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Last thursday night's Minnesota-Iowa game was the only nationally televised ESPN game from Minneapolis all season, and Golden Gophers swingman Sam Jacobson was enjoying the rare opportunity to bask in the spotlight. At halftime, Jacobson had already drained four three-pointers on his way to scoring 29 points in a 66-51 blowout of the Hawkeyes that gave Minnesota sole possession of first place in the Big Ten. Back in the studio, ESPN commentators were reviewing the game's first-half highlights when flushed anchorman Chris Fowler referred to Jacob-son as "the Jewish Jordan." It was a nice compliment, but alas, Jacobson is no Jordan. And he's Catholic.
Such is the fickle nature of celebrity for No. 6-ranked Minnesota and a bevy of other previously anonymous teams that have joined the nation's elite this season, creating a New World Order in college basketball. Depending on your point of view, the Golden Gophers and their ilk are either pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps outfits that should be applauded for bringing fresh blood into the ranks of the Establishment or a gang of upstart punks running loose on the grounds of the country club.
Heck, Miami has beaten Georgetown this season. Twice. In basketball. Mississippi whipped Kentucky on Jan. 11 and cracked the rankings for the first time since the Rebels started playing hoops, which takes us back roughly to the Battle of Vicksburg. Likewise, No. 18 Colorado is enjoying the fruits of 28 consecutive rebuilding seasons, appearing in the AP poll for the first time since 1969. Three of last year's Final Four teams (Massachusetts, Mississippi State and Syracuse) are currently AWOL from the rankings. Pacific is 15-1. BYU is 1-15. We're not even sure which is the best team in Cincinnati: Is it the 14-3 University of Cincinnati, which some experts predicted would win the national title, or is it 13-3 Xavier, whose victories include a 71-69 defeat of the Bearcats on Nov. 26? South Carolina, ranked 25th, was still perfect in the SEC through Sunday. On Jan. 4 Wisconsin beat Indiana for the first time in 17 years, thereby dropping the Hoosiers into the middle of the pack in the Big Ten, chasing Minnesota, which hasn't won the conference title since '82. Maryland, picked to finish eighth in the ACC, knocked off undefeated Wake Forest—on the road—on Jan. 19 and at week's end stood second in the conference, a game ahead of No. 7 Clemson. Even Prairie View A & M, long the nation's chew toy, won three of its first five Southwestern Athletic Conference games, and the good folks at the league office are still plumbing the archives to find the last time that happened. All of which leads us to ask the musical question, Where have all the powers gone?
Who thought we'd see a week like this, when the Top 25 doesn't include Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Georgetown, Georgia Tech, Massachusetts, Memphis. Oklahoma State, Providence, Purdue. St. John's, Syracuse, Temple or UCLA?
And North Carolina, an 84-71 loser to Florida State last Wednesday, is hanging on at No. 19 partly on reputation. Funny, we began this season speculating on the possibility that Tar Heels coach Dean Smith might break Kentucky legend Adolph Rupp's record for most career victories. Now we're talking about Smith setting personal records for futility. North Carolina lost its first three ACC games for the first time ever, and the Tar Heels, with a 3-4 league record at week's end, are in danger of finishing out of the top three in the conference for the first time since the 1963-64 season, Smith's third year at Chapel Hill.
North Carolina is enduring the kind of decline all traditional basketball powers fear may beset them in this new era of babysitting for the NBA. Three seasons ago the Tar Heels were so loaded with talent that superfreshmen Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace were bench players. Still, the presence of those two budding stars was enough to scare off top recruits for the following season, and Smith signed only Shammond Williams and Ryan Sullivan. Stackhouse and Wallace then left for the NBA in 1995, after their sophomore seasons. Junior guard Jeff McInnis followed last year. All of a sudden this program, which more than any other has preached the gospel of depending on seniors, can barely muster any. As a result, the Tar Heels, who might have started an imposing lineup of McInnis, Stackhouse, Wallace, Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison this season, have instead given crunch-time minutes to three walk-ons. "These things happen, and individuals have to do what is best for them," says Smith, who has always encouraged his players to leave for the NBA if they project as high draft picks. "I'll bet Stanford's golf team won't be as good this year without Tiger Woods, either."
Similarly, the losses of Shareef Abdur-Rahim at Cal, Ray Allen at Connecticut, Allen Iverson at Georgetown and Stephon Marbury at Georgia Tech to the 1996 NBA draft have crippled those teams. And pity poor UMass, which handed the NBA not only the college player of the year, Marcus Camby, who had finished only his junior year, but also the foundation of its program, coach John Calipari, who took over the New Jersey Nets. The Minutemen were limping along at 10-9 at week's end.
It's no coincidence that Kansas and Wake Forest are the top two teams in the polls; they're there primarily because two of the nation's best seniors, the Jayhawks' Jacque Vaughn and the Demon Deacons' Tim Duncan, stayed in school. Both Kansas and Wake start three seniors, which is virtually unheard of in the 1990s. At most schools, if a talented player hasn't gone to the pros, he's probably auditioning for them. "Too many of our guys are thinking about their NBA futures, and most of us don't have one," UCLA junior Kris Johnson said after the Jayhawks crushed the Bruins 96-83 in December. "You don't hear the Kansas guys saying, 'You didn't give it to me on the break.' "
In the New World Order it may be shrewd to recruit players who are good—but not too good. Take Clemson, which reached the Top 10 for the first time in its history this season and clawed its way as high as No. 2 before losing to Wake and North Carolina last week. Can anybody name a Tiger player? "We don't have a big problem with guys itching to go early to the NBA," Clemson coach Rick Barnes says. "Most of our guys were not highly recruited, but we have been able to promise them some playing time, and sometimes a no-name kid with a year of experience can prove to be better than a blue-chipper who sits on the bench."
Some top recruits have purposely signed with lower-profile schools, in part to ensure that they will play right away. Minnesota's Jacobson, Colorado's Chauncey Billups and BJ McKie of South Carolina each chose playing time over national recognition. Jacobson is one of five upperclassmen on a Minnesota team that is 10 players deep and does not include a single guy who will sniff the NBA lottery, a fact that permits coach Clem Haskins to sleep well at night.