College Basketball

February 06, 2006

Safe at Home

Iowa and Michiganare the big surprises in the bruising Big Ten--but can they, or anyone else inthe league, win on the road?

The evidencewould not--actually, could not--be reviewed. Iowa coach Steve Alford stood infront of his team, 30 minutes after a humiliating 30-point loss at MichiganState on Jan. 21, and ceremoniously destroyed the game footage, cracking theVHS cassette, ripping out the magnetic tape and saying, "We have to moveon."

Alford'smessage--forget road woes and forge onward--should be heeded throughout the BigTen, where any venture away from one's friendly home confines has almost alwaysended in defeat this year. In a wide-open league that is No. 1 in the RPIrankings and could send seven of its 11 teams to the NCAA tournament, theseptet of title contenders is a combined 25-1 in its home arenas duringconference play. (Ohio State had the only home loss, to Michigan State.)

And, indeed,Alford's Hawkeyes did move on from what senior forward Greg Brunner called a"frustrating, annoying" loss to the Spartans by returning home to IowaCity for wins over No. 13 Indiana and No. 16 Ohio State. At week's end Iowafound itself in a four-way tie (along with Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin)for the conference lead at 5-2, with Indiana, Michigan State and Ohio State agame behind.

It's been quite aturnaround for No. 23--ranked Iowa (16-5). A year ago the Hawkeyes staggered toa seventh-place finish in the Big Ten after leading scorer Pierre Pierce wasdismissed from the team in midseason. But this year, with a veteran lineup ofthree seniors and two juniors, they've become an unyielding defensive unit:Their 37.4 field goal percentage defense ranks sixth in the nation. "Wewent through a lot," says Brunner, who was forced to serve as an undersizedcenter as a 6'7", 240-pound sophomore, "and it's made us realize thatonce things started going the right way, we can be contenders."

Looming large onthe Hawkeyes' schedule this Saturday is a showdown in Iowa City with No. 21Michigan (15-3), which followed a win over then No. 11 Michigan State with avictory over No. 23 Wisconsin last Saturday. In this Midwestern meat grinder, afour-game winning streak "is almost unheard of," says Wolverines seniorforward Graham Brown. Michigan fans, who endured a 13-18 season in 2004-05while also watching as the glory of the Fab Five era was expunged from therecord books by NCAA sanctions, stormed the floor after their team upset theSpartans. Following the win over the Badgers, junior forward Courtney Simssummed up the feelings of the players on the first Michigan team to be rankedsince 1997-98: "To be in first place [in the Big Ten] is hard tocomprehend," he said, "but it feels great."

It's clear thatwhoever wins the Big Ten title will need to win on the road. Uneven refereeingcould be a reason the conference has so many hapless travelers: In 27 of 39(69.2%) league games this season, the visiting team has been whistled for morefouls. That might be a reflection on the intimidating crowds in the Big Ten'sfamously inhospitable gyms. Says Brunner, "There aren't many conferencesthat stack up with the arenas we have."

Still, cometournament time, everyone has to win on the road. A year ago the Big Ten waslabeled a "weak" conference and responded by sending two teams to theFinal Four and a third to the Elite Eight. Now the league has seven teamsranked in the Top 20 of the RPI. But if they hope to duplicate last year'sMarch success, the conference heavyweights must prove that they're not just acozy bunch of homebodies.

SHOOTING STAR

Clark Aims for AThree-peat

It was not howSt. Peter's point guard Keydren Clark expected to start his senior year. Afterleading the nation in scoring the past two seasons--averaging 26.7 points as asophomore and 25.8 last year--Clark should have been chasing history. Insteadhe averaged only 13.5 points in the Peacocks' first two games. After five gameshe ranked just 30th on the NCAA scoring list. "I was lazy," Clark says."I wasn't in my routine."

His lack of focuswas understandable. Last June 21 Clark walked into his dorm room and found histeammate and best friend, George Jefferson, dead. An autopsy revealed thatJefferson had a heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Clark'sinterest in basketball waned. "He was in a funk," says St. Peter'scoach Bob Leckie.

Clark, whostarred at Harlem's Rice High but was lightly recruited because of his size(5'9", 170 pounds), decided that the only way to overcome his poor startwas to return to the routine he and Jefferson had followed during their threeseasons together. "George would get me in the gym and have me makeshots--100 shots here, 50 shots there," he says. Having earned a degree inbusiness management in three years, Clark could afford to spend time in thegym. "As a graduate student [in education], I only have classes atnight," he says.

Clark hasdedicated this season to his friend's memory and says a prayer for him duringthe player introductions before each game. Jefferson's number 23 is alsoprinted on every player's jersey, and the contents of Jefferson's locker remainuntouched. "On the court I remember I'm playing for myself, but more thanthat I'm playing for George," says Clark.

His slow startbehind him, Clark put up 42 points against Niagara in mid-December, and he hasmaintained a blistering pace ever since. In January he averaged 28.8 points agame--including 39 against Rider and 41 against Manhattan. Through Sunday hisaverage had climbed to 25.3, ranking him fifth in the nation. If Clark wins thetitle this season, he will join Oscar Robertson and Pete Maravich as the onlythree-time champions.

Although thecollege basketball world is buzzing about the scoring race betweenplayer-of-the-year candidates Adam Morrison (29.0) and J.J. Redick (27.8),don't count out Clark just yet. "I'm trying to go out and enjoy thegame," he says. "In the process, I believe I can accomplish mygoals."

• Read SI.com'smidseason report at SI.com/collegebasketball.

Pro Prospects

An NBA scout evaluates the potential of Arizona guardHassan Adams, a 6'4", 220-pound senior who led the Wildcats in scoring withan average of 19.5 points at week's end and was also contributing 5.7 reboundsand 2.6 assists a game.

He's a ridiculously good athlete, but he has been adisappointment this season. He's trying to prove he's a great shooter toimpress pro scouts, but he isn't one.... He needs to focus on the blue-collarstuff, like offensive rebounding, blocks and scoring in the low post.... He istough and has long arms, so I think he could be turned into a greatdefender.... Because of his athleticism, he might sneak into the first round.--Julia Morrill

PHOTOPAUL SANCYA/AP (HARRIS)TOOTH AND NAIL Dion Harris (5) and Michigan are suddenly fab again, while Brunner (44) and Iowa have helped snarl the Big Ten race. PHOTOCHARLIE NEIBERGALL/AP (BRUNNER) [Seecaption above.]  PHOTOGREG NELSON (ADAMS) PHOTOJEFF ZELEVANSKY/ICON SMI (CLARK)PURSUING PISTOL PETE Clark will join an elite company if he wins his third scoring title.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)