How does South Carolina, the only SEC team undefeated in conference play, prepare for a game? Sophomore guard BJ McKie listens to mellow jazz. Junior point guard Melvin Watson pours a few drops of oil blessed by a preacher into a whirlpool and hops in for a spiritual soak. Coach Eddie Fogler, the brains of the outfit, takes a nap.
Not that the Gamecocks don't take their opponents seriously. A team doesn't knock off No. 3 Kentucky 84-79 in overtime on Feb. 4 and beat Florida 76-68 four days later for its 10th and 11th consecutive SEC victories by taking things lightly. It's just that this team has already done all the cracking under pressure it can stand for a year. You may have to reach back a few decades to find the last really good South Carolina team, but you only have to go back about six weeks to find the last really bad one. Despite high expectations in the preseason, the Gamecocks were 5-5 in late December, having been defeathered by the likes of North Carolina-Asheville and Charleston Southern. "Perhaps we let the pressure of being ranked get to us, and maybe we were playing not to lose rather than to win," says McKie, the team's leading scorer, with a 17.6 average. "But I know our chemistry wasn't good, and we were second-guessing our coach and not understanding our roles. So we had a players-only meeting and straightened things out. I really think that if we hadn't lost those games then, we wouldn't be undefeated in the SEC now."
At week's end the Gamecocks were 17-5 and ranked No. 12 in the country. They're No. 1 in the hearts of Columbians, many of whom have called Fogler's radio show to thank him for "bringing Gamecock basketball back." And unlike Frank McGuire, who stocked his powerful teams of the late 1960s and early '70s with fellow New Yorkers, Fogler, a New Yorker as well, has thrived with local talent. Nine of his 12 players and four of his five starters are from in-state.
The Gamecocks' main strength is their three-man backcourt. Besides the silky McKie, whose first name is really Bjorn—"I think it's Swedish for Bernard," he says—there is senior Larry Davis, who scored all of 84 points in two seasons as a backup at North Carolina before transferring to South Carolina three years ago, Davis felt right at home in the system used by Fogler, a former Tar Heel player and 15-year Dean Smith assistant whose practices mirror Smith's down to the number of laps run before practice (five) and the seconds allotted freshmen for water breaks (fewer than the seniors get). "The system is the same and the expectations are the same," says Davis, whose role is decidedly not the same. A pine rider no more, Davis is the Gamecocks' second-leading scorer, at 15.7 points per game.
The other member of the backcourt trio, the sweet-tempered Watson, played erratically in December but has been making amends ever since. Against Kentucky he had 15 points, six rebounds, five assists and the final basket in regulation that forced the game into overtime; against Florida he scored 12 points and had 11 assists, the first double double of his career. For Watson the dark days of December are ancient history. "The winning streak has been great," he says, "but I do have one fear. If we lose, how will we respond?"
The Cats Meow
There is one important difference between Alice, the 11-year-old bear cat mascot that pads around Cincinnati's Shoemaker Center on a leash, and the Cincinnati basketball team. Alice, a furry, squat creature with a sharp little bear face, can be much fiercer than she looks. The Bearcats' team, on the other hand, has turned out to be much tamer than expected by the preseason prognosticators (including SI) who ranked them No. 1.
The Bearcats (17-4, 6-1 in Conference USA through Sunday) won two home games last week and improved their ranking to No. 8 from a season low of 12, but they are still struggling to find the beast within. Their 65-64 win over then No. 21 Tulane last Thursday, their first win against a ranked team all season, was decided on a last-second layup by junior forward Danny Fortson, a play on which, even Fortson admitted, he took "about six steps." And Cincinnati's 91-70 rout of faltering Marquette two days later, while impressive in some respects—the Bearcats shot 55% against an opponent with the nation's best field-goal-percentage defense and demonstrated their own suffocating pressure D for an entire game—still did not reveal a team that looks ready to roar to the Final Four.
Cincinnati's biggest flaw, which was acutely obvious in losses to Temple and Louisville, is at point guard. Junior Charles Williams is flashy but often ineffective, and senior Damon Flint, who plays the position about as much as Williams, is a terrific defender but not a natural playmaker. Against the Cardinals the two combined for 11 assists and 11 turnovers.
After the Louisville game, Bearcats coach Bob Huggins said, "There were 13 people in both cities who didn't know that this was a big game and that we'd have to play hard. Unfortunately, all 13 of those people are on my team. We haven't had a championship approach to things. We've played hard for a while, and then we've played lackadaisical. I hope that they understand our backs are against the wall."