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LET THE GAMES BEGIN
Unsurprisingly, the first week of January brought more upsets than the entire month of December. Syracuse, Illinois, Indiana and LaSalle all suffered their first defeats, leaving only Kansas, Georgetown, Oklahoma and Georgia Tech as major unbeatens—and who wants to bet that those four will escape January unscathed? In addition, LSU and Louisville were jolted in games they were supposed to win easily.
If there's a common thread, it might be soft early schedules, which are good for padding the record and the bank account, but bad for getting teams ready for conference play, in which the pressure gets turned up a notch or two. Look at any team in the Top 20, and you'll find at least three games on its December schedule that, frankly, amounted to little more than glorified practices.
Teams obviously don't want a tough game every time out, but some of the scheduling has gotten so absurd that it's an insult to the public, which is paying $15 a seat at some schools for the privilege of seeing a 50-point blowout. The plethora of mismatches also is an excellent argument for cutting the number of games and starting the season later in the fall. The Presidents Committee will propose just that at the NCAA convention this week in Dallas. Financially strapped athletic directors can be expected to oppose any measure that will cut into their revenues, but can anybody really argue that a player benefits more from three hours in a gym against no competition than he would from three hours in the library going one-on-one with his textbooks?
Take Syracuse. No one should have been surprised that the Orangemen, top-ranked in the polls at the start of last week, barely beat Pittsburgh before getting clobbered 93-74 by Villanova at home. Syracuse prepared for those two games by playing its last four December games against—ready for this?—Canisius, Towson State, C.W. Post and Lafayette. Going directly from that sort of competition to the Big East is a bit like moving from simple arithmetic to advanced calculus.
On the other hand, Kansas, 15-0 as of Sunday, is an example of a team that plays a reasonable preconference schedule. Sure, the Jayhawks gobbled up a couple of creampuffs, but they also defeated LSU, UNLV, Kentucky, Arizona State and Wichita State. By the way, the team-oriented Jayhawks have made a fan of a certain elderly gentleman in Los Angeles. "I've really enjoyed watching Kansas play," said John Wooden. "They're a team. I'd like to see more teams like that."
REVIVAL ON THE RIVER
Only two days after pulling off its shocking 71-66 upset of Louisville on the road, Cincinnati returned home and was upset 73-72 by Coastal Carolina. Still, the Bearcats were 8-4 at week's end, and their new coach. Bob Huggins, believes the program could be as strong as it was from 1958-59 through '62-63, when Cincinnati went to five straight Final Fours and won national titles in 1961 and '62. Asked about a timetable, Huggins said, "I don't know, but I don't have a whole lot of patience."
One reason for Huggins's optimism is a new on-campus arena that seats 13,200. The Bearcats averaged only 8,790 in their first five home games, but attendance is up by more than 5,000 fans per game over last season. Huggins sees the day when Cincinnati basketball will be the toughest ticket in town.
For the time being, however, Huggins must make do with a team that has only eight scholarship players because of sanctions levied by the NCAA in 1988 for, among other things, recruiting violations. The roster is filled out by five walk-ons, the best being 6'2" senior guard Steve Sanders, a starting wide receiver on the football team who has emerged as the Bearcats' leading three-point shooter. The lack of depth is so acute that all five starters are averaging at least 30 minutes a game. Forward Levertis Robinson, who missed 16 days because of an appendectomy on Dec. 6, played 116 of a possible 120 minutes in the Rainbow Classic three weeks later, and as of Sunday point guard Andre Tate had sat out only 15 of a possible 480 minutes. "We don't have a lot of margin for error," says Huggins.