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Tough tests

With finals upcoming, watch out for the post-exam trap games

Posted: Wednesday December 8, 2004 3:51PM; Updated: Saturday December 11, 2004 3:53PM
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Rashad McCants
Rashad McCants and the Tar Heels have to hit the road in ACC play immediately after the conclusion of finals.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Finals suck.

And if you're a college basketball player, end-of-semester exams are an even bigger chore. You rarely sleep. You don't practice much. You worry about making the grade. Fans often forget: A lot of these guys actually care about school. Which may explain why so many teams look horrible immediately after an exam period. A year ago, I watched a good Gonzaga team sleepwalk through a loss to Stanford. The Cardinal played well, but the main reason was simple: It was the Zags' first game after a hellish finals week.

And so, as nine Top 25 teams start opening those bluebooks this week, the 'Bag is pointing out potential "trap games" for the nation's top teams as they come out of exams. We checked out the exam schedules and game schedules for every team in the Top 25 (yes, we need a life), paying particular attention to 1) teams that play tough opponents in their first game after exams, and 2) exam-schedule imbalances in those games (i.e., a team that has just finished finals against a team that isn't being affected by them).

Here are nine "trap games" to look for, games that could result in upsets, closer-than-expected scorelines or unexpected blowouts:

Georgia Tech vs Air Force (Dec. 11 in Atlanta). The Yellow Jackets will just be done with exams and could get a tougher-than-expected test from the defending Mountain West champs (who won't be into finals week yet). ADVANTAGE: Air Force.

Wake Forest vs Temple (Dec. 13 in Philadelphia). John Chaney's bunch (still anticipating finals) will have an upset on its mind as the exam-weary Deacons roll into town. ADVANTAGE: Temple.

Arizona vs Marquette (Dec. 18 in Milwaukee). Both teams will have just finished exams, but facing Marquette on the road a day after finals end won't be a cakewalk for the Wildcats. ADVANTAGE: Marquette.

Oklahoma State vs UNLV (Dec. 18 in Las Vegas). Though both teams will just be coming off exams, OSU finds itself in a position similar to Arizona's: playing its first post-finals game in a credible opponent's home gym. ADVANTAGE: UNLV.

Gonzaga vs Georgia Tech (Dec. 18 in Las Vegas). The Zags will be dead, having just finished exams two days earlier, while Tech will be flying high with two games under its belt since its exam period. ADVANTAGE: Georgia Tech.

Kentucky vs Louisville (Dec. 18 in Louisville, Ky.). The play could be sloppier than expected since both teams will be coming off exams. Louisville's finals period ends two days earlier than UK's, however, giving Rick Pitino's team more prep time. Plus, the Cards are at home. ADVANTAGE: Louisville

Washington vs North Carolina State (Dec. 19 in Seattle). Granted, the Wolfpack has to travel cross-country, but the exam-fatigued Huskies will be playing their first game in a week, whereas N.C. State will come in sharp after a post-exam tuneup against Louisiana-Lafayette four days earlier. ADVANTAGE: N.C. State.

UConn vs Rice (Dec. 19 in Hartford). Rising WAC contender will already will have a post-exams game under its belt (against Lamar) and should provide some resistance to the Huskies, who will have just finished finals the day before. ADVANTAGE: Rice.

North Carolina vs Virginia Tech (Dec. 19 in Blacksburg, Va.). The Tar Heels are the only one of the ACC's seven ranked teams whose first game after finals is a conference road contest. Beware of the trap game! ADVANTAGE: Virginia Tech.

Opening the Mailbag

MAILBAG
Grant Wahl will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
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Enter your question:

Given the recent success of Santa Clara (defeating North Carolina and Stanford), St. Mary's (Cal and UNLV) and Pepperdine (Wisconsin), not to mention Gonzaga, is there a possibility that the perennially ignored West Coast Conference will get (gasp!) three bids to the NCAA tournament? In your estimation, is it possible that the WCC could raise its profile to an Atlantic-10 level this year or shortly thereafter?
-- Michael Scimeca, San Francisco

Three NCAA bids might be possible for the WCC, which never has had more than two, but I'd still say it's unlikely. Certainly the WCC has followed the A-10's recipe for improvement by scheduling more non-conference games against marquee opponents -- and then beating some of them. The continuing down cycle in the Pac-10 may help with the WCC's at-large bids, and the Mountain West (which got three bids last year) may not repeat that feat this time around. All things considered, the WCC still has a ways to go to catch the Atlantic-10, which has had four Elite Eight teams in recent years (Xavier, Saint Joseph's, UMass and Temple) compared to the WCC's one (Gonzaga).

