The No. 1 Problem
The honor of topping the polls this season should come with instructions for care and handling: Don't get too attached to No. 1 and try not to impale yourself on it. Nolan Richardson's 10-0, 11-deep, 40 Minutes of Hellions from Arkansas, for instance, were beginning to look like a top-ranked team you could get comfortable with. The Razorbacks weren't going to play a Top 20 team until Feb. 9, when they would visit Kentucky, and the Wildcats had just lost 6'11" Rodney Dent for the rest of the season because of an injured left knee. So there must be a lesson in the Hogs' turning to slop last Saturday in Tuscaloosa, losing 66-64 to an Alabama team that scarcely a week earlier had fallen—by 22—to the College of Charleston.
The lesson may be that the polls don't merely reflect the game but affect it too. They apply pressure to the top dog and supply incentive for the underdog. Arkansas now joins North Carolina, the preseason No. 1, and Kentucky, which held the top spot during Week 2, as teams to tumble from the summit. (The Tar Heels, meanwhile, got another shot at the top on Monday when the AP poll bypassed undefeated Duke and restored Carolina to the No. 1 position.) The Razorbacks' stumble capped off a week in which No. 4 Kentucky, No. 7 Temple, No. 11 Louisville, No. 12 Georgia Tech, No. 17 Cincinnati, No. 21 Illinois and No. 23 George Washington all lost to unranked foes.
The reduction in the shot clock from 45 to 35 seconds this season was supposed to ensure that sheer talent would win out, thus fossilizing the upset. But the 19'9" three-point shot continues to be the game's trusty equalizer, more than negating the effect of the new rule. The trey allowed Massachusetts to topple North Carolina and helped Indiana take down Kentucky. On Saturday even the Crimson Tide, which had missed 37 of 39 three-pointers in its two previous games, found the stroke at opportune times in a terrific game that no one saw fit to televise. (This caused some scrambling back in Washington, home of Arkansas's First Fan, Bill Clinton. With the President flying off to Europe after attending his mother's funeral in Hot Springs on Saturday, the White House had phoned Tuscaloosa to get the satellite coordinates for the game's highlights package, presumably so that it could be taped for presidential perusal upon his return. Clinton said he didn't want to see Bad Vlad Zhirinovsky during his visit to Moscow, and he won't want to see these "highlights," either.)
Some 20 months have passed since Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson, the feverish Man from Plaid who guided the Tide with great success for 12 seasons, quit in the wake of charges of sexual discrimination brought by his longtime secretary. By the time the imbroglio was sorted out—with Sanderson and Alabama reaching a settlement with his accuser—it had made the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill saga look like a Taster's Choice commercial. As a result, the 'Bama band has had to mothball its plaid sport coats, and the plaid center circle at Coleman Coliseum was sanded down, painted over and revarnished. And Tide fans girded themselves for the charisma-free dignity of Sanderson's successor, David Hobbs.
While growing up in Lynchburg, Va., Hobbs won the 1967 Class 1-A state title with a last-second overtime jump shot. He also watched his mother, Lillian, die of leukemia when he was five, and he went on to father a daughter, Heather, who suffers from cerebral palsy. During seven seasons as a 'Bama assistant, Hobbs's most obvious contribution had been to restrain his boss whenever Sanderson looked as if he was going to tear the stripes off a referee. Few people knew that Hobbs was in fact Alabama's—we'll put this in Tidespeak—defensive coordinator. But charismatic he is not.
Last season, as Hobbs and his players struggled to a 16-13 record because of inexperience, the fans gave Hobbs the benefit of lots of doubts. But this season, with Alabama 3-5 going into the game against Arkansas and Hobbs getting chewed up on some call-in shows, the fans weren't the only people losing patience. Junior forward Jamal Faulkner unloaded following a 16-point loss at South Carolina on Jan. 5. "The morale is low," Faulkner told reporters. "Our confidence is down. We've got a lot of talent, a lot of good players. We're just confused as to what exactly is our objective out there." Last Saturday morning Paul Finebaum, a sports columnist for the Birmingham Post-Herald, used Faulkner's remarks as a jumping-off point to wonder whether Hobbs had been the right choice to replace Sanderson. Under the headline HOBBS' HIRING BEGINNING TO LOOK LIKE BIG MISTAKE, he asked why the school hadn't tried harder to sign Cincinnati's Bob Huggins. And he likened watching Hobbs coach to "watching paint dry."
The grumblings seemed certain to swell with Arkansas coming to town. In every game, among their 40 Minutes of Hell, the Razorbacks had mixed in several of guaranteed, pure Ninth Circle. And over the opening 6:56 of the second half on Saturday, the Hogs put together a 16-5 tear that looked as if it would get the job done. At that point Hobbs, down seven, called time, settled his team and watched junior guard Artie Griffin bottom out one of the three parabolic three-pointers he made on the day. From there, 'Bama crawled back to take the lead for good, 61-60, with 4:25 left.
After Alabama survived Arkansas's misses of two wide-open shots in the final minute—a three-point try by Clint McDaniel and a layup by Dwight Stewart—and kept the Hogs from getting a shot off in the final eight seconds, Hobbs met the press and, defiantly satisfied, thanked the media for firing up his team. "I'm not a genius for winning this game," Hobbs said, "and I'm not a dumb ass for losing the others."
Hobbs did no special motivating of his troops, but the players did meet among themselves on the eve of the game. The session so juiced up guard Walter Pitts that he didn't sleep a wink. "The team saw this as a corner to turn," said Griffin, who majors in something called Human Performance and, with 14 points and four steals, proved himself to be a worthwhile subject of study.