreover, the league had a 56-29 nonconference record
this season and was better than .500 against the Big 12 (4-3)
and the No. 6-ranked Conference USA (3-2).

The Missouri Valley's smartest move came in 1997, when its
Presidents Council passed a resolution pledging that each school
would seek "the strongest attainable schedule" for its
basketball team. "Out of eight nonconference games, each of our
schools tries to get three power teams on its schedule," says
league commissioner Doug Elgin, who urges coaches to refuse the
big paydays offered for playing road games against major powers
and instead take less money to arrange home-and-home series.
"They have to use every relationship they have in the business
to get good teams to come play them."

For all the RPI improvement the Missouri Valley has shown,
however, one question lingers: How many bids will the conference
get for the NCAA tournament? If the league's top teams don't
falter in the next few weeks, Elgin (a member of the selection
committee who will have to leave the room when a conference
school comes up for discussion) says the Missouri Valley should
be treated just as the Midwestern Collegiate Conference was last
year, when it got two at-large teams (Detroit and
Illinois-Chicago) and its tournament champion (Butler) into the

Elgin may be shortchanging himself. In the past five years the
No. 7-ranked conference has received no fewer than four bids and
as many as six. Of course, the leagues in question were the
Pac-10 (1994), the Big Ten ('95) and the Atlantic 10 ('96, '97
and '98). "I would hate to be penalized because our league isn't
called the Big 12 or the Atlantic 10," says Southwest Missouri
coach Steve Alford, whose 24-8 Bears were hosed by the committee
in '97 despite having an RPI of 44. "If the season ended today,
a minimum of three teams would deserve to come out of our league."

Northwestern's Center

The litany of infirmities and calamities that have plagued 6'11"
center Evan Eschmeyer during his six seasons at Northwestern has
grown to almost Biblical proportions. The list includes a
recurring stress fracture in his right foot, three operations
(two on the foot and one on his right knee), two medical
redshirt seasons, two coaching changes, one bout with pneumonia,
an inner ear infection, a broken nose and a point-shaving
scandal involving some of his former teammates. What, no locusts
or boils? "It has certainly made life interesting," Eschmeyer
says. "I have enough material to write a whole series of books."

If the early installments of that series would read like the
Book of Job, the later volumes could very well be called The NBA
Years. Eschmeyer's game may lack grace, but there's no better
post player in college. Through Sunday he was third in the Big
Ten in scoring, averaging 19.8 points per game, was making 60.2%
of his shots from the field and led the league in rebounding
(10.9 per game). Thanks largely to Eschmeyer, the Wildcats had a
12-6 record and were tied for fifth place in the conference with
a 4-4 mark. In a year in which the Big Ten might send seven
teams to the NCAA tournament, Northwestern could earn a berth
for the first time in its history.

With his pale complexion, closely cropped blond hair and
penchant for flannel shirts, Eschmeyer looks and acts like the
farm boy he is. A native of New Knoxville, Ohio (pop. 838),
Eschmeyer saw his career almost come a cropper shortly after he
arrived at Northwestern, when he suffered a stress fracture in
his right foot in November 1993. The injury was so severe and
difficult to treat that three doctors told him he might never
play again.

Eschmeyer underwent surgery twice in 1994, rushed through
rehabilitation and then reinjured the foot in the fall of that
year. After the Wildcats' trainer told him he would have to miss
a second season, Eschmeyer spent the afternoon brooding alone in
the back of a movie theater that was showing Natural Born
Killers. "I had just come off the longest year of my life,"
Eschmeyer says. "I remember thinking, What am I going to do now?"

The answer was work even harder. He started 25 games during the
1995-96 season and for each of the next two years was a
first-team All-Big Ten selection. Last season he averaged 21.7
points and a conference-leading 10.7 rebounds per game and then
successfully petitioned the NCAA for a sixth year of
eligibility. Over the summer he spent a week at Pete Newell's
Big Man Camp in Honolulu, where he blossomed. After working out
the first day with other college players, Eschmeyer was granted
the rare opportunity to play the rest of the time with the pros,
and he more than held his own against the likes of Sean Elliott,
Chris Dudley, Gary Trent and Michael Olowokandi. "I think he's
the top prospect in the country among centers," Newell says.
"He's not what I would call a quick jumper, but his technique is
good, and he's tougher than hell to keep off the boards."