You mentioned Kentucky, Texas and Memphis as top-level teams that are relying heavily on freshmen and sophomores. Don't forget Arkansas, which is relying mainly on three freshmen (Steven Hill, Charles Thomas and Darian Townes, soon to be four when football phenom Marcus Monk joins the team) and two sophomores (Ronnie Brewer and Olu Famutimi).
-- Craig Lair, Little Rock, Ark.

Good point, Craig. Despite Arkansas' loss to Illinois in Little Rock on Saturday, I came away impressed with the potential of Stan Heath's crew, most notably 6-foot-7 guard Brewer (a matchup nightmare) and Hill, an active defensive presence down low. The Hogs' defense was eye-opening, slowing Illinois down with full-court pressure and causing more Illini turnovers than Wake Forest and Gonzaga did combined. Entering the season, I viewed LSU and Arkansas on equal terms as up-and-coming SEC teams, but now I'd give the clear advantage to the Razorbacks. (Tuesday's win at Missouri only reaffirms that opinion.)

I watched Indiana play North Carolina, and I have never seen an Indiana team dribble the ball so much. The Hoosiers must take 10 to 15 seconds every trip down the floor before starting to play "offense." Time for a new coach. What do you think?
-- Don Hann, Rochester, Minn.

Granted, Indiana is 0-2 in its killer six-game stretch (at home against North Carolina, Notre Dame and Charlotte and away from home against UConn, Kentucky and Missouri). But IU played better than expected, giving tough games to UNC and UConn. It hasn't been pretty, but the Hoosiers play with a lot of heart and hustle (with little big-time talent besides Bracey Wright). Still, Mike Davis really could use wins against Notre Dame (on Wednesday), Missouri and Charlotte. Anything less than a 3-3 record during this stretch will bring out even more fans calling for his head. Is that fair? Probably not. But if I were Indiana, I wouldn't have made out the schedule this way.

Do you think John Thompson III can turn around Georgetown? It seems to me he was only decent (but not great) at Princeton, which plays in a soft Ivy League schedule, and the competition and recruiting in the Big East is about to get much tougher.
-- Peter Molica, Jersey City, N.J.

I think JT3 has his work cut out for him in a Big East that will only get tougher with the new entries next season. But don't underestimate the challenges of recruiting to Princeton. For years, Thompson had to convince players to come to a school that couldn't offer any athletic scholarships. That ain't easy, folks.

Is there a better men's basketball team right now than Illinois? I'd love to see an Illinois-Kansas game (with the Illini facing their former coach).
-- Walter F. Rongey, Baumholder, Germany

The Illini, Georgia Tech, Oklahoma State and North Carolina are playing better than anyone, but if there's a first among equals, it's Illinois. (Kansas isn't far behind, but difficult home wins against Vermont and Pacific have me wondering a bit.) I don't expect to see any games soon between Kansas and Illinois or, for that matter, Kansas and North Carolina, given all the angst and turmoil that surrounded the Roy Williams-Bill Self-Bruce Weber domino effect a year ago. I think it's worth pointing out, however, that all three programs are playing great basketball. All things considered, it's been a win-win-win situation.

I loved your preview issue piece on North Carolina's Rashad McCants. How did you get him to open up so much?
-- Joey Litman, New York City

Thanks, Joey. I don't want to give away too many job secrets, but a few factors came into play on the McCants story. For starters, the timing worked out well. I met with McCants in late September before his comments comparing UNC to "a prison" came out. (Had I spoken to McCants after that happened, he probably would have been a lot less open.) Our interview also came at a time when I think McCants wanted to get some things off his chest after being cut from the U.S. junior team last summer despite being its best player during tryouts.

It certainly helped that McCants had liked my long SI piece on Williams last year -- and that Williams had let McCants know I wasn't coming to do a hit-and-run story. Gaining a story subject's trust isn't always easy, but there are some things you can do to help matters. Before we met, I sent McCants some previous profiles I had written on LeBron James, Kenyon Martin and Desmond Mason. Then I drove to his hometown of Asheville, N.C., and met  with his parents, Brenda and James, and sister Rashanda (one of the nation's top high school players herself; she turned down Tennessee to go to UNC next year). I also read just about every previous article written about McCants, but still assured McCants that I was coming into the story with an open mind (and that his national reputation wasn't yet defined.) And I spent a lot of time on the phone talking to McCants' friends and previous coaches. You'd be surprised how much information doesn't go into a magazine story on somebody.

