Back on The Prowl
After a rough start, preseason No. 1 Arizona is at full force and
looking like a title contender
A couple of hours before Arizona's Pac-10 game against No. 24 USC
last Thursday, Wildcats coach Lute Olson drove to his Tucson
house to change his clothes, and suddenly the emotions washed
over him like an ocean swell. Three weeks after his wife of 47
years, Bobbi, had died of ovarian cancer, Olson was alone in
their home, preparing to coach a game again for the first time.
"I said, Wow, am I ready for this?" a still visibly shaken Olson
explained the day after Arizona's 71-58 victory. "It's a very
emotional time now, but I talked to my family about coaching the
game, and the team needed to get back to a stable environment."
With Olson's return after missing five games, the preseason No. 1
Wildcats were at full strength for the first time since the first
week of January 2000 (considering injuries, suspensions, the
anguish of Bobbi's last few weeks and Lute's leave of absence),
and after last week's mojo-rising wins over USC and UCLA,
Arizona, which is 12-5 and ranked No. 12, had a message for the
rest of the country: Be afraid. Be very, very afraid. "I wouldn't
want to play us," warned senior center Loren Woods after last
Saturday's 88-63 rout of the Bruins, during which the Wildcats
outscored UCLA by 33 points in the second half. "About 10 teams
have a good shot of winning the national championship, and we're
definitely one of them."
That's a much more cautious statement than Woods's preseason
boast that Arizona could be "the greatest team" ever. The
Wildcats began the season by losing five of their first 13 games,
including head-scratchers to Purdue and Mississippi State, and
fell to No. 21. "With all the hype, our heads got a little big,"
sophomore point guard Jason Gardner says bluntly. Early this
season the Wildcats' potent lineup, which featured five preseason
Wooden Award candidates, often played like individuals rather
than as a unit. "I don't think it's hard to motivate a team that
isn't very talented," says junior swingman Richard Jefferson,
"but with a team that is talented, it can be harder to get the
players to work together."
Reenter Olson, who has stressed patience in the half-court
offense and the fundamentals of team defense. At the same time,
sophomore guard Gilbert Arenas has corrected his woebegone shot
selection: He averaged 20 points on 58.7% shooting over the last
four games, after having averaged 13.9 on 41.2% before that.
Meanwhile, Arizona's suffocating man-to-man defense shut down two
of the nation's most dangerous scorers last week in USC center
Brian Scalabrine (zero points) and UCLA forward Jason Kapono
No player will be more important to the Wildcats the rest of the
way than the lanky 7'1" Woods, who has the height and build of a
saguaro cactus--and has been just as prickly of late. The day
after Woods's ejection against Cal three weeks ago for crudely
mouthing off to ref Charlie Range, the coaching staff made him
watch every second of his meltdown on video. Says Olson, "I told
the coaches, 'Mark my words, that incident will be the best thing
that's happened to Loren, because now he'll recognize that you
have to keep your emotions under control.'"
Woods responded with a triple double at Washington on Jan. 13,
and he displayed the temperament of a guard at Buckingham Palace
last Saturday in the first Arizona game refereed by Range since
the one against Cal. "I'm trying not to get overly happy or too
down when I'm out there," says Woods, who had 12 points and nine
rebounds against the Bruins. "I need to keep a straight face the
Well, sort of. Not even Woods could resist chuckling when UCLA's
Matt Barnes tried lamely (and futilely) to dunk over him. In
fact, all the Arizona players seem to be regaining their
swagger, and Jefferson, for one, claims to have no regrets about
the Wildcats' preseason proclamations. "Not for a second," he
says. "We're still cocky kids. When it's all over, we're going
to be the best--or one of the best--teams in the country."
