A week in the life of a college basketball season is a blur of games, big and small, some overhyped and others overlooked. It is merely a fraction of what has become a five-month marathon that begins in early November and ends in a mad dash in late March.
The rivalries are played out, not only between coaches and teams, but between players and fans. And, in one celebrated case, within the structure of a family. Last week was no different than most. A few upsets and a few simply left upset. Here are snapshots of five of those games played over five days.
It's Tuesday night in Athens, Ga. The students are lined up outside Stegeman Coliseum nearly three hours before the 9: 30 tip-off for Georgia and Kentucky. A production crew from Home Box Office is here to film a segment for Bryant Gumbel's "Real Sports." Call it "The Smith Family Reunion -- Revisited."
A year ago, when Tubby Smith returned for his first game since leaving Georgia for Kentucky a few months before, the event was built to near biblical proportions. There was Smith going up against his former assistant, Ron Jirsa. There were two of his three sons, Saul and G. G., playing against each other.
"It was strange the first time, but I'm sure it'll be just as emotional," Tubby Smith had said the day before this year's game. "Having our sons play against each other, it's tough on the family."
Saul Smith, now a sophomore, would have gone to Georgia had his father remained. Instead, he followed the family to Lexington and played on Kentucky's national championship team last season. G. G. Smith, now a senior, was the only one to stay behind.
"You try to put it out of your mind, but you can't," says G. G. Smith. "Kentucky was always a big game for us when my dad was here because he worked there for Coach [Rick] Pitino. It's a big game because it's Kentucky. But it's a bigger game because of what the family goes through."
As hard as it is for Tubby Smith and his sons, it is much more difficult for his wife and their mother, Donna. She sits behind the Kentucky bench, holding a blue pompon in one hand and a red one in the other. She is also holding something else: her breath.
"As a mother, you want everyone to do well and no one to get hurt," she says. "You want both teams to win, but you know that's not possible."
The sixth-ranked Wildcats take over in overtime for a 91-83 win, the closest of the three games the schools have played since Tubby Smith left.
Neither of the Smith brothers gets the best of each other, though G. G. contributes more (nine points, nine assists in 41 minutes) to his team's moral victory as the starting point guard than Saul, a reserve who plays both backcourt positions, helps Kentucky (six points, two assists in 19 minutes).
Even as kids, the two oldest Smith brothers never fought like future 'Cats and Dawgs. Asked if he found himself rooting against his brother Tuesday night, Saul Smith says, "It never gets like that. He's a smart player. He's capable of making the big play. I'm just happy we won."
Says G. G. Smith: "Last year the game was so hyped. Last year was a bigger deal. I just look at it as a loss."
The fans seem to take the reunion aspect more seriously than the Smiths. The cheers Tubby Smith received last year have turned mostly to boos, and Saul Smith hears derisive shouts of "Daddy's boy daddy's boy." But they also turn their frustration on Smith's successor.
After going to the NCAA tournament in each of Smith's two seasons as head coach, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 1997, the Bulldogs have gone backward under Jirsa. They finished 20-15 after a third-round loss in the NIT last season, and the loss to Kentucky drops them to 12-8.
As Smith comes in for his post-game news conference, G. G. Smith is leaving the room. The two hug in the hallway. Later, after G. G. Smith gets dressed, he walks down the hall with his parents as the HBO cameras roll.
Donna Smith pulls her oldest son aside to take care of what her husband calls "some family housekeeping."
G. G. Smith's driver's license back in Kentucky is about to expire.
In 'Krzyzewskiville,' bring tent
It's around 4 Wednesday afternoon in Durham, N.C., and the parking lot outside Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke University is filled with students waiting for the doors to open for that night's 9 o'clock game against hated archrival North Carolina.
Eric Gordon, a junior from Owings Mills, has spent the last 10 days sleeping mostly in his car, which is parked near the tent he and 11 classmates have shared in the place they call "Krzyzewskiville (pop. 1,200)."
After several students, including Gordon, sneaked into last year's home game against the Tar Heels, the system has become a little more sophisticated. The university also changed its policy to prevent students from camping out for as much as six or seven weeks.
Some have circumvented the new rule by pre-registering their tents for the North Carolina game before they registered for spring semester classes, then camping out under tarp for more than a week before "Krzyzewskiville" officially reopened.
"To cut short your vacation is ridiculous," says Gordon, the car-sleeper. "They just need to get a life."
But this is what the $32,000-a-year tuition (tents not included) will get you when the team is ranked second and there is talk of another national championship.