Eschmeyer proved that on Jan. 13, when, during an 81-78 loss at
Indiana, he had the first triple double (27 points, 12 rebounds,
10 assists) in Assembly Hall history. Last week he had 17
points, 14 rebounds and seven blocked shots in a 54-50 defeat of
then No. 14 Purdue.

As befits a 23-year-old senior who already has a degree in
secondary education and is working toward a second, in
economics, Eschmeyer is philosophical enough to see some
benefits in having missed so many games early in his college
career. "The experience taught me a lot about patience and hard
work," he says. "You never know. If all these things hadn't
happened to me, maybe I wouldn't be the player I am today."

William Jewell College

Four years ago Larry Hall averaged 41.6 points for North DeSoto
High near his hometown of Keatchie, La., and was his state's
Class 2A player of the year. He had several Division I
scholarship offers and was planning to sign with either
Louisiana Tech or New Orleans until a freak accident nearly
shattered his basketball dreams.

In April 1995, while Hall was gathering shopping carts in the
parking lot of the Kmart where he worked, a bungee cord that
held the carts together snapped and hit his right eye, causing
him to lose all but some peripheral vision in it. "After that
the schools stopped calling me," says Hall. "I thought my career
was over."

With hours of practice, Hall learned to compensate for the lack
of depth perception that resulted from the injury. He enrolled
at LSU-Shreveport, an NAIA Division II school, for the 1995-96
season. Playing primarily center despite standing a mere 6'3",
Hall averaged 27.5 points and 11.2 rebounds in his first season.
The following year he scored 29.2 points a game and led the NAIA
Division I, to which LSU-Shreveport had moved. Then Hall
suffered another blow: After his sophomore season LSU-Shreveport
discontinued almost all its sports programs, including basketball.

Hall landed at another NAIA school, Division II William Jewell
College, in Liberty, Mo., where he was an All-America last
season. Through Sunday he was second in both scoring (23.2 points
per game) and rebounding (10.2) in the Heart of America Athletic
Conference for the 18-7 Cardinals. "People constantly marvel at
what he's been able to accomplish, but Larry has a huge heart,"
says William Jewell coach Larry Holley. "Nothing he does
surprises me."

Says Hall, who hopes to play professionally overseas next
season, "My life has been full of ups and downs, but I've
learned that when you come across a few barriers, you can't sit
around and mope. I once thought my life would be a lot different
because I'm blind in one eye, but there's nothing I can't do."
--B.J. Schecter

For the latest scores and recruiting news, plus Seth Davis's
College Hoops Mailbag, check out www.cnnsi.com.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Terry has made himself a player of the year candidate by leading the Pac-10 in scoring and assists. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER College setbacks taught Eschmeyer (right) patience--and may help him reach the NBA.


If there was a consensus among our voters, it was that there
were only 15 teams worth putting in the top four seeds. Voting
on those 15 was nearly unanimous, but several schools were
mentioned for the last No. 4 seed. The leader of the Others
Receiving Votes was Utah, making its first appearance among our
seeds this week even though the Utes weren't even ranked in last
week's AP Top 25.

The other big news was Maryland's double-digit loss to Wake
Forest. That sent the Terps packing to the West and allowed
Michigan State to come closer to home. As for this week, the
word among many voters was that Connecticut must win at Stanford
to hold off Duke for the No. 1 spot in the East.

1. Connecticut (19-0)
2. Auburn (20-1)
3. Wisconsin (19-3)
4. Utah (16-4)

1. Duke (21-1)
2. Kentucky (19-4)
3. Arizona (15-3)
4. Ohio State (16-6)

1. Cincinnati (20-1)
2. Michigan State (18-4)
3. North Carolina (18-5)
4. UCLA (15-5)

1. Stanford (18-3)
2. Maryland (19-3)
3. St. John's (17-5)
4. Iowa (15-4)

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)