During CBS's telecast of the Kentucky-Indiana game last weekend, commentator Billy Packer put Houston forward Sam Mack on his list of the top newcomers in the country. Mack, a 6'7" senior, may be in his first season with the Cougars, but he's anything but a newcomer. Houston is the fourth stop in Mack's troubled college career, and so far it has been a most satisfying one. Through Sunday he had a 21.2 scoring average, which included a 32-point performance in a 68-65 loss to North Carolina on Nov. 27.
Mack's talent has never been in doubt; his difficulties have come off the court. He started at Iowa State, where he sat out his freshman season because of Prop 48 restrictions. He had a promising sophomore year in 1988-89, scoring 11.8 points a game for the Cyclones. But after the season, Mack and former Iowa State football player Levin White were charged with first-degree robbery in the holdup of a fast-food restaurant in Ames. White was convicted on the robbery charge and is serving a 25-year prison sentence, but Mack, who was shot by police in the hip and leg outside the restaurant, was acquitted. After that he decided to transfer to Arizona State.
But before Mack even became eligible to play for the Sun Devils, an Arizona State female student accused him of sexual assault. After a police investigation, no charges were filed. A few months later he was arrested on suspicion of using a stolen credit card to buy jewelry. Again, no charges were brought, but Mack was dismissed from the team and went to Tyler (Texas) Junior College, where coach Roy Thomas helped him stop his downward spiral. "He helped me gain discipline," says Mack. "I would set goals for myself, type them up on index cards and tape them to my locker. I had been hanging out with the wrong people, but I started to pull my life back together at Tyler."
Houston coach Pat Foster found Mack at Tyler and decided to take a chance on him after investigating his background and consulting Cougar athletic director Rudy Davalos and university president Marguerite Ross Barnett. "He's got a chance to salvage his career," says Foster. "He's been very cooperative; he's not a problem-type player. If you threw out all the guys in college and the pros who have been in trouble, you wouldn't have a lot of players, unfortunately."
For his part, Mack is saying all the right things. "All of that is in the past," he says. "I don't plan on getting in trouble."
Mack seems as confident of that as he is of his talent, which is saying a lot. "Scoring, putting the ball in the hole, is my forte," he says. "Anybody can tell you that. Offensively, I can be pretty hard to stop."
Now the challenge for Mack is to keep from stopping himself.
It's the same old story at East Tennessee State. A year ago the Buccaneers proved to be better than almost anyone had expected, climbing as high as No. 10 in the Associated Press poll, thanks largely to pint-sized point guard Keith (Mister) Jennings. Now Jennings is gone—all 5'7" of him—but the Bucs have plugged another small piece into the puzzle. At week's end they were 4-0 and had beaten Tennessee 87-79 on the road and Southern Mississippi 87-76 at home.
Coach Alan LeForce has replaced Jennings with the aptly named Jason Niblett, a 5'11" transfer from Hagerstown (Md.) Junior College, who insists that he's not as flashy or as proficient a scorer as his predecessor was. That would be easier to believe if Niblett hadn't scored 33 points against Tennessee. He also had 14 points and six assists in the Southern Miss game last Saturday. "It's natural to compare us because of our height," says Niblett, "but I didn't come in here expecting to do the kinds of things Keith did. You won't see 33 points from me too often. We have guys who are better scorers than I am."