These are the players who can step up to the mike and blow the room away, making their teams better as they do. For instance, it hardly matters that Memphis State has little experience at point guard, because at crunch time the ball will be in the hands of 6'7" swingman Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway, one of the few players we can, with a straight face, compare to Magic Johnson. Last season Hardaway was the only Division I player to rank in the top six in his conference in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
Unlike the humbled Montross, Hardaway was impressive against the Dream Team—Larry Bird called him Mr. Defense—and he's obviously brash enough to believe he can carry a team. After playing golf last summer in a foursome that included the Chicago Bulls' Scottie Pippen, Hardaway said Pippen "has a golf bag with his name on it and fancy clubs, and he can't even play. He's terrible. He was worse than me, and I was pretty bad." Imagine what Pippen would like to give Penny for his thoughts.
Michigan senior James Voskuil, a 6'7" forward, stumbled while walking on a beach in Nice, France, this summer. He looked down and saw that the obstacle was a topless sunbather. He and the woman began talking, and Voskuil, an aerospace engineering major, discovered that her father works at NASA. He came away with her phone and fax numbers. No wonder there's a sense that everything comes too easily to the Wolverines.
That was certainly the feeling last season after Michigan's celebrated five freshmen ignored all the pretournament hot air about inexperience and took the Wolverines to the NCAA title game. They seem like a logical pick to step up a notch this year, especially since Webber and guard Jalen Rose both already qualify as go-to guys. Yet the Big Ten beat writers didn't even pick the Wolverines to win the conference. (Indiana was picked first, Michigan second.) Why? Probably because it's hard to imagine this season going as smoothly as last. Sure enough, Webber, Rose and backup center Eric Riley, a senior, got into mildly hot water during the summer for accepting $300 each to play in a charity game, though they were later absolved of blame by the NCAA. Furthermore, Webber and Rose figure to be dogged all year with questions about when they plan to turn pro. The Wolverines may make the disbelievers look silly again, but sometimes it's harder being a sophomore than it is being a freshman.
We tried so hard to take a wait-and-see attitude toward California freshman Jason Kidd (page 68), but when Kidd won the MVP award in a San Francisco pro-am league this summer, outplaying teammates Brian Shaw and Gary Payton of the NBA, we had to give the Golden Bears a seat in our Top 20 band. And it's not as if Kidd, a 6'4" guard, won't have help. Senior center Brian Hendrick, Cal's leading scorer, is back after missing part of last season with a dislocated kneecap, and the Bears have a gang of talented sophomores who gained valuable experience during last year's 10-18 season. But to be fair, we'll let Lou Campanelli, Cal's coach and spin doctor, try to keep the pressure off his young team. "We were ninth [in the Pac-10 at 4-14] and still have nine freshmen and sophomores on our roster," says Campanelli. "I'll let you know when we're good."
The Bass Players
A good big man is like a bass player, thumping away in the background, laying down that solid beat. Some teams' fortunes will depend on what kind of bass line, uh, baseline play they get. After last season at Seton Hall, 6'7" forward Jerry Walker did everything but deliver a carton of Slim-Fast to the front door of portly center Luther Wright. The 7'2" Wright was 20 pounds overweight at the start of last season and never was much of a factor, leaving the stalwart but out-of-position Walker to slug it out with bigger centers. "After the season I said to Luther, 'It's up to you to get into shape,' " says Walker. "I want to play my natural position and have a shot at going to the pros." Walker's brother Jasper supervised Wright's summer workouts, which included running the stairs of St. Peter's Church in Jersey City, N.J., for half an hour every day. Wright also spent a lot of time in the weight room. He's down to 270 not-so-soft pounds, which means he could transform the Pirates from a solid but undersized team into a serious Final Four contender. Walker and shooting guard Terry Dehere can carry Seton Hall part of the way, but if coach P.J. Carlesimo is still answering questions about Wright's weight in January, the Pirates will be in trouble.
Don't be alarmed if you're in East Lansing, Mich., and a 6'10", 270-pound hulk with a Polish eagle and the words PURE BRED tattooed on his ankle comes vroom-vrooming up next to you on a motorcycle. It's just Michigan State biker-center Mike Peplowski. He may not be quite as intimidating on the court as he is on the streets, but he's close. Peplowski, the second-leading rebounder in the Big Ten last season, behind Michigan's Webber, has fought back from four knee operations to become a controlling force under the basket. Guard Shawn Respert, a 45.5% three-point shooter last season, will handle the outside shooting. Coach Jud Heathcote is still looking for a point guard, however.
With apologies to Peplowski, the real intimidator in the Big Ten is 6'10" center Acie Earl of Iowa, who has led the Big Ten in blocked shots for the last three years. Earl isn't exactly smooth on offense—the form on his jump shot has been likened to that of a man falling out of a tree—but he was effective enough to lead the Hawkeyes with 19.5 points per game last year. He'll get help from forward Chris Street, who is a solid rebounder, and highly regarded freshman forward Kenyon Murray, Michigan's high school player of the year last season.