Out came the Arkansas Razorbacks last Friday night at the Springfield (Mass.) Civic Center, baggy shorts flapping like circus tents, confidence in their eyes, defiance in their stride. Downplay that defending-champion thing? Not these guys. As soon as the Hogs hit the floor to warm up for their game against Massachusetts in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off" Classic, their spiritual leader, point guard Corey Beck, raised the index fingers of both hands and turned around and around, so the whole crowd could see just how much—or how little—the pressure to repeat was bothering Arkansas.
How many fingers would you raise now, Corey? Two?
Coach Nolan Richardson had ranted and raved throughout the preseason about how "every one of our opponents will be playing a national championship game," but his team, in its season opener at least, either did not hear him or did not heed him. UMass dismantled Arkansas 104-80. But before you could say "Soo-eeey," the Hogs regrouped on Sunday afternoon, routing Georgetown 97-79 in the first Martin Luther King Jr. Classic, at the Pyramid in Memphis, thereby establishing, if anyone had a doubt, that the defending champs have no intention of sliding into the mud.
Considering what hath been wrought in college basketball thus far this season, a loss by the consensus No. 1 team (though not SI's) was almost to be expected. Eleven of SI's Top 25 teams have already gone down, and No. 6 North Carolina barely escaped with a win over Texas.
Arkansas's hellish weekend excursion—"We should probably fire the coach who made this schedule," said Richardson, who made the schedule—included the introduction of a couple of intriguing subplots to this college season. First, it appears that UMass has adopted the same we-don't-get-no-respect mantra that Richardson used last season to prime the pumps of his feisty Hogs. Many of the Minutemen's postgame comments carried that theme. But though UMass has recently taken shots in the press about academic difficulties (SCORECARD, Oct. 31), it's hard to see how a No. 3 ranking in the preseason AP poll represents a lack of respect. Anyway, the real dis to the Minute-men was shown not by the press but by Arkansas All-America Corliss Williamson, whose preseason claim that "our second team could beat UMass" ended up posted in the Minutemen's locker room.
"He poured fuel on the fire," said UMass power forward Lou Roe, who poured water on Williamson with a monster 34-point, 13-rebound effort in the Tip-Off. "That pissed me off a little bit."
"Upset, Lou," corrected coach John Calipari. "It made you upset."
"We were a little upset by it," said Roe, smiling.
The second subplot concerns Georgetown and its sudden reinvention as Loyola Marymount East. All speculation about whether John Thompson would turn the reins of his usually conservative sleigh over to quicksilver freshman point guard Allen Iverson ended when Iverson pushed the ball upcourt after both makes and misses, took three-point jumpers whenever and from wherever he damn well pleased, scolded his teammates when they screwed up, and in general conducted himself like the second coming of Isiah Thomas. Which he is. Never mind the ugly numbers that Iverson put up on Sunday—5-for-18 shooting (19 points) and more turnovers (eight) than assists (two). He is one of the most exciting guards to come along in years, and Thompson should be praised, not buried, for giving Iverson a lot of rope. If his young supporting cast (Michael Jordan's Chicago Bull teammates never liked that phrase, either, but there it is) can keep up with Iverson, the Hoyas will be a factor come tournament time. "We've added six new faces, and we played the national champions on November 27," said a sanguine Thompson. "You expect some things to go wrong."
Nobody, however, expected things to go as wrong as they did for the Razorbacks in Springfield. Throughout the preseason Calipari had kept an Arkansas cap on his desk to remind him of the arduous task that lay ahead; as it turned out, Calipari ended up, symbolically speaking, with Richardson's head. Certainly the Hogs' weak showing had something to do with their failure to follow Richardson's Five-P credo—Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. The distractions of the road, combined with Tip-Off responsibilities (luncheon, Hall of Fame tour, visit to a children's hospital), left the Hogs with no time for a team meeting and with only a semblance of a game plan. Then, too, once the game started, Arkansas seemed to replace effort with bravado, intensity with haughtiness.