Fresno State went 6—2 without Maddox but hasn't lost since he returned on Dec. 19. After last Saturday's 72—69 victory over Nevada, the No. 22 Bulldogs (16-2,5-0 in the WAC) were off to their best start in 19 years. More important, the only news Fresno State is making these days is on the court, where the 70-year-old Tarkanian is proving he still has a little spring left in his step.
The Bulldogs have both the depth and the personnel to apply the end-to-end pressure that was the hallmark of Tarkanian's successful teams at UNLV. The defense is anchored by imposing 6' 10" junior center Melvin Ely, who through Sunday was second in the WAC in blocks, with 2.9 per game, and third in rebounding (77). Maddox, meanwhile, runs the attack on both ends of the floor. He was averaging 9.9 assists, which would have led the nation if he'd played enough games. As a team, Fresno State had scored 83.3 points a game and held opponents to 69.8.
Maddox was a highly regarded prospect while playing for Compton (Calif.) High, but most colleges backed off when it became clear he wasn't going to qualify academically. Tarkanian was one who didn't back off, and Maddox sat out last season at Fresno State instead of attending junior college or a prep school. Tarkanian also stood stoutly by his man during his eight-game suspension, defending him publicly and letting him play with the starters every day in practice.
For all the problems that have plagued his tenure with the Bulldogs, Tarkanian could leave Fresno State's program in better shape than it was before he took over. His teams have won at least 20 games every year, and the school hopes to break ground soon on a 16,500-seat, on-campus arena. Tarkanian says he has gone into each of the last few seasons believing it would be his last but kept changing his mind. "I didn't want to leave until we got things straightened out," he says.
If the Bulldogs continue to play well, the end of this season might not be a bad time for a valedictory.
St. Joe's Fab Freshman
One that Didn't Get Away
Phil Martelli has seen it happen all too often during his 16 years at St. Joseph's, the last six as head coach: See prospect play, recruit prospect, see big-name school recruit prospect, see prospect sign with big-name school. So even though he was smitten from the moment he first watched 6-foot point guard Jameer Nelson play as a junior at Chester (Pa.) High, Martelli felt a familiar sense of dread as he pursued him. "I'd go to all these camps and tournaments, and everyone was talking about [Andre] Barrett, [Taliek] Brown and [Omar] Cook," says Martelli of this year's trio of heralded Big East freshmen point guards. "To me, Jameer was as good as any of those guys. I kept expecting his recruitment to blow up, but it never did."
Nelson may have slipped under the national radar, but he has stepped out dramatically this season while leading the Hawks back to national prominence. An all-state selection as a high school senior and a full-time starter from the day he arrived at St. Joe's last fall, Nelson has displayed a veteran's poise in leading the Hawks to a share of first place in the Atlantic 10 with a 5-1 record (14-4 overall) through Sunday. He was second in the league in assists (6.0 a game) and third on the team in scoring (12.0 points). As a team St. Joseph's was shooting 49.5% from the field. "Jameer is the most decorated player I've had here, but for all the hype he has very little ego," Martelli says.
Upperclassmen often resent a freshman assuming such a prominent role (see Hall, Seton), but Nelson's humility has enabled him to pilot the Hawks without ruffling too many feathers. It also helps that the upperclassmen were tired of losing. St. Joseph's went 36-51 in the three years after it reached the Sweet 16 in 1997, and last year the Hawks held second-half leads in 13 of their 16 losses. "We played hard, but for some reason we couldn't close games out," says 6' 4" junior guard Marvin O'Connor, St. Joe's leading scorer at 20.2 points a game.
Though six of St. Joseph's top eight players are juniors and seniors, it's the freshman who leads them. To be sure, Nelson's first college season hasn't been without a few bumps. Martelli threw him out of a team meeting during the first week of practice after discovering that Nelson had skipped a class and then lied to Martelli about it. (Nelson later called twice to apologize.) He also had his first poor outing of the season last Saturday, when he shot 1 for 11 in an 86-73 loss at Xavier—though he did have 12 assists.