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Shaquille O'Neal crashes into this college basketball season like big-foot, half man, half myth. Hulking yet spry, O'Neal, Louisiana State's 7'1", 294-pound junior center, last season became the first player ever to lead the rugged Southeastern Conference simultaneously in scoring (27.6 points per game), rebounding (14.7), field goal percentage (62.8%) and blocked shots (140). Burying soft hooks from the baseline, spinning for pull-up jumpers and muscling in for thunderous jams, he leaves opponents reeling like tenpins.
O'Neal has the talent, daring, physical wallop and stealth to be one of the premier centers in basketball history, let alone the most daunting force in college ball since Wilt. All of which presents a problem for his opponents: how to stop him.
"There isn't a hell of a lot you can do to stop Shaquille," says Marty Blake, director of scouting for the NBA. "The only sure way is to give him the wrong starting time."
When pressed, Blake suggests a variety of trick defenses. "You've got to front Shaquille, back him and side him," he says, doubtfully. "You could shift back and forth from a 1-3-1 to a 2-3 to a 2-2-1. Trouble is, LSU is loaded with pro prospects. If you use a sliding zone on Shaquille, you'd better have the personnel to pull it off."
Most schools don't, including some of the truly talent-laden opponents on the Tigers' 1991-92 sehedule. Then there are those other teams, the ones whose games with Louisiana State will not be nationally televised and whose goal will be not victory but survival. The seven listed below, with the exception of fellow SEC member Vanderbilt, are on LSU's schedule—one of the most difficult in the nation—as tasty appetizers that will help prepare the Tigers for the meaty part of their season. On the teams' rosters are young men who have the unenviable if not unnerving task of unShaqling LSU. They're a cheery but faintly masochistic bunch who face their bleak and barren prospects with charming fatalism. You gotta do what you gotta do, they say.
Nov. 22, Northeast Louisiana
Jeff Murray's face is the color of bad weather. The grim and gaunt Murray, the Indians' 6'10" center, slumps in a chair by his bed at the Glenwood Regional Medical Center in West Monroe, La. Half a dozen wires trail from a heart monitor clipped to his hospital gown. Murray had been brought to Glenwood after he felt a tingling in his arm while jogging on the school track. "The doctors don't know what happened," he says. "They think I either had a strong migraine or a mild stroke." Just by his showing up against Shaquille, Murray will show that his heart can't be questioned. It's his effectiveness that's in doubt.
In high school, Murray was nicknamed Manute. At Pratt Community College in Kansas, the Great White Hope. At Hardin-Simmons, which he attended for one year before transferring to Northeast Louisiana, Ichabod. Today Murray is being billed as Shaq Snack. Because he was redshirted last year, he hasn't faced for-real competition since the 1989-90 season, when he averaged almost two points a game and made nearly a third of his shots for the Cowboys. Oddly, 14 of his 24 points for the season came against LSU.
Murray is hoping to get O'Neal in foul trouble. "I won't blow by him or pump fake," he says. "If I tried to fake him, he probably wouldn't believe me. I'd have a better chance driving around him."