There are more than 100 tents with names such as "Tent of Sin" plastered on them. It appears that more alcohol than education has been consumed here in the past couple of weeks, with beer cans strung outside one tent and strewn all over the place.
The weather has been relatively mild, but the other night it dipped into the mid-teens. "I slept two days in the tent and I almost got pneumonia," says junior Matt Zisow of Pikesville, who shares the tent with Gordon across the street from their dorm room.
Gordon and Zisow nearly got shut out this year when one of their fellow tent-mates failed to hear the siren at 4: 30 a.m. Wednesday for one of the random checks made by "Krzyzewskiville" security chief Al Prescott and his staff. Rules state that in the 48 hours prior to the game, the tent has to be occupied at all times.
They are bumped from No. 45 to 116 on the list, but manage to make it in to see Duke's 89-77 win over the Tar Heels.
In past years, most students would have packed up their tents after the North Carolina game and the university-sanctioned bonfire. This year, many go back out to celebrate and start camping out for the game against Maryland (tomorrow night).
"Some people will be dropping out, but the true fans won't," says David Margolis, a junior from Cincinnati. "Plus, I really want to see Steve Francis play."
At Reynolds, it's a wrap
It's Thursday night in Raleigh, N.C., and the buzz around the North Carolina State-Wake Forest game falls a bit short of what you'd expect when two longtime Atlantic Coast Conference rivals play. Then again, the Wolfpack and the Demon Deacons have not quite reached the modest expectations both teams had coming into the season.
One reason to come to Reynolds Coliseum these days is to say goodbye to one of the most underrated venues in college basketball. This is the 50th and final season for a building that was, in the words of N.C. State athletic director Les Robinson, "the Madison Square Garden of the South" when it opened in 1949.
The history behind the arena's construction is as rich as the memories inside during the past five decades.
Modeled after Cameron Indoor Stadium, the steel framework for the arena went up in 1942. But the project was put on hold until the end of World War II. It was then that Everett Case, a legendary high school coach from Indiana, came to N.C. State for the 1946-47 season.
Case wanted the new arena to be larger than Cameron, so the 8,000-seat facility was reconfigured to hold more than 12,000. The only way to do it was to build out, not up, giving it the shape of an airplane hangar. C. A. Dillon, then an N.C. State student, took the job as the public address announcer.
"This is the only place I've known," says Dillon, now 73, who has held the job ever since, even during the two years he was stationed at Fort Meade. "We've had a lot of memories in this building."
The most vivid for Dillon was of David Thompson, the only N.C. State player whose jersey was retired, landing on his head after trying to block a shot during an NCAA tournament game against Pittsburgh in 1974. Thompson lay motionless for several minutes and Dillon remembers the team doctor asking to use the courtside phone.
"The look on his face said it was very serious," recalls Dillon. "But after David was taken to the hospital, I got to announce the news that he was OK. I milked it for all it was worth."
Thompson's number hangs from the rafters along with N.C. State's national championship banner from that season as well as the one from the 1982-83 team that beat Houston at the buzzer on a follow-up by Lorenzo Charles. The faces of many coaches and players from those years were drawn for a print called "House of Champions."
Corby Eisbacher, who grew up a fan of ACC basketball near Winston-Salem, was approached last year by a longtime member of the Wolfpack Club to draw the print. He is sitting in the lobby of Reynolds trying to hawk the print for $80 a pop.
"This place set a precedent for college basketball in the state of North Carolina," says Eisbacher, who describes himself as a struggling artist running an art frame shop. "What I didn't know in doing my research was how big the Dixie Classic was here."
The Dixie Classic, which Case's teams won seven times in 11 years, was a regular-season tournament that brought in the top teams from the ACC (and before that the Southern Conference) as well as from around the country.
"A lot of kids got tickets to the Dixie Classic for Christmas presents," says Chris Durrer, a hospital administrator from Wilson, N.C.
Durrer, who grew up in Virginia, had never been to Reynolds Coliseum until he and some friends bought a five-game ticket package this season.
"It's one of the last great old coliseums in existence," says Durrer.
But just as Carmichael Auditorium gave way to the Smith Center at North Carolina, just as Cole Field House will be replaced by an on-campus arena, Reynolds will, too. The nearly 20,000-seat, still yet-to-be-named arena is scheduled to be open next fall as the new home of the Wolfpack men's and women's teams as well as the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes.
"It's very bittersweet," says Robinson, who played on Case's last team, Norm Sloan's first and wound up coaching the Wolfpack from 1991 to 1996. "Every time I walk into this building, I get a little tingle. I don't get that feeling in any other arena."
