They call him mister, and he hardly ever misses: His three-point field goal percentage, the best in the nation, reads like a typographical error—.730. He has set up more people than Love Connection has: The NCAA career assist record will almost certainly be erased sometime this spring. He is as short as the day is long: Fans on the road call him Webster.
Five-foot seven-inch Mister Jennings—his given name is Keith, but hardly anyone calls him that anymore—is but one reason why the East Tennessee State Buccaneers are 14-1, ranked a lofty 12th in this week's Associated Press poll and are quietly building a certified basketball power in a sleepy place called Johnson City. But he is one very good reason. "Of all the point guards I've seen," says former North Carolina guard Jeff Lebo, now an East Tennessee State assistant, who has undoubtedly seen a few, "I think only [Georgia Tech's] Kenny Anderson is better."
There are a few other, even odder reasons why the Buccaneers figure to be around awhile. Their 6'11" center, Greg Dennis, who is perhaps 20 additional pounds from becoming an NBA lottery pick, may be helping the program immeasurably, if involuntarily, by sitting out this season with a broken foot—though his injury left the Bucs with no regular over 6'4". And there was that turning point of two years ago when the unheralded Bucs lost a 72-71 heartbreaker to top-seeded Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament. "It probably helped us as much as anything else has," says Bucs coach Alan LeForce.
Then there are the three other members of the 1987 recruiting class, aside from Jennings and Dennis, that largely created all of this from the rubble of a team that finished 7-21 just a year before their arrival: guards Alvin West and Major Geer and swingman Micheal Woods. "We were thrown in the fire real early," says West. "The name East Tennessee State? Nobody gave it any respect. Now we're getting some respect. Some."
The phrase "recruiting class" is actually misleading. Not even Rand McNally would pull over in some of the places listed in the Hometown column on the Bucs roster: Big Stone Gap, Boiling Springs, Clinchco, Kings Mountain, Paintsville, Pineville, Greeneville. "You gotta make a whole lotta noise in Charleston, West Virginia, if you want to go to a big school," says Dennis, a floor-running, three-shooting center who averaged 19.7 points as a junior last season. "I didn't start making noise until my senior year."
Junior Calvin Talford, a 6'4" forward and another Buc with NBA promise, had 48 dunks as a high school senior, went for 59 points in one game and was drafted—by the Philadelphia Phillies. Few came to Castlewood, Va., to ask him to play basketball, the sport he has always preferred.
"It wasn't that we were such super recruiters," says LeForce, the 55-year-old former high school coach who is in his sixth season at East Tennessee State, his first as head coach. "It's just that we were going after players who weren't being recruited by any other Division I schools."
Even if they had to be cajoled into doing so, as was the case when an East Tennessee State women's assistant harassed LeForce into believing that her cousin in Culpeper, Va., was worth a look-see. LeForce, the skeptic, walked into the Culpeper High gym and saw a tiny action figure draining warmup shots from 25 feet, a kid who raised his hands like a set of goalposts every time he let fly from behind the three-point line. The coach was still calling him Keith, but by then, everyone in town was buttonholing LeForce to say, "We love that Mister."
There was a solitary number 16 on the scoreboard that night that was reduced by two every time Mister scored a basket. When the number hit zero in the fourth quarter, the game was halted, the crowd poured onto the floor and Mister Jennings was carried off the court on the crest of a human wave, having broken the career district scoring record with his 16th point of the game. LeForce knew then what he says now: "Mister is a once-in-a-lifetime player."
"He's the most underrated point guard in the nation," says North Carolina State playmaker Chris Corchiani, who was fondued for 17 points, four rebounds and 10 assists by Jennings last season in the Bucs' stunning 92-82 upset win in Raleigh. That game remains Jennings's fondest memory since coming to Johnson City. "There was a team that was definitely not worried about us," he says of the Wolfpack. "I'll never forget looking up at the scoreboard. It was 44 to 18, our favor. They all had these looks on their faces like, What did we run into?"