A Surviving Breed
Last week's tournaments in some of college basketball's lesser conferences accomplished their usual purpose. They produced a hopeless but charming underdog to root for in the 1992 NCAA tournament—the Fighting Camels of Campbell, winners of the Big South tournament, get the early nod—and briefly cast a spotlight on some deserving programs.
One of those programs is at Howard, which earned an automatic NCAA bid on Saturday by winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament. The Bison erased a 19-point second-half deficit to beat Florida A&M 67-65 in a thrilling final. The finish was fitting because Howard's entire season has been a comeback. The Bison, who are 17-13, came back from an 8-20 record in 1990-91 and a 1-8 start this season. They ended up 12-4 in the MEAC and won the regular-season championship after being picked by the conference's coaches to finish sixth in the eight-team league. Now they're going to the Big Party for the first time in 11 years.
Howard coach Alfred (Butch) Beard, a 10-year NBA veteran, won a league title as a guard with the Golden State Warriors in 1975. He was an assistant coach for the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets before taking over the Bison last season. Their '91 record notwithstanding, Beard could see the makings of a good team; nine losses were by a total of 27 points.
Beard prepared for the MEAC with a murderous early-season schedule that included Louisville, Florida, Minnesota and Ohio State. "We did it for exposure, to help us recruit," says Beard. "We did it for the money. And we did it to see where we could go with this program. We found that we could compete."
Howard relics on an up-tempo offense and remarkable balance. No one averages more than 12.5 points, and 11 players have each led the team in scoring in at least one game. The Bison are relentless; just ask the Florida A&M players. Howard is likely to need that relentlessness in the NCAAs, especially if the Bison are awarded the dubious honor of lacing No. 1 Duke next week in the opening round. Beard's message: "We won't be afraid of anybody."
Florida's 79-62 upset of Kentucky last week didn't quite clinch an NCAA berth for the Gators, who enter this week's SEC tournament at 16-11 overall and 9-7 in the conference. But it may have marked their complete recovery from the ailments that overwhelmed the program only two seasons ago.
Florida's troubled recent past included investigations by the NCAA and the Drug Enforcement Agency; the loss of three scholarships and $287,000 in NCAA tournament revenues for playing an ineligible player; coach Norm Sloan's forced resignation in October 1989 after 15 years; and the stormy career of center Dwayne Schintzius, who feuded openly with Sloan before quitting the team in January 1990 under interim coach Don DeVoe. Florida's present includes a surprising second-place finish in the East Division of the SEC.
Second-year coach Lon Kruger deserves most of the credit for the turnaround. He has displayed a seemingly boundless commitment to his players. For example, he was at forward Stacey Poole's side throughout Poole's knee operation in 1990. "I have to admit I had to turn my head away a couple of times," says Kruger, who since then has sat in on the knee operations of three other players.