Whole in the middle Big battle: It's not Sampson-Ewing, but the Wake Forest-UMass matchup features this season's best centers -- Tim Duncan vs. Marcus Camby.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Dave Odom was there the last time.

"I remember sitting on the bench next to Terry Holland before the game, saying, 'I hope they both play well, but we win,' " Odom recalled this week. "In the first half, they tried to dunk everything. It wasn't a pretty sight."

Odom, then an assistant at the University of Virginia, was talking about a showdown between Cavaliers All-American Ralph Sampson and Georgetown prodigy Patrick Ewing early in the 1982-83 season at the Capital Centre.

Though the Cavaliers won, the Sampson-Ewing matchup didn't live up to its billing. Sampson, then a senior and the reigning National Player of the Year, was trying too hard to prove his status as college basketball's best big man. Ewing, a sophomore who had helped the Hoyas reach the Final Four the previous season, was trying too hard to prove he was Sampson's equal.

"When the game was over, I was glad it was over," Odom said.

Odom, now head coach at Wake Forest, will be there for the latest incarnation of this once-a-decade ritual. It will take place tonight in Amherst, Mass., when Odom's All-American, Tim Duncan, leads the 10th-ranked Demon Deacons into the Mullins Center to play No. 3 Massachusetts and its All-American, Marcus Camby.

"Given the guys that went out early after last season, it's pretty clear-cut who the two best big guys are," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, whose Terrapins got a close-up look at Camby last weekend and will see Duncan at least twice in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"They're very similar in a lot of ways defensively, but different offensively," said Florida coach Lon Kruger, whose Gators were demolished by Camby at USAir Arena on Sunday and will face Duncan on Saturday in Gainesville. "Tim is more physical, and Marcus is more perimeter-oriented."

Make one thing clear about this made-for-TV matchup between Duncan, a 6-foot-10, 240-pound junior from the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Camby, a 6-11, 220-pound junior from Hartford, Conn.: It's not Sampson and Ewing. It's certainly not Lew Alcindor and Elvin Hayes, whose historic meeting during the 1967-68 season in the Astrodome launched the sport's modern era.

But it's the best and certainly most-hyped battle of college big men this season, possibly the most intriguing regular-season meeting of centers since Sampson and Ewing. It's interesting enough for nearly two dozen NBA scouts and executives to make the trek to UMass.

"There's no question that Tim Duncan is a legitimate [NBA] center and Marcus Camby is not," said Washington Bullets general manager John Nash. "Is the media making too much of it? Yes, but that's the nature of sports. You tend to make more of individual matchups than the matchup of teams."

Yet they are the reason that Wake Forest and UMass are playing. Minutemen coach John Calipari said this week that he was called by ESPN at the end of last season, asking if he was interested.

"If Marcus stays [in school], yes; if Marcus leaves [for the NBA], no," Calipari said at the time.

Duncan announced before last season ended that he was planning on returning to school, but Camby waffled over his decision. It took some conversations with hometown friend Vin Baker, now with the Milwaukee Bucks, as well as some painful memories of his NCAA tournament game against Bryant "Big Country" Reeves, 7-0, 290 pounds, of Oklahoma State to solidify it.

"I came very close, but deep-down inside, I knew I wasn't ready physically or mentally," said Camby.

Tonight's game against Duncan should be a fair test to see whether Camby's performance so far this season is merely the rTC result of playing against mostly slower competition or whether he's one of the top players in the country.

And whether he's ready to make the jump to the NBA after this season.

"There are going to be questions about Camby because of his weight," said Houston Rockets scout John Killilea, who'll be at the game. "I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do against a guy like Duncan. To me, Duncan's the No. 1 player in the country."

For their part, both players are trying to play down this showcase. There's a rumor that Camby put a star next to the date on his calendar -- "I know he doesn't have a test that day," said UMass assistant Bruiser Flint -- but Camby playfully denied it.

"I'm not trying to make it into an individual game," Camby said after scoring 30 points against Florida and being named MVP of the Franklin National Bank Classic. "It's not Marcus Camby against Tim Duncan; it's Massachusetts against Wake Forest."

Said Duncan: "It should be a great atmosphere. These are the types of games you want to be a part of. But the game is five-on-five, not one-on-one."

That both are surrounded by mostly nondescript supporting casts only heightens the hype. The Demon Deacons lost All-America guard Randolph Childress from last year's Final Eight team. The Minutemen lost All-America forward Lou Roe and guard Derek Kellogg from a team that reached the Sweet 16.

"I worked very hard over the summer," said Camby, whose turnaround jumper and ball-handling skills should enhance his pro stock. "I knew that I was going to be the go-to guy this season. The shot is falling right now, but it's a long season. I've got to keep working."

As Camby was signing autographs at USAir Arena on Sunday, a fan asked him about his impending matchup with Duncan. Camby smiled.

"The pressure is all on him," said Camby. "He's everybody's first-team All-American. He's No. 1 on everybody's draft list. All I have to do is go out and play my game."

Odom will have a little more to do than the last time, but said he's looking forward to being a part of it. He believes the players should, too.

"It's nice to do it at this time of year when it's not all-or-nothing, like it would be in March," said Odom. "There's pressure, but it's a nice kind of pressure."

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