The message seems to be sinking in. Presented with a rare opportunity to face elite competition on a neutral court in Maui, Ball State, which had never defeated a Top 5 team, upended then No. 4 Kansas 93-91 and then No. 3 UCLA 91-73 before succumbing to top-ranked Duke 83-71 in the final. The wins propelled the Cardinals to No. 16 in this week's AP poll, their highest-ever ranking.
"It's a dream come true," says 5'10" senior Patrick Jackson, who was Ball State's leading scorer with a 22.3 points-per-game average and who sank the game-winning layup against Kansas with .8 of a second remaining. "Most of us played against these [ Kansas, UCLA and Duke] guys in high school but never got the kind of publicity they did. It felt good to show that we really can play, not just once but twice."
The Cardinals won largely because of their preparation. Buckley's assistants started putting together scouting reports on the other teams in the Maui field last April, and before the players left for the tournament, Ball State's associate trainer, Tony Cox, began force-feeding them liquids to help them contend with the draining Hawaiian heat. While several of their opponents were sidelined with cramps, the Cardinals had enough strength in their legs to average 85 points a game and make 40.5% of their three-point shots.
The Ball State players draw much of their inspiration from 6'8" junior Theron Smith, who received only one other Division I scholarship offer—from Florida Atlantic—when he was graduating from Auburndale ( Fla.) High. Smith, who averaged 16.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in Maui, suffers from a speech impediment that becomes especially debilitating when he gets nervous or excited. After averaging 12.2 points and 7.6 rebounds as a freshman, Smith was named the Mid-American Conference's rookie of the year. He now works with a speech therapist four times a week, and though the impediment still bothers him, he agreed to represent the team at the conference's media day in October. "I was definitely scared," Smith says, "but I believe you can conquer anything if you put your mind to it."
Smith and his mates proved the truth of that last week.
A Raw Deal from The NCAA
The NCAA's decision on Nov. 14 to deny Georgia forward Damien Wilkins's appeal for immediate eligibility is the latest example of how the transfer rules are rigged against players. Given that Wilkins had to transfer from N.C. State because Wolfpack coach Herb Sendek refused to let him come back after Wilkins explored the possibility of turning pro, it's unfair that Wilkins must sit out a full season while Sendek is permitted to replace him right away. If the NCAA won't permit Wilkins to play this season, it should also take away a scholarship from the Wolfpack....
It looks as if Memphis's Dajuan Wagner will have competition for rookie of the year honors in Conference USA Dwyane Wade of Marquette, a 6'4" sophomore who sat out last season as a partial qualifier, was named MVP of the Great Alaska Shootout after averaging 21.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists in the Golden Eagles' three games, wins over Tennessee, Indiana and Gonzaga....
Speaking of Memphis, coach John Calipari hasn't heard from 6'10" Amare Stoudemire of Orlando's Cypress Creek High since July and did not receive a letter of intent from Stoudemire during the early signing period. Stoudemire, who has attended six high schools, orally committed to the Tigers last spring but is widely expected to enter the NBA draft. Other unsigned seniors considering going pro include 6'10" Sani Ibrahim of Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., and 6'6" Lenny Cooke of Northern Valley Regional High in Old Tappan, N.J. Oak Hill Academy's Carmelo Anthony, a 6'7" forward, signed with Syracuse but is also said to be contemplating the leap.
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