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TGS HOOPS SPECIAL REPORT...COMETS ACROSS THE COLLEGE SKY
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Every once in a while we are reminded why we so enjoy sport, and college basketball in particular. Whereas many of the same sides predictably dominate, unlike college football, there is always a chance a comet-like squad will come flying out of the night sky and briefly into prominence.

And, therein, we believe, has always rested the real romance of college hoops.

Over the years we at TGS have been witness to a handful of such entries, most recently last season when unheralded Florida Gulf Coast appeared out of nowhere and streaked into the Sweet 16. But we don't think we've ever seen a program flash so brightly for such a short period of time, and then fade into obscurity almost as quickly, as the Jacksonville Dolphins, circa 1970.

In fact, in the almost 44 years since, aside from perhaps Larry Bird's Indiana State in 1979, we've never seen anything quite like those Dolphins.

In a moment, we'll highlight a handful of current 2013-14 teams that we believe could be capable of making one of those memorable runs out of nowhere. Outdoing 1969-70 Jacksonville, on a variety of fronts, however, is going to take some doing.

To say that 1969-70 Jacksonville was a product of a different era and unlikely to ever be replicated is probably true. After all, in those days, college basketball looked a lot different. John Wooden's UCLA had been stealing the headlines in recent seasons, but those were also the days long before the Big East or the Atlantic 10 or Sun Belt or many of the other leagues we recognize today. College hoops on TV was also a piecemeal proposition, syndicated regionally on a variety of networks (including the visionary Eddie Einhorn and his TVS, the Mizlou Network, Jefferson-Pilot, and the one-and-only Howard Hughes' own network, appropriately called the Hughes Sports Network). National TV coverage existed only in the NCAA Tourney, and then only for a handful of games. NBC had only the year before signed on to cover parts of the Big Dance that was limited to regional finals action (it would expand to the first-round games a year later) and the Final Four, then contested on a Thursday-Saturday rotation. Even then, only one of the national semifinal games would be telecast to any particular region, while the consolation game at the Final Four was a national TV event from 1969-72.

Still, even in that backdrop, it was unlikely that an entity such as Jacksonville could emerge from the depths.

The 1969-70 campaign, however, was shaping up as one of the most intriguing college hoop seasons in many years, simply because Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) had finally graduated from UCLA after leading the Bruins to an unprecedented three titles in a row. John Wooden's side would still be formidable, but contenders were lining up several deep. Adolph Rupp's Kentucky, led by C Dan Issel, looked to have its most serious national contender since its last national title in 1958. The Cats ran 1-2 in the polls with UCLA for much of the season, and the possibility of a Rupp-Wooden finale, with the winner becoming the first coach to earn six national titles, whetted the appetite of college hoop followers all winter.

But there were other teams to watch. St. Bonaventure, with its dominating 6-11 big man Bob Lanier, was rolling through the East. Rick Mount was still at Purdue after leading the Boilermakers to the title game the previous season. Maury John's Drake, which had scared Alcindor's UCLA in the Final Four, looked tough once more. Pistol Pete Maravich was on his way to scoring 44 ppg for LSU, adding plenty of color to the proceedings, although another machine-gunner, Austin Carr, led a Notre Dame side that was more of a national threat than LSU (which was not favored to overcome Rupp's Kentucky in the SEC anyway). Bob Knight had an intriguing team at West Point. The ACC competition was fierce, led by perhaps Frank McGuire's best South Carolina team and G John Roche. Iowa, with future NBA stalwarts Fred Brown and John Johnson, would storm unbeaten through the Big Ten for HC Ralph Miller.

And in the midst of all that, emerging from nowhere was a small school that just five years earlier had been competing in the NAIA...and nearly won the national championship!

To that point, a lot of college hoops fans might not have known there even was a Jacksonville University, much less that it could field a hoops powerhouse. In those days, the sports connection to Jacksonville was not basketball, but rather the football Gator Bowl, site of the annual postseason gridiron clash, while also hosting the Georgia vs. Florida game each season.

Indeed, only 15 years earlier, Jacksonville had been a junior college. In the mid '60s, its basketball team had a reported annual recruiting budget of $250 and played to crowds of less than 1,000. In the late '60s, the hoopsters had been bad enough to lose to Wilmington College and were a clear fourth-best team in what was then perhaps the nation's weakest basketball state.