McCants and I have some common friends/acquaintances -- including some that he was surprised I knew -- and that might have helped. I also prefer to do interviews at a story subject's residence, the better to learn what's important to him (Hint: look at the walls). Still, the main reason that McCants was so open is that he's a thoughtful guy (when he give interviews, he gives good ones). It's important to him that he come across as "real" and honest, not phony. (In fact, it's McCants' candor that sometimes gets him in trouble.)

When we finally talked, we more or less hit it off. Having been told that McCants liked to write, I asked him late in the interview if he had written anything about himself recently, and he pulled out a diary entry called "My Life." I asked him twice if he was sure about letting me use it (he said yes), and that ended up being the running element through the story.

Lastly, the UNC athletic communications department (led by Steve Kirschner) did an amazing job organizing many of the interviews.

Looks like I just gave away most of my secrets. Sorry if that's more detail than you wanted, but a lot goes into a story like that.

Six random things

• Sometimes I wish Sports Illustrated was like The Atlantic Monthly, which runs reader letters followed by "James Fallows responds." That way I could answer all the letters we got when our preseason No. 1, North Carolina, lost its opening game to Santa Clara. Here's how it would probably look:

Grant Wahl responds: Our rankings are for March, not November. Think! :-)

• Reason No. 1 to believe Oklahoma State is legit: The Cowboys beat Syracuse without getting much at all from stars John Lucas III and Joey Graham. Stephen Graham and JamesOn Curry are as good as any non-starters I've seen this season.

• An update on our new favorite team: Texas A&M-Corpus Christi ambushed Baylor in Waco 73-58 on Saturday, bringing the independent Islanders' record to 6-1 (with wins at Florida State and against TCU and Old Dominion). We only wish that TAMU-CC would 1) get an invite to join a conference, and 2) find a better acronym than TAMU-CC, which sounds like a community college. Alabama is no doubt quaking in its boots in advance of its game against the Islanders on Dec. 22.

• Has anyone noticed how the AP rankings have become more like "power rankings" this year, judging teams not just by their wins but by the quality of those wins? Exhibit A is No. 2 Kansas, which has been booted from No. 1 once and prevented from retaking the top spot this week (by Illinois' rise from No. 5 to No. 1) despite still being undefeated. This isn't earth-shattering news, but I like the idea of the rankings representing which teams the voters think are the best right now (as opposed to just rewarding teams for not losing).

• Can't believe I sat through Pitt's 70-51 demolition of Memphis in New York on Tuesday. Here's a story that should tell you something about Memphis' me-first sophomore Sean Banks. You might recall that Banks never showed up for last summer's tryouts of U.S. junior national team, even though he had committed to it -- and even though he lived within minutes of the tryout site at the Meadowlands. But you know what Banks did show up for that week? A photo shoot for SI On Campus involving all the players at the tryouts. (The other players couldn't believe it.) Not too hard to tell what Banks' priorities are, is it?

• Still taking nominations for this year's All-Hobbit Team. And judging by some of your nominations, I need to be a little more clear on what I'm looking for: Hair. Big hair. Curly hair. Mullets. Stuff like that. Size doesn't matter. For example, I fully expect 7-1 Georgia Tech center Luke Schenscher to make his second straight All-Hobbit team.

Picks from the 'Bag

On video: Le Cercle Rouge (1970). This French crime-genre classic starring Alain Delon and Yves Montand has one cool scene after another. Worth checking out if you're frustrated by the lack of quality in the New Releases section.

In theaters: Closer. If you're expecting a typical Julia Roberts romantic comedy, you'll be unhappy, but that's exactly why this movie is worth seeing. (That and Natalie Portman, of course.) Reminded me of a Neil LaBute-style celebration of misanthropy, which we all need to see every once in a while.

Separated at birth

SAB is back. This week's reader nominees all have connections to the state of Wisconsin. (Keep sending 'em in, folks.)

taylor_rock.jpg

Wisconsin's Zach Morley and Gerard Depardieu
-- Bill Bostleman, Toledo, Ohio

Marquette's Todd Townsend and Byron Leftwich
-- Gregg Dohmen, Milwaukee, Wis.

Wisconsin's Kammron Taylor and Chris Rock
-- Shawn Swenson, Madison, Wis.

WATN: Kenny Brunner not found!

We're disappointed that we weren't able to track down former Georgetown/Fresno State point guard Kenny Brunner, with whom the 'Bag once shared a pizza in a hotel room in Twin Falls, Idaho. (Long story.) Reader Brendan Rooney of St. Louis did write to inform us that Brunner played briefly with the Ontario Warriors of the ABA last month but is no longer with the team.

Next week's WATN: Where in the world is Luke Axtell?

See you then.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl covers college basketball for the magazine and SI.com.

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