Bulldogs Making News on Court
Call it what you will--bad judgment, bad karma or, as Jerry
Tarkanian prefers, "the damnedest breaks." Ever since Tarkanian
took over as coach at his alma mater, Fresno State, in April
1995, the Bulldogs' program has been beset by disruptions
including injuries, drug abuse, suspensions, arrests and an
ongoing FBI point-shaving investigation. It appeared it would be
more of the same this season when the NCAA suspended first-year
point guard Tito Maddox for eight games because of a trip he
took to Las Vegas last September that was paid for by an
acquaintance of Maddox's whom the NCAA determined to be working
for an agent.
Fresno State went 6-2 without Maddox but hasn't lost since he
returned on Dec. 19. After last Saturday's 72-69 victory over
Nevada, the No. 22 Bulldogs (16-2, 5-0 in the WAC) were off to
their best start in 19 years. More important, the only news
Fresno State is making these days is on the court, where the
70-year-old Tarkanian is proving he still has a little spring
left in his step.
The Bulldogs have both the depth and the personnel to apply the
end-to-end pressure that was the hallmark of Tarkanian's
successful teams at UNLV. The defense is anchored by imposing
6'10" junior center Melvin Ely, who through Sunday was second in
the WAC in blocks, with 2.9 per game, and third in rebounding
(7.7). Maddox, meanwhile, runs the attack on both ends of the
floor. He was averaging 9.9 assists, which would have led the
nation if he'd played enough games. As a team, Fresno State had
scored 83.3 points a game and held opponents to 69.8.
Maddox was a highly regarded prospect while playing for Compton
(Calif.) High, but most colleges backed off when it became clear
he wasn't going to qualify academically. Tarkanian was one who
didn't back off, and Maddox sat out last season at Fresno State
instead of attending junior college or a prep school. Tarkanian
also stood stoutly by his man during his eight-game suspension,
defending him publicly and letting him play with the starters
every day in practice.
For all the problems that have plagued his tenure with the
Bulldogs, Tarkanian could leave Fresno State's program in better
shape than it was before he took over. His teams have won at
least 20 games every year, and the school hopes to break ground
soon on a 16,500-seat, on-campus arena. Tarkanian says he has
gone into each of the last few seasons believing it would be his
last but kept changing his mind. "I didn't want to leave until
we got things straightened out," he says.
If the Bulldogs continue to play well, the end of this season
might not be a bad time for a valedictory.
St. Joe's Fab Freshman
One that Didn't Get Away
Phil Martelli has seen it happen all too often during his 16
years at St. Joseph's, the last six as head coach: See prospect
play, recruit prospect, see big-name school recruit prospect,
see prospect sign with big-name school. So even though he was
smitten from the moment he first watched 6-foot point guard
Jameer Nelson play as a junior at Chester (Pa.) High, Martelli
felt a familiar sense of dread as he pursued him. "I'd go to all
these camps and tournaments, and everyone was talking about
[Andre] Barrett, [Taliek] Brown and [Omar] Cook," says Martelli
of this year's trio of heralded Big East freshmen point guards.
"To me, Jameer was as good as any of those guys. I kept
expecting his recruitment to blow up, but it never did."
Nelson may have slipped under the national radar, but he has
stepped out dramatically this season while leading the Hawks back
to national prominence. An all-state selection as a high school
senior and a full-time starter from the day he arrived at St.
Joe's last fall, Nelson has displayed a veteran's poise in
leading the Hawks to a share of first place in the Atlantic 10
with a 5-1 record (14-4 overall) through Sunday. He was second in
the league in assists (6.0 a game) and third on the team in
scoring (12.0 points). As a team St. Joseph's was shooting 49.5%
from the field. "Jameer is the most decorated player I've had
here, but for all the hype he has very little ego," Martelli
Upperclassmen often resent a freshman assuming such a prominent
role (see Hall, Seton), but Nelson's humility has enabled him to
pilot the Hawks without ruffling too many feathers. It also helps
that the upperclassmen were tired of losing. St. Joseph's went
36-51 in the three years after it reached the Sweet 16 in 1997,
and last year the Hawks held second-half leads in 13 of their 16
losses. "We played hard, but for some reason we couldn't close
games out," says 6'4" junior guard Marvin O'Connor, St. Joe's
leading scorer at 20.2 points a game.
