"Ask Tremaine Fowlkes if his practices were like this at Cal," says coach Jerry Tarkanian, smiling benignly as he surveys line after line of exhausted players scrambling backward while performing a defensive drill in Fresno State's South Gym. "Ask Avondre Jones if they practiced this hard at USC. Ask Courtney Alexander about Virginia. I'd like to know what they say."
The collective answer—Those practices (gasp) were nothing (gasp) like this—should please Tark. At college basketball's halfway house, where foundering former high school All-Americas come for resurrection, there's a price to be paid for redemption, and it's sweat.
"What we have here is a lot of talent that hasn't lived up to its potential," says Tark, who has five erstwhile high school All-Americas on his roster and two others, Alexander and freshman Melvin Ely, redshirting this year. "In his second year at Cal, Tremaine Fowlkes was a substitute. Avondre Jones was a bust at USC. He's had three terrible years in college. But now he is motivated and really working hard. Right now he is the best center I've ever been around."
The 6'11" Jones, a rap singer of exceptional gifts, is downplaying his interest in music because he says it has been unfairly blamed for his past lack of commitment to basketball. "That wasn't what was distracting me," says Jones. "I had a bunch of problems at USC, and I made a lot of bad decisions. But now I'm very focused on basketball because this is my last chance. I have to make it work this year."
He'll have to, because the Bulldogs, who "couldn't gel a rebound against the Girl Scouts last year," according to Tarkanian, don't really have a backup center. They are thick with talent at other positions, though. Fowlkes, a 6'8" forward who v. as the Pac-10 freshman of the year in 1994-95, is now eligible after transferring from Cal, and 6'9" blue-chip forward Winfred Walton should be eligible to play on Dec. 20 after transferring from Syracuse. Add guard Rafer Alston, a juco transfer and New York City playground sensation, and have them mesh with returning guard Chris Herren and forwards Daymond Forney and Terrance Roberson, and the Bulldogs could be formidable, especially if everyone stays healthy and out of trouble. (The latter is no minor consideration on this team: Alston has been suspended for Fresno's first game because of an altercation with an ex-girlfriend; Roberson and Forney were both suspended—Roberson for two weeks, Forney indefinitely—for the always ominous reason that they "failed to complete team requirements"; and a grand jury is still looking into the point-shaving rumors that implicated Herren last spring.)
Fresno fans may never see the likes of these Bulldogs again., With Jones in his final season and Walton likely to go pro after just one year, this is Fresno State's best chance to make a splash in the NCAA tournament. Jones thinks the Bulldogs will excel. "All this hard work has to pay off sometime," he says. "It just has to."