Away We Go!
Get ready for a fast-breakin', rim-shakin' season on the Road to the Meadowlands (which is not the same thing as the New Jersey Turnpike)
If you're leafing through this magazine at the newsstand, what we're about to say does not relieve you of the obligation to shell out your hard-earned loot. Nevertheless we would like you to put us down for a moment, check out some of the other college basketball previews arrayed before you and take note of their choices for preseason No. 1.
We and our colleagues at SI PRESENTS, in their College Basketball '95-96 preview, have picked Kansas. Athlon Sports, ESPN College Basketball, Sport, The Sporting News and Street & Smith's pick Kansas too. That the pundits all sound like homesick Dorothys adrift in Oz wouldn't be particularly remarkable, except that they're equally emphatic in their belief that no college team has more talent than...Kentucky. Which raises the question: What's up?
Chemistry is what's up. Teams' nuclei. Their bonding and combustion. Stable elements and volatile ones. The critical nature of the mix and what Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun calls "the vapor that just sort of hangs over a team." That most elemental of science explains why the Jayhawks are seen as headed to East Rutherford, N.J., for the Final Four—and why no one should go near Rupp Arena this season without safety goggles. As Dean E. Smith, Ph.D., esteemed Allen-Naismith professor of hoopochemical science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, reminds us, "The '68 UCLA team was one of the greatest of all time, but it wouldn't have been any better with Elvin Hayes."
Consider the various elements from which Kentucky coach Rick Pitino will try to create a championship compound. Walter McCarty and Antoine Walker would each be justified in styling himself as the Wildcats' main frontcourtman, yet only one can really fill that role. With the Wildcats groping for a floor leader, there's talk of making a point guard of Tony Delk, even though he was so productive last season at the 2 guard that he was named All-SEC. And as if that wasn't jumble enough, the Cats have added Derek Anderson, a hotshot transfer from Ohio State; freshman guard Wayne Turner, who averaged 36.1 points a game as a senior in high school; and scholastic Player of the Year Ron Mercer, whom Pitino—and almost every other coach in America—pursued in such hell-bent fashion that Mercer could hardly be blamed for thinking himself the Cats' meow.
A foretaste of what Kentucky may be in for occurred during a summer tour of Italy, when under-the-surface tension spilled out into the open in an on-court shouting match between Walker and forward Jared Prickett. Why, Pitino has such a surfeit of winning elements that he has set up a sort of Superfund site for all his chemical waste: a jayvee team.
What Pitino faces this season isn't too different from what his LSU counterpart, Dale Brown, dealt with in 1989, when he went into the lab with such rare elements as Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Jackson and Stanley Roberts. At an SEC media gathering that fall, Wimp Sanderson, then coach at Alabama, contemplated that assemblage of talent and said, "Those guys are so good, even Dale couldn't screw them up."
Well, Dr. Dale did. The Tigers fizzled out in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Yet in 1986 Brown took a significantly less-talented team to the Final Four. All of which underscores how baffling this subject of chemistry can be, and why, to help tutor us, we went looking for a real, live, hoops-playing chem major. Vanderbilt senior forward Chad Sheron, a sweet-shooting premed known as the Swishin' Physician, has graciously agreed to annotate the three basic lessons of basketball chemistry.
I. How Elements Bond