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Who says there's parity in college basketball? Kentucky has won two of the last three national titles and just missed a sweep by losing to Arizona in overtime in the 1997 title game. Through Sunday the Wildcats had gone 17-4 against what is regarded as the toughest schedule in the country and had beaten more opponents ranked in the Top 25 (five) than any other team. Yet going into last week's meeting with then 17-0 Auburn, there was no denying that the Tigers posed a threat to Kentucky's reign over the SEC.
So much for threats. With an easy 72-62 defeat of Auburn, followed by a 76-49 rout of Mississippi State last Saturday, the Wildcats shook off the funk they'd been in since losing 47-46 to Tennessee at home on Jan. 12. More important for Kentucky's postseason hopes, the back-to-back wins seemed to answer a question that had been vexing the Wildcats for a month: What in the world happened to 6'6" senior forward Heshimu Evans?
During Kentucky's 9-1 start Evans had played like an All-America, averaging 15.5 points and shooting 37.2% from three-point range. But after scoring 31 points against Maryland in a 103-91 victory on Dec. 12, the Strong Warrior (which is what Heshimu means in Swahili) mysteriously turned feeble, averaging 8.2 points and shooting 15.0% from beyond the arc as Kentucky lost three of its next nine games. After scoring a team-high 20 points against Auburn and 13 against Mississippi State, however, Evans's troubles may be behind him. "I finally started having fun again," he says. "This week I was able to come off screens and make some things happen. I'd shied away from that for a while."
There were a couple of reasons for Evans's drop-off. For starters, coach Tubby Smith tried to compensate for the Wildcats' outside shooting troubles by switching to a bigger lineup on Jan. 2 against Florida. As part of the shake-up, Smith inserted Michael Bradley at power forward, shifted Scott Padgett to small forward and benched freshman guard Tayshaun Prince while moving Evans from small forward to shooting guard. "That was a hard adjustment for me," says Evans, a left-hander who's not an especially adept ball handler and thus not entirely comfortable at two guard. At that position he spends more time on the right side of the floor, where he must often dribble with his right hand.
It's no coincidence that Evans's rebirth coincided with his return to forward last week, but the move might not have come about had Smith not suspended center Jamaal Magloire for missing a curfew. (It was Magloire's third suspension in the last 10 months.) Evans, however, says that the main source of his troubles was in his head. Last week he got some advice from Fran Fraschilla, his coach at Manhattan for two years before Fraschilla left for St. John's and Evans transferred to Kentucky. "I didn't think he was playing as hard as he had when he was trying to prove he could play at Kentucky," says Fraschilla. "His game has always been making hustle plays, but the last couple of weeks he was tentative, and that's not him."
"He hit it right on the nose," says Evans. "It was good that my shot was going in this week, but I was also on the ground, rebounding, playing defense with energy?' Evans knows, of course, that if the Wildcats are to challenge for another national title, he'll need to play that way all the time.
Notre Dame's Future
At meetings scheduled for Feb. 4-5 (in London, of all places), Notre Dame's board of trustees will decide whether the Fighting Irish will leave the Big East and become a member of the Big Ten, as the school's academic faculty senate recommended in December. If the trustees do vote to switch, will they go the whole 10 yards and join the Big Ten in all sports, which some campus factions see as a plus for a football program that has not finished in the Top 10 in five years? Or will the board stand pat as a member of the Big East in most sports, the largest exception being football, in which Notre Dame is an independent?
Early indications are that the trustees will stay put. That was the underlying message in a face-saving statement issued by the Big Ten last Thursday, which in a multisyllabic, lawyerlike way said that the Irish can't say no to joining the conference because they were never asked. Example: "To date, the preliminary meetings...have not produced a sufficient mutuality of interests or intentions to determine whether the parties desire to enter into a more formal phase of membership discussions."