The school also had an enrollment of barely 2700. To this day, no school with a smaller enrollment has ever made it to the Final Four. If nothing else, 1969-70 Jacksonville side, which campaigned as an independent, might have been the most unlikely college hoops power to ever emerge.

The coach was Joe Williams, a lanky gent whose story was as unlikely as that of his team. The son of a Methodist preacher, Joe went to Oklahoma City University and became a so-so basketball player for the colorful Abe Lemons, who was, along with Hank Iba, the biggest influence on Williams' coaching philosophy. Like Lemons and Iba, Williams would go into coaching, starting at the junior high level and then to Ribault Senior High in Jacksonville.

By 1962, he was coaching the Florida State freshmen; in 1963 he was an assistant at Furman. Then in 1964, at 30 years of age, he was offered, and accepted, the head coaching job at Jacksonville.

For the next few years, Williams toiled in virtual anonymity, hamstrung by a recruiting budget of only $250 in his first year on the job, an amount that would only incrementally increase in subsequent seasons.

In those days, Jacksonville would play against schools like Tampa and Valdosta State and Mercer, in a twilight zone of dark and airy gyms, small crowds, travel-by-car, and offenses that were right out of an intramural league. Outside of Jacksonville, no one knew much about the Dolphins, who did not make much of an impression after Williams arrived. Indeed, in Joe's first three seasons, Jacksonville got progressively worse; while Wooden's UCLA was winning the 1967 national championship, Williams' third Dolphins team finished an 8-17, a steep decline from a 15-11 mark in his first season.

At that point, anyone forwarding the notion that Williams could coach this little school that squatted across the river from a cigar factory and a paper mill in north Florida and into the Final Four for a date with UCLA in the near future would have qualified for psychiatric care.

About that time, Williams hired Tom Wasdin as his assistant coach and recruiter in 1966, the year of the 8-17 disaster. They had known each other since junior-high coaching days in Jacksonville. Wasdin, like Williams, had also come out of the blue: he had been a star quarterback on the six-man football team at Waldo, Florida (pop. 800), and had his Florida basketball career cut short by a sandlot football injury. He and Williams complemented each other, Wasdin being the more glamorous recruiter type and Williams being the brooding executive, and at the very beginning of their relationship, they went to the school administration and said they wanted a chance to build a major basketball program in four years and if they didn't succeed they would leave quietly. The Jacksonville administration didn't necessarily give Williams and Wasdin carte blanche, but they did give their blessings.

The next season the Dolphins broke even at 13-13. But things were happening. Super-recruiter Tom Wasdin had rolled up his sleeves and had gone to work.

What Wasdin and Williams were able to do in the next couple of years bordered on pure fantasy. Especially since the Dolphins had virtually no money to spend on recruits ("Jacksonville doesn't have enough money to cheat" was a popular refrain among hoop insiders of the day). Wasdin and Williams were instead selling the concept of building a program together to the recruits. But the limitations were severe; Jacksonville had a limit of 15 basketball scholarships (the SEC schools had 25 in those days, by comparison), and it was extremely difficult to lure a hot prospect to a school that played some of its games in exotic places like Tallahassee and Greenville, North Carolina.

But it happened!

By the 1968-69 season, the Dolphins had improved to 17-7, but were bypassed (not surprisingly) for the Big Dance and NIT. It was the next season, however, when tales began to emerge on wire service reports about this mysterious Jacksonville team with a pair of 7-foot juco giants, terrorizing the opposition and scoring more than 100 points per game, that the hoops community began to take notice.

One of the tall trees was named Artis Gilmore, an intimidating 7-2 mountain of a center who was the classic late bloomer. Not afforded much coaching in high school, Gilmore was going to be a major project for whichever college he chose to attend. Fortunately for Wasdin and Williams, Gilmore had been able to hone his game at Gardner-Webb, then a junior college, in far-off Boiling Springs, North Carolina.

The stories continued to filter from the northern Florida coast about this Jacksonville team with what seemed from afar to be like something out a freak show with the two 7-footers and another 6-10 frontliner in the starting lineup. There were also tales of Harlem Globetrotter-like warmup routines and reports of a completely relaxed atmosphere fostered by Williams, who had suddenly turned hip with a snappy wardrobe featuring a white blazer.

