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Inside College Basketball
Posted: Wednesday January 13, 1999 11:08 AM
John Thompson Resigns | DePaul
Weekly Seed Report | The Buzzer
Long-sleeping Auburn is a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 15-0
By Tim Crothers, Grant Wahl, Seth Davis and L. Jon Wertheim
Auburn athletic director David Housel recalls a Tigers basketball game in the early 1970s, during the unremarkable tenure of coach Bill Lynn, at which Housel noticed a woman sound asleep in Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. The sight may not have been so memorable to Housel had the woman not been Lynn's wife, Martha.
Martha Lynn stands as a symbol for Auburn basketball, which has been somniferous for the vast majority of its 93 seasons. The Tigers have won one SEC regular-season title, and that was 39 years ago. They have earned just five NCAA tournament invitations, none of them since 1988. When Cliff Ellis became coach in '94, fewer than 1,000 fans showed up for his first home game. "I took over a team that had won just 11 games and had lost two guys to the NBA, so I knew I had a lot of shaking hands and kissing babies to do," Ellis says, "but I've always loved the challenge of building a program when it's down."
The Tigers are a blue-collar team that leads the SEC in rebounding, steals and scoring defense, featuring ball hawks like junior point guard Doc Robinson and 7-foot junior shot blocker Mamadou N'diaye. The offense is fueled by forward Chris Porter, a 6'7", 218-pound transfer from Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla., who may be Auburn's best recruit since Charles Barkley. Porter, who was producing a team-leading 16.7 points and 8.7 rebounds a game, grew up in Abbeville, Ala., idolizing Barkley, and while he isn't quite as round a mound as Sir Charles was in his college days, his ability to clear space in the lane for easy baskets is reminiscent of Barkley's. "Auburn hasn't had a lot of success since Barkley left [in 1984]," Porter says. "Since I was a little kid, I've dreamed of playing a part in making Auburn a winner again."
As the Tigers have crept up the rankings, they have encountered skeptics. Before Auburn's Jan. 2 game against Tennessee, Vols coach Jerry Green said of the Tigers' spotless record, "I think that has more to do with scheduling than Auburn being good." The Tigers thumped Tennessee 90-68 for their most lopsided win over the Vols in 71 years. Four days later Auburn defeated No. 19 Arkansas 83-66 for its first victory over a ranked team this season. "The Tigers are for real," Razorbacks coach Nolan Richardson said after the game. "It's a long season, but from a talent standpoint there's no question that they're a top 10 team." Auburn survived another test last Saturday night by rallying from a 19-point deficit in the final 10:30 to defeat LSU 73-70. It was their first win in their last 11 games in Baton Rouge.
The football-crazed fans in Auburn are gradually being converted. At the University Barber Shop on College Street, barber Bubba Bowling insists talk of basketball is outnumbering discussions of football recruiting and hunting for the first January he can remember. The standing-room-only crowds for the games against Tennessee and Arkansas represented the Tigers' first back-to-back sellouts in 31 years. Joyous Auburn fans stormed the court after the latter victory, eager to celebrate after a miserable 3-8 football season during which coach Terry Bowden resigned.
On the misty morning after the Tigers' win over the Razorbacks, Auburn senior guard Bryant Smith was walking downtown for breakfast when he noticed that fans had littered the trees at Toomer's Corner with toilet paper, a customary football victory ritual that had scarcely ever been performed during basketball season. "I said to myself, It's about time," Smith says. "That's the moment I really started believing that Auburn could be a basketball school."
Tennessee senior forward Chamique Holdsclaw had made five of her first six shots when she struggled to the bench five minutes into last Sunday's showdown at No. 1 Connecticut. "My chest is burning," she complained. Then Holdsclaw, the reigning national player of the year, made like George Bush in Japan and vomited a bellyful of mucus into a towel. Moments later Lady Vols sophomore guard Semeka Randall came to the sideline and, rising to the challenge, also hurled -- right onto the floor in the northeast corner of Gampel Pavilion.
It wasn't long before the Lady Vols finally purged themselves just as completely of their hard-to-stomach 78-68 upset loss to Purdue on Nov. 15, which had knocked them out of the No. 1 ranking. Before an SRO crowd of 10,027, a few of whom paid $200 a ticket, Holdsclaw and Randall fought off their stomach ailments and finished with 25 points each in a 92-81 win over the Huskies. The victory ended UConn's 54-game home court winning streak -- the nation's longest for women or men -- and reestablished 13-1 Tennessee as the favorite to win the national title, which would be its fourth in as many years. "We needed to quit saying what we were going to do and get out there and do it," Randall said. "Against Purdue we were going through the motions, playing with blank stares on our faces. Today we showed that we still have heart. We're still a dominant team."
