Arkansas Is Back
This is a fine time to be Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson. The NCAA investigation that haunted his program for 16 months has been completed, resulting in a mere slap on the wrist. His beloved 40 Minutes of Hell defense, missing in action for the last couple of seasons, is back in full infernal force. And just one year after missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in 10 seasons, his Razorbacks were 20-3 through Sunday and sitting atop the SEC Western Division with a 9-1 league record, their best start ever in the conference.
The Arkansas team mat beat Ole Miss and Vanderbilt in Fayetteville last week to improve its national ranking to 12 is basically the same club of average shooters that went 18-14 last season. But unlike the 1996-97 Razorbacks, these Hogs are winning close games, winning on the road and winning with a zeal that tempts Richardson to call it the best defensive team he's ever coached. Certainly, he says, "it's one of the most unusual teams I've coached."
Personifying Arkansas's unconventionality is 6'9", 201-pound senior center Nick Davis, a born-again Christian with the rebounding instincts of Dennis Rodman and the ferocity of a school crossing guard. "Nicky is the nicest guy I've ever met who is a good rebounder," says Richardson. A junior college transfer who averaged only 3.6 points and 3.5 rebounds during his first two years in Fayetteville, Davis delivered his soul to God and his body to the weight room last summer. The resulting confidence and extra 16 pounds of muscle have helped him elevate his game: Through Sunday he was second in the nation in rebounding with an 11.9 average, and his 2.3 blocks a game placed him third in the conference. Though his jump shot is unsightly—it has been compared to someone loading and firing a musket—it serves him well. He has had 12 double doubles this season (he had one in his first two years), and his 12.4 points a game was second among the Hogs. "Nicky still looks like a rag doll out there," says Richardson, "but he has made our team much better."
So has junior guard Pat Bradley, a Bostonian who was most likely headed to St. Bonaventure or Boston University before Richardson spotted him at the national 17-and-under AAU tournament 3� years ago and fell in love with his feel for the game and his three-point shooting. Bradley, the Hogs' leading scorer (14.3 points) and thief (43 steals), has in turn fallen in love with Arkansas—"even the constant smell of manure from the fahms" he says.
Who knows how far the Razorbacks can go in the NCAA tournament, but anyone who saw them dismantle Mississippi 100-87 last week for their 12th win in 13 games couldn't help but think about the Arkansas national-title team of four seasons ago.
Newman Brings New Life
Why did preseason prognosticators pick Arizona State, now 16-8 and tied for fourth in the Pac-10 with a 6-5 mark, to finish 10th in the league? Because they couldn't pick the Sun Devils 11th or 12th.
This is how dark things looked for Arizona State heading into the season: After finishing last year's miserable 10-20 season with an 11-game losing streak, the Sun Devils had become engulfed in a scandal that saw two former players plead guilty to shaving points during the 1993-94 season; had lost their coach, Bill Frieder, who resigned in September; and had had two players arrested for theft, two others leave the program and one go down for the year with injuries sustained in a car accident. Arizona State had just eight scholarship players remaining and an interim coach, Don Newman, 40, who had been a Frieder assistant for all of three months and whose only head coaching experience, five years at Cal State-Sacramento, had yielded a dismal 20-114 record. Hopeless? That's putting it mildly.
Newman didn't realize how bad things were until he launched into his allotted five-minute spiel at Pac-10 Media Day in Los Angeles and got cut off after a minute and a half. "I couldn't wait to get back to Tempe and pull on my shorts for practice," says Newman, a former CBA guard who suits up for practice when the Sun Devils are short on bodies. "I was ready to dig in."