This was not Adolph Rupp's Kentucky or John Wooden's UCLA, or anything close to college basketball's "establishment" of the day. The Dolphins were mod and cool, especially the 7-2 Gilmore, who sported sideburns and a goatee and walked around campus wearing a dashiki, a native African garment favored by sorts such as civil rights activists Stokely Carmichael and Harry Edwards.

Not that Gilmore was a radical. Soft-spoken and articulate, Gilmore was merely the consummate of cool. Again, breaking (make that shattering) the mold of the college basketball hierarchy of the era.

Another juco, 7-footer Pembrook Burrows III, joined Gilmore on the frontline to present the original "twin towers" partnership. But it was Gilmore who was the star; besides his wastebasket drop-ins, Gilmore had a variety of other shots, including what could be described as a left-handed jump-hook-dunk. Gilmore's size and the goaltending rule meant that he had a natural advantage vs, defenders simply because when Gilmore's short hook shot left his hand, it was already descending toward the hoop. Gilmore's favorite move would see him just leap until his sneakers were even with the defenders' shoulders and then fling the ball down through the net. The only time he would venture more than a few feet away from the basket was when he was fouled and had to go to the free-throw line.

Defensively, the intimidating Gilmore displayed the sort of shot-blocking ability that served Alcindor so well for three years at UCLA. And when Artis was not batting balls away, his mere presence in the key forced the opposition to shoot from longer distances and with a much higher arc than normal.

Physically, Gilmore was sturdier than Alcindor, and like him in many other ways, although education was not one of them. While Alcindor came out of a good private high school (Power Memorial) in New York City, Gilmore came from a poor, all-black school in Chipley, Fla., 80 or so miles the other side of Tallahassee in the Florida panhandle. He was in the same school from the first through the 11th grades, and for a long time, since it did not have a gymnasium, the kids played on an outdoor clay court.

"Sometimes there would be barrels of fuel burning around the court so you could stand next to them to warm up, then go play some more," Gilmore recalled in a long-ago Sport Magazine piece. "When we were done at the end of a day we were so tired we could hardly walk home."

Gilmore did not play his senior year at Chipley, Fl. HS because he was too old at 18, so he moved to nearby Dothan, Ala., where the rules were more relaxed and he could play; he scored averaged 39 points per game.

Gilmore had been discovered by the one and only George Raveling, in those days a Maryland assistant and maybe the premier scout of black talent in the nation. But Raveling couldn't get Gilmore into Maryland and stashed him, more or less, at Gardner-Webb. Gilmore scored 23 ppg at G-W, but before Raveling could get him to Maryland, Wasdin, who had tried to get Gilmore out of high school, received a letter from another unhappy G-W player who wanted to transfer to JU and bring "a friend of mine who is 7-2." Since Gilmore wanted to be closer to his parents, Wasdin's sales job became much easier, and Gilmore accepted a grant-in aid and enrolled at Jacksonville.

Wasdin and Williams were able to surround Gilmore with plenty of talent. Those players would also include...

Guard Rex Morgan...from Charleston, Illinois, Morgan was also courted by Wasdin when he was graduating from high school, but decided to go to the University of Evansville in Indiana. Unhappy there (according to one story, he didn't like it because the freshman team was given sandwiches in brown paper bags on road trips), he moved to Lakeland Junior College in Illinois. Still unhappy, he called Wasdin at Jacksonville and came running. Morgan, on hand and the high scorer before Gilmore arrived, gave the team go-power and set the pace for its uptempo style. Morgan scored a whopping 26.7 ppg in 1968-69 and was among the nation's top ten scorers.

Guard Chip Dublin...An all-city prep player in New York City, he signed with George Ireland's Loyola-Chicago but didn't like the Windy City and left after four months. Reportedly, Wasdin found Dublin working as a clerk at Chase Manhattan Bank on Wall Street and easily convinced him that playing basketball would be a lot more fun.