No player had needed a re-awakening more than Holdsclaw. On Jan. 3, in her homecoming to New York City, where she had led Christ the King High to a 106-4 record, four state titles and one national crown, she played her worst game of the season, scoring eight points in a 68-54 defeat of Rutgers at Madison Square Garden. "I just kind of sat around in that game," Holdsclaw said on Sunday between wheezes that made her sound like a mating walrus. "It wasn't like I couldn't do anything. I didn't even try." Holdsclaw's meekness had led to a harangue in practice last week from coach Pat Summitt, who challenged her to play for 40 minutes. "No one can stop you off the dribble," Summitt told Holdsclaw, "but you have to attack!"
Despite her illness, Holdsclaw had 16 points at halftime on Sunday. She'd scored on a battery of moves against double- and triple-teaming, from baseline jumpers to in-the-lane leaners to bull-rush layups. What's more, her timing in the second half was impeccable. Her five consecutive points with less than eight minutes remaining helped Tennessee to a 70-68 lead, and the Vols outscored UConn 22-13 down the stretch. "We had someone near her every time she took a shot in the second half," said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who looked as if he wanted to throw up too.
As Holdsclaw stepped outside into the cold New England air, she
coughed one last time and considered the shift in the balance of
power. "This is a big win," she said. "We just beat the Number 1
team in the country." She was right, of course, but she also
sounded as if she knew who was No. 1 all along.
John Thompson has long kept a deflated basketball in his office at Georgetown's McDonough Arena to symbolize just how fleeting the game can be. "Get an education," Thompson implored his players when they inquired about the ball, "because once this thing loses its nine pounds of air, you still have a future." For the time being, anyway, it's Thompson's turn to contemplate his life after basketball. Last Friday, flanked by dozens of current and former players, including Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, Thompson announced that, after 27 years as the Hoyas coach, he was throwing in the towel -- presumably the ubiquitous white one that he often had draped over a shoulder as he worked the sideline.
Befitting a man who has always been fiercely private -- his media guide bio lists neither his birth date, his hobbies nor the names of his children -- Thompson's curiously timed resignation was shrouded in mystery. His initial explanation was only that "I need to address things in my personal life." But before speculation ran rampant, Thompson elaborated that his decision was prompted by marital strife.
In September 1997, Thompson filed for divorce from his wife of more than 32 years, Gwendolyn. She, in turn, filed a counterclaim in which she alleged that, since their separation in September 1996, John failed to share marital property with her (including proceeds from the sale of their house for $325,000 in 1997) and that he "refused general requests as well as specific requests for help," including the payment of her dental bills. John's attorney, Savalle Sims, said on Monday that her client has no comment on the allegations.
At the hastily convened press conference to announce his departure, Thompson stressed repeatedly that he was merely resigning from his coaching position and not retiring. Taking his place was Craig Esherick, a former Hoyas player, a graduate of Georgetown Law School and a 17-year Thompson acolyte, who was to receive a multiyear contract. Esherick was ambivalent about succeeding his mentor, but in many ways the timing couldn't be better for him. The Hoyas were off to an 0-4 start in the Big East under Thompson, so expectations were hardly lofty for the rest of the season, and Esherick had a successful debut last Saturday as Georgetown upended Providence 75-70. Help is also on the way next year when the Hoyas will welcome their most highly regarded recruiting class in some time, anchored by 6'10" Wesley Wilson of Vallejo, Calif. "I'm excited about the challenge," says Esherick, "but I realize I'm a complete fool to follow in [Thompson's] footsteps."
Indeed, Thompson's career was burnished with excellence. In 1984 he became the first African-American coach to win an NCAA title, and four years later he was the coach of the U.S. Olympic team. He has won 596 games, and his record for developing elite big men is matched perhaps only by John Wooden's. Thompson's teams, typified by asphyxiating defense and a merciless, mirthless disposition, didn't endure a losing season in the past quarter century. Thompson's ultimate legacy, however, might be that of an outspoken advocate for minority athletes, a proponent of tough love who disdained public scrutiny of his program and encouraged his players "to take a stand." At its worst that advice produced the belligerence that came to be known as Hoya Paranoia. On the other hand it was hardly coincidence that the two most vocal union reps in the NBA lockout negotiations were Thompson proteges, Ewing and Mourning.
Thompson's bluster, however, was leavened by his unstinting
loyalty to his players, many of whom he regarded as sons. One of
college basketball's most enduring images is that of Thompson
tenderly hugging Fred Brown after Brown's mental miscue
effectively cost the Hoyas the 1982 NCAA championship. It's a bit
ironic that rancorous legal proceedings involving his family
necessitated Thompson's resignation. "Coach always talked about
'the [Georgetown] family,' and we always knew he was there for
us," says Jaren Jackson, an NBA free agent who played for
Thompson in the late '80s. "Maybe now it's our turn to support
him a little bit" -- at least until his basketball is again filled
DePaul's Alumni Hall is located on Ray Meyer Drive, across the street from where the $12 million Ray Meyer Fitness and Recreation Center is being constructed. At a banquet held on the court in Alumni Hall last Saturday night, DePaul inducted each member of the Blue Demons' 1979 Final Four team into its Hall of Fame in honor of the 20th anniversary of those Blue Demons. It should have been a propitious occasion to fete the man known simply as Coach Ray, who during his 42 years as the DePaul coach embodied Blue Demons basketball. Ray, however, chose not to attend, indicating he still harbors ill will toward the athletic department over the way the school treated his son, Joey, who was fired as coach in April 1997, after having had a 3-23 record in his 13th season.