Though six of St. Joseph's top eight players are juniors and
seniors, it's the freshman who leads them. To be sure, Nelson's
first college season hasn't been without a few bumps. Martelli
threw him out of a team meeting during the first week of practice
after discovering that Nelson had skipped a class and then lied
to Martelli about it. (Nelson later called twice to apologize.)
He also had his first poor outing of the season last Saturday,
when he shot 1 for 11 in an 86-73 loss at Xavier--though he did
have 12 assists.
Nelson, however, doesn't sound like a guy whose confidence is
easily shattered. "Coach gave me the ball, and I'm running with
it," he says. "Maybe some other people are surprised by how well
we're doing, but I'm not."
Missing the Point?
More Fouls = Little Change
Not since the three-point line was installed in 1986-87 has an
effort to change the game provoked more debate than the rules
committee's decision last spring to make rough play a point of
emphasis for officials this season. Judging by the NCAA's
midseason statistical report on games through Jan. 14, however,
it appears that all the hubbub has been much ado about nothing.
The number of fouls called per game this season has increased
from 18.9 per team last season to 20.2 this year--hardly the
procession to the free throw line that many doomsayers predicted.
Moreover, teams were scoring just 1.7 more points a game than
they did last year and were averaging 72.2 points, 4.5 fewer than
they did 10 years ago. What's more, shooting percentages barely
changed: Teams have made 44.2% of their field goal attempts so
far, up .7% from last season, and 34.6% of their three-point
attempts, an increase of .2%. That hardly represents a seismic
In fact, if one conclusion can be gleaned by scanning these stats
over the years, it's how little the average number of fouls has
varied. In the last 40 years, fouls per team per game have never
climbed higher than 20.6 (in 1978-79) or dipped lower than 18.1
(in '61-62). In other words the officials have called about 19
fouls--give or take one--on each team ever since Jerry Lucas
starred at Ohio State.
In addressing the effort to call the game differently, John
Guthrie, coordinator of men's basketball officials for the SEC,
says, "We seem to take two or three steps forward and then one
step back. I think we've been successful cleaning up more of that
illegal rough play in the post. It's been a little more difficult
out on the perimeter. People have to remember that it's the
coaches, not the officials, who sit on the rules committee.
They're the ones who wanted the game cleaned up. And we're trying
to move in that direction."
For complete scores and recruiting news, plus more from Seth
Davis and Grant Wahl, go to cnnsi.com/basketball/college.
The Joe College Report
Way to go, UCLA athletic director Peter Dalis. Now that everyone
knows you misled Bruins coach Steve Lavin about having talked to
Rick Pitino last month, crowds on the road are having a field
day at Lavin's expense. Arizona fans serenaded the UCLA coach
with the chant "Rick Pi-TI-no!" at the end of last Saturday's
With six straight victories Memphis (10-8 through Sunday) is
surging under first-year coach John Calipari, who admits he
over-scheduled at the start of the season, when the Tigers went
2-6. "I did this team a disservice," Calipari says. "My ego got
in the way." Calipari? Ego? Imagine that...
Shame on Duke's Jason Williams for taunting Boston College's
Kenny Walls late in the Blue Devils' 22-point win. Walls then
shoved Williams out of bounds and was ejected...
The bad news: Beleaguered Louisville coach Denny Crum got into a
shouting match with a fan near the end of the 6-12 Cardinals'
20-point loss to Cincinnati. The good news: Crum still has a
Bravo to the National Association of Basketball Coaches
(NABC), which recently took on a new cause: fighting slavery in
Sudan. After NABC executive director Jim Haney read about Arab
militias from Sudan's Muslim north enslaving people in the
Christian south, he persuaded the NABC board to donate $100,000
to Christian Solidarity International (CSI), a nonprofit human
rights group that negotiates with slave traders to win back
victims' freedom. According to CSI, the NABC's largesse will
free about 2,900 women and children.