Forward Pembrook Burrows III...The other 7-foot juco, Burrows hailed from West Palm Beach and was so awkward he didn't make high-school varsity until his senior year, and then scored a grand total of nine points in the two games he played. But once at Brevard JC in Cocoa, Florida (where Wasdin once coached), Burrows matured quickly and hit almost 70% form the floor in his sophomore season. Wasdin was not alone in pursuing Burrows, but won out in stiff competition from several high-profile entities.

Guard Vaughn Wedeking... At 5-10, Wedeking was the state 440 champion while at Harrison High in Evansville, Ind. and was a nonstop catalyst for the Dolphins.

Forward Rod McIntyre...At 6-10, Jacksonville product McIntyre completed the towering frontline. Had to assume a lesser role after Gilmore and Burrows arrived, but he was the Dolphins' leading rebounder the previous two years.

Orchestrating the whole operation was Williams, who kept a loose rein on his team, with very few training rules--except that they give 100% effort on his court. Occasionally he even allowed them to make up their own plays, and also left it up to the players to design their pre-game, Globetrotters-like warmup routines.

Even the Jacksonville uniforms were different, in a funky green-and-gold scheme with the letters spelling out the school's name in a semicircular "smiley" face running below the numbers on the front of their jerseys! Along the way, Gilmore and Morgan began to be referred to as "Batman and Robin" from a press corps that was beginning to take note of this emerging powerhouse north of St. Augustine.

Jacksonville served notice in December, although the Dolphins didn't start receiving real attention until late in the month when Williams' undefeated team went to the Evansville Tourney and a likely showdown vs. Arad McCutchen's lower-division powerhouse Purple Aces.

Wherein the Dolphins toyed with the opposition like so many porpoises tossing a ball around Marineland. They stomped Arizona 104-72 in the first night of the tourney and then humiliated the home team Evansville 100-70 to win the championship. The Dolphins went into the weekend rated 13th in the AP poll and 19th according to UPI and emerged deserving a spot high up in the top 10 of both.

That Evansville game was the first of the season on a hostile court for Jacksonville and therefore something of a test. The Dolphins' first six games were played in the modern Jacksonville Coliseum or in aptly named Swisher Gym on the campus, and victory No. 7, against Arizona, was on a neutral court in Evansville. But Evansville, for years an outstanding small-college team that regularly counted major colleges among its victims, provided a chance to prove a point to the pollsters, especially since the Purple Aces had upset Rick Mount's Purdue at venerable Roberts Stadium not long before.

Oddly, Evansville folk, used to seeing some of their best high school players recruited regularly by Purdue or Indiana, not Jacksonville, had to watch as native sons like Wedeking and his teammate at Harrison HS, 6'6 Greg Nelson, play for the Dolphins. As was Morgan, who had transferred from Evansville after leading the freshmen to an undefeated season.

In all, there were 13 straight wins to begin the season. The foes were not all household names...East Tennessee State, Morehead State, Mercer, and Biscayne were among those vanquished. The Dolphins also held a 41-26 lead on Georgetown (with Gilmore already having recorded 21 rebounds) with 1:23 left in the first half when a fierce fight broke out. Morgan was belted above the eye and bled like a stuck pig. The Dolphins won it on a forfeit. They would win 13 straight before bowing in a hotly-contested 89-83 decision in Tallahassee against Florida State, a Seminole team featuring a future NBA player of some repute...Dave Cowens. The Dolphins would return the favor and beat Cowens' FSU (on NCAA probation that season) in a rematch.

The Dolphins were also scoring points like crazy (more than 105 ppg), and with Jacksonville showing up in the national rankings of the wire services, the legend was growing about this "Mod Squad" (at Richmond, 5,000 showed up for Jacksonville a week after another Spiders game had drawn less than 1,000). JU was also making money, packing the Jacksonville Coliseum with between 6,000 and 10,000 fans a game (they made $10,000 off the FSU-Jax return match, which drew a state record crowd of 10,500). The year before Williams had gotten to Jacksonville, gate receipts for basketball had totaled $3,000 for the year, but if the Dolphins could make it to the NCAA finals they could gross nearly $100,000 for the season.

After winning 23 of 24 regular-season games, the Dolphins would get their chance at the big boys after receiving an at-large invitation to the Big Dance. Placed in the Mideast Regional, the first-round game was against Western Kentucky at Dayton, and the Dolphins ran away for a 109-96 romp, Gilmore scoring 30 points and grabbing 19 rebounds while badly outplaying WKU counterpart Jim McDaniels. It would then be on to Columbus and Ohio State's St. John Arena for the Sweet 16.

