When the big man who would transport Massachusetts to the Final Four arrived, he turned out to be a tall ship, not an aircraft carrier.
He might be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, but he's studying to be a high school principal -- not bad for someone who didn't care about books or basketball when he was 16.
The Minutemen feed off the center who wants to be a shooting guard, but his own lousy eating habits contributed to his midseason collapse.
Marcus Camby, all 6 feet 11 of him, may be a walking contradiction, but make no mistake: UMass is two wins away from an NCAA title because, in Camby, it has the best college player in the country. He is a do-it-all type whose talent, commitment and unselfishness are the chief reasons the Minutemen play team basketball that the 1970 Knicks would envy.
Listen to some of the recent coaches' testimonials to Camby:
Virginia Tech's Bill Foster: "I coached in the ACC for nine years and went up against some of the greatest college players. I don't know if I've ever seen a college player that does all the things he does. He's a point guard in a 6-11 body."
Arkansas' Nolan Richardson: "He's the best of all the big kids in the country. He can step out and shoot it. He can pass. He's very long. He probably plays like he's 7-5 because he's so long. This man is the kind I would want."
Georgetown's John Thompson: "Any guy like Camby, who can block shots and control the lane, allows you to apply more pressure on the perimeter. He really creates a problem. He's got a temperament, and it's similar to their team. He stays calm, and does what he has to do."
That would be to average 20.3 points and 8.2 rebounds this season and become the second player in college basketball history, after Shaquille O'Neal, to block 100 shots in his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons.
Which begs the question: Will there be a senior season for Camby, or will the Final Four this weekend in East Rutherford, N.J., provide his exit?
Camby deliberated the issue a year ago, when the nation's other premier sophomores -- Joe Smith, Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse -- left school early.
"It wasn't that hard to come back because I knew I wasn't physically and mentally ready to make the jump," Camby said. "A lot of guys in the league are making millions, but they're not happy because they're not playing. When I make my decision, I don't want to have any doubts about whether or not I'm ready.
"Besides, before we talk about that, let's see how far this run goes."
Camby will analyze his prospects, then make the decision, just as he does on the court, whether it's taking the turnaround jumper or kicking the ball back out to Carmelo Travieso for a three-point shot or choosing between going for the block or holding his ground. It's the judgment that, despite some recent foul trouble, has allowed him to last an entire season without a disqualification.
"There are good players, and there are special players," UMass coach John Calipari said. "Marcus is special because he makes everyone around him better.
"Defensively, our guards can go nuts on the perimeter because you're not going to be able to beat us on the dribble when Marcus is in the game. Offensively, probably the best thing he does is pass. Throw him the ball, make a hard cut and you'll get the ball back from him. If he wanted to lead the nation in scoring, he could have, but he's unselfish."
That points to some additional contradictions regarding Camby.
The effusive Calipari has begged the reticent Camby to play with more emotion -- "I'm not one of those rah-rah types," he said -- but it's his cool that fuels the Minutemen's strongest characteristic, their composure.
Calipari willed UMass into the Sweet 16 in 1992, and a year later beat Connecticut in a recruiting war for the best player ever out of Hartford High. Camby's mother wanted him to go to UConn, but he wanted to take a program to the next level, not join one that was already there.
What happened? UMass' crucible came when Camby missed four games in January, and he and the team learned it could win without him.
"Marcus came back with the idea that he knew we could win without him, and, in a way, that was good," forward Dana Dingle said. "On a team that depends completely on one player, everyone babies him, kisses up to him. A guy sees you carrying on without him, when he comes back, he says, 'I've got to come to play.' "
He's also got to eat better. When Camby collapsed before a Jan. 14 game at St. Bonaventure, poor nutrition was one of the few possible diagnoses left for doctors after several days of hospitalization and tests.
"I've been fine, and I know I'm fine," Camby said. "I don't think about it unless you guys ask me about it. I just put it in the back of my mind."
Camby is on the verge of a pro career after a shaky beginning in basketball.
Ceylon Cicero, a chemistry major at Morgan State, began dating Camby when they were students at Hartford High. Camby transferred there after a few tumultuous years at a suburban school. He grew 10 inches as a freshman, didn't even try out for basketball as a sophomore and was forced to sit out his first year at Hartford High.
"He's not the delusional type," Cicero told a Boston newspaper last month. "He's aware that things can happen and he might not make it to the NBA."
And what will happen before Camby sets out to become one of the nation's only high school principals who scrapes 7 feet?
Pretty much what has happened to him the past three years. Beefier opponents will try to beat up on Camby, who weighs 220 pounds.
The strategy worked last year for Oklahoma State's Bryant Reeves in the East Regional final. A couple of games against George Washington's Alexander Koul were at the core of a shooting slump. Kentucky could lay 450 pounds' worth of Walter McCarty and Antoine Walker on Camby, and attempt to double-team him as it did Tim Duncan.
"I've been getting played physical all year," said Camby, still wearing the stitches on his forehead that briefly forced him out of a first-round game against Central Florida. "I'm not going to be intimidated. Besides, if I ever make it to the next level, I won't be guarding 300-pound guys."
Spoken like a point guard in a 6-11 body.
Thursday: Mississippi State.
At East Rutherford, N.J.
Mississippi State (26-7) vs. Syracuse (28-8), 5: 42 p.m. Massachusetts (35-1) vs. Kentucky (32-2), 8: 12 p.m. approximately
Semifinal winners, 9: 22 p.m. All games on chs. 13, 9
UMass at a glance
Location: Amherst, Mass.
Conference: Atlantic 10.
Final Four history: First appearance.
Record: 35-1, 15-1 in A-10.
How it got here: Automatic bid as A-10 champion. Beat Central Florida, 92-70; Stanford, 79-74; Arkansas, 79-63; Georgetown, 86-62.
Coach: John Calipari, eight seasons, 193-70.
Top scorer: Marcus Camby (20.3 ppg).
Top rebounder: Camby (8.2).
Top in assists: Edgar Padilla (235).
Starters: Camby at center, Donta Bright (14.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and Dana Dingle (10.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg) at forward; Padilla (9.0 ppg), and Carmelo Travieso (12.6 ppg) at guard.
Why UMass can win the national championship: The Minutemen are the first team from the A-10 to reach the Final Four, but they're a savvy group that passed tests against Kentucky and six other Sweet 16 teams. Camby, the National Player of the Year, elevates the play of his lesser-known teammates, who have the resilience and intelligence to press and run or play half-court.
What could stop the Minutemen: Foul trouble, which has limited Camby's time in his past three games. Calipari has made the most of a thin bench, but he still isn't completely confident in backup guard Charlton Clarke, who may not be quick enough to stay with Kentucky's depth. Padilla and Travieso each average more than 36 minutes. Can they beat the Wildcats twice in one season?
Pub Date: 3/26/96