Robinson fully understands the financial ramifications of the impending move, which has taken more than a decade since the late Jim Valvano first pushed for it, at a proposed cost of $33 million, to its completion at a cost of $152 million. It will help broaden the team's season-ticket base, and help with donations to the school.
It also will give most a better view of the game.
"There will be 18,000 seats with better sight lines than a few hundred have now," he says.
Wake Forest coach Dave Odom has a good seat for Thursdaynight's game, but it's an unobstructed look at his Demon Deacons self-destructing. The 70-59loss was the team's fifth in a row.
Odom, who grew up down the road in Goldsboro, N.C., seems melancholy about leaving Reynolds.
"It's the granddaddy of all college basketball arenas in the South," he says.
Ivy's itch to succeed
It's Friday night, which belongs to the Ivy League. Inside Columbia's Levien Gym, the atmosphere belies the league's low-profile image athletically and its high-brow image academically. The bleachers are filled, mostly with raucous students razzing Princeton freshman Chris Young.
But the scoreboard doesn't lie.
This is the Ivies.
"The score last year was 18-17 at halftime, and the score this year was 18-17," Princeton junior forward Mason Rocca says after the game. "Once in a while you'll look up and see that and say to yourself, 'Is that all we've done?' But we accept that and we understand what we need to do to win."
The final score -- Princeton 46, Columbia 40 -- is approximately the same as it was at Duke-North Carolina on Wednesday night. At halftime.
It speaks of the pressure that is part of Ivy League basketball, the one-and-done reality facing teams such as Princeton and Penn when the NCAA tournament selection committee invites only the regular-season champion in a league with no postseason tournament. Last year, the Tigers might have been invited as an at-large team.
This year it's doubtful.
"It's unbelievable pressure," says second-year Princeton coach Bill Carmody. "One slip and it's over."
It's not the reason Princeton plays the style it does, a style that Carmody adopted after being a longtime assistant under Pete Carril. In fact, by shortening the game with longer possessions, the Tigers add to the pressure they feel every year and nearly every game.
"I'm glad I have that pressure," says senior forward Gabe Lewullis, who'll forever be remembered as the player who beat then-defending champion UCLA with a backdoor layup in the 1996 NCAA tournament. "It's a situation we've earned over four years."
And don't get the idea that the Lions take losing any easier than other teams in the country. But fourth-year coach Armond Hill, a star at Princeton during the mid-'70s and more recently an assistant there, had to get his team ready to play a strong Penn team the next night.
"It's definitely a struggle," he says glumly. "It could be worse. You could wake up tomorrow and be in an earthquake."
Johnnys come lately
It's Saturday afternoon, four miles down Broadway, some 16 hours later and light years removed. There are scalpers outside The World's Most Famous Arena, as Madison Square Garden is billed, enjoying the revival of St. John's, the city's most dominant program before it and the Big East hit a lull in the early 1990s.
"It's just like the old days," says one of them, a wad of bills in his hand reflecting the sale he just made to a group of Connecticut fans.
The Garden has that feel it used to have when Georgetown came to town with John Thompson wearing a replica of Lou Carnesecca's lucky sweater, when Syracuse came to town with its buddha from Brooklyn, Pearl Washington. Connecticut has replaced the Hoyas as the team to hate. Huskies guard Khalid El- Amin is Pearl reincarnate.
After purposely staying away after his retirement in 1992, former St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca has returned, too. Looie has become a fixture again at the Garden, and being here for the game against top-ranked Connecticut reminds him of the 1984-1985 season, the last time St. John's went to the Final Four.
"This team has captured the imagination of the city," Carnesecca says at halftime with the team formerly known and still called the Redmen (officially the Red Storm) leading the Huskies by five. "They make plays that are unbelievable. They remind me of the 1964 UCLA team that didn't have a guy over 6-5 and won the championship."
In the second half, St. John's looks its age and loses its lead to the more experienced Huskies. But just as the crowd was energized after an overtime defeat to second-ranked Duke the week before, the Big East poobahs are encouraged by what they have seen here in Connecticut's 78-74 win.
"When St. John's is good, it benefits us," says Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese. "It's the most important city we play in. Not only St. John's, but Seton Hall and Rutgers, too. It's why we play the Big East tournament here."
Tranghese says the satisfaction he takes from a season when the Big East has become a player again is not in telling the legions of doomsayers who've been referring to the once powerful league as "The Big Least" that they were wrong.
"When we were struggling and were being pretty severely criticized, you never heard us complaining," says Tranghese. "And we're not gloating now."
He can wait until this marathon of a college season ends in March to do that. There is another week ready to begin.
Pub Date: 2/02/99