"I wouldn't feel comfortable there," Ray, 85, said two days before the banquet. "I don't say the university wasn't justified in firing Joey, but I'm not happy with what went on behind the scenes. I don't think Joey had the backing of the university during his last few years."
It's no secret that Joey and athletic director Bill Bradshaw did not see eye to eye toward the end of Joey's time as coach. Bradshaw, who came to DePaul in 1986, insists now that Meyer had "full and complete backing [from the university] in every way." However, Bradshaw did little to quell rampant speculation during Meyer's last few seasons that his job was in jeopardy as the losses mounted and the program was placed on one year's probation for NCAA violations.
Meyer also had to contend with a university policy mandating that athletes maintain a 2.0 cumulative academic average throughout the season. The 1995-96 team started out 7-3 -- including a big win at Indiana -- before two of its best players, Juan Gay and Charles Gelatt, were ruled academically ineligible for the rest of the season. The Blue Demons lost their next 13 games. Meyer's successor, Pat Kennedy, doesn't have to worry about being similarly snakebit because the cumulative-average policy was dropped in the fall of '97. Bradshaw says the decision to do so had been in the works for several years.
To his credit Kennedy has proved he can do what Joey could not: recruit Chicago. DePaul's freshman class, one of the best in the nation, includes three Windy City natives in guard Quentin Richardson and forwards Bobby Simmons and Lance Williams. Another formidable group has already signed letters of intent for next year. Yet Kennedy, whose team was 8-6 through Sunday, says his recruiting efforts have been sabotaged by people faithful to the Meyers. "I was unprepared for that coming in," he says.
Ray plans to be in attendance when the recreation center bearing
his name opens within the next year or so. "I'd do anything for
that building. That's for the students," he says. While he
doesn't rule out a reconciliation with DePaul's athletic
department, it doesn't appear that will happen soon. "I would
never say never," he says, "but it's not the proper time for me.
Let's just say, I haven't gotten over everything yet."
Last week's report ended with a note of skepticism about the lofty standing of the Big Ten in our rankings, and, sure enough, the conference of the big shoulders underwent great upheaval this week. Indiana, which was a third seed, lost to Michigan and Ohio State, and dropped out of the rankings. Michigan State slipped a peg to a No. 3 seed, thanks to its road defeat at the hands of Wisconsin, and Purdue nearly vanished from the poll when it also fell to the Badgers. There was good news for the Big Ten, however: Ohio State was the biggest winner of the week, vaulting to a share of the league lead and a No. 4 seed in our poll with its victory over the Hoosiers.
Another big winner was Auburn, which leaped from a four seed to a two on the strength of its demolition of Arkansas. Arizona improved as well, moving up to a No. 2 by knocking off USC, Washington State and Washington, while UCLA fell a notch, to a No. 3 seed, with a lackluster week that included a loss at Oregon State.
The most surprising development was the lone vote cast for Toledo (9-2) as a No. 4 seed. Don't laugh. The Rockets were ranked 11th in the RPI last week, were rated ninth in strength of schedule and had a 5-0 record at week's end against top 100 teams in the RPI. They're worth keeping an eye on.
What has happened to Massachusetts? The Minutemen were 21-11 last season and have most of the same crew back, but after last Saturday's 53-50 loss at St. Bonaventure, they were 5-8. A clue to their troubles can be found in a three-hour meeting the UMass coaches and players held on Jan. 6, a day after a 19-point home court loss to Iona. The subject: 6'10", 285-pound senior center Lari Ketner , who through Sunday was averaging 10.4 points this season. "Lari can't carry this team, and we talked about sharing the load if we are going to turn this thing around," says coach Bruiser Flint ....
Last year Arizona State was dogged off the court by revelations about a 1993-94 point-shaving scandal and on the court by a squad of undisciplined players who racked up 18 technical fouls for trash-talking and/or mouthing off to officials. This season, under no-nonsense first-year coach Rob Evans , the Sun Devils have only one T, which is part of the reason they had improved to 10-6....
In Washington State's media guide, sophomore Cedric Clark claims he was a walk-on member of the scout team at Arizona in 1996-97 and traveled to Indianapolis when the Wildcats won the national title. Nice try, Cedric. In fact, he was a practice player for the Arizona women's team....
The early favorite for coach of the year is Ohio State's Jim
O'Brien , whose Buckeyes were 8-22 last year but through Sunday
were 13-3 and ranked 21st.
Issue date: January 18, 1999
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