The next game vs. Ralph Miller's Iowa was a back-and-forth classic that in retrospect would more remind of a hoops verison of the George Foreman-Ron Lyle fight that would take place six years later in Las Vegas. But in Columbus, circa March 1970, Jacksonville escaped from the clutches of the Hawkeyes when Burrows rebounded Wedeking's 25-footer with three seconds left to win 104-103. Presumably, the Dolphins' good fortune was emanating from Williams' white double-breasted sports coat--a 36th birthday gift from his players that Williams purchased especially for the NCAA tournament. "I tried to get an outfit Artis would like," said the sartorially splendid coach.

In the Mideast Regional at Columbus, Ohio, Gilmore contributed 54 of the 848 total points scored by Jacksonville, Kentucky, Iowa and Notre Dame. But in such an assemblage of bazooka gunners, the first defensive move should have brought a standing ovation--and Gilmore was one of the few men to make such a move. It came in the regional final vs. Adolph Rupp's Kentucky, and shortly after Artis and Kentucky's Dan Issel had traded baskets to open their teams' battle for the regional title. Issel started a drive into the lane, went up for his shot only to see it slammed away forcefully by Gilmore. Issel was visibly shaky the rest of the afternoon.

The Dolphins would eventually be sparked by G Chip Dublin, who came off the bench to score 19 points, and led 72-60 before Issel began to assert himself with nine straight points. But as he moved downcourt to set up on offense with 10 minutes to play, Issel slammed into Wedeking for his fifth foul and went to the bench in tears. Kentucky gamely fought back to within two points with slightly more than a minute to go, but Morgan's one-hander and his two free throws saved it for Jacksonville 106-100.

Incredibly, the Dolphins were on their way to the Final Four!

But the aforementioned college hoops "Establishment" was a bit taken aback by the Dolphins. "What is this, Rent-a-Goon?" said a writer, pointing at JU's two giant black junior-college transfers, 7-foot-2 Artis Gilmore and 7-foot-0 Pembrook Burrows, III. "Just look at them, would you?" said the wife of an NCAA official, nodding toward the entrance to Cole Fieldhouse as Williams and the Dolphins came to work, smacking gum and wearing bell-bottoms and zippered racing jackets. Williams, the Establishment noted, had no curfew for his players. The players, from places like Chipley and Jacksonville, ate and drank to their heart's pleasure and pulled pranks like hiding each other's shorts, and had painted green and gold stripes on their shoes when they found out they were going to be on a color television at College Park. "Basketball is supposed to be fun," Williams had been quoted, and that was especially disturbing to the Establishment when they realized that Jacksonville University had lost only one of its 27 games and was ranked fourth in the nation.

To the further dismay of the Establishment, Jacksonville's appearance in the finale was almost a fait accompli because Final Four foe St. Bonaventure had lost star C Bob Lanier to a knee injury in the late going of a dominating East Regional final win over Villanova. Without their star, the Bonnies would be handcuffed vs. the tall redwoods of Jacksonville in the semifinal. Although underdog Bona, shorter by seven inches per man on the frontline, hung around, it would be hampered by foul problems, as four starters would be disqualified, including supporting star 6-5 Matt Gantt, playing center in place of Lanier while conceding nine inches to Gilmore. Gantt would play only 20 minutes and heroically score 16 points, and the Bonnies were still within 4 points deep into the second half when down only 79-75 with 2:07 to play. But The Dolphins managed to pull away for a 91-83 win, setting up the finale vs. Wooden's UCLA, now featuring forwards Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks and C Steve Patterson in a lineup that no longer would highlight Alcindor.

The magic carpet ride would end in the title game, though not before Jacksonville looked as if it might toy with the Bruins for a while. Trailing 24-15 midway through the first half, UCLA's dynasty appeared to be wavering. But Gilmore, dominant in the early going, was suddenly shown up by Wicks, who began to play behind the 7-2 giant instead of his ill-advised fronting in the first ten minutes. "They were just lobbing the ball over me and Artis would lay it in," Wicks would later say. "So I told Coach (Wooden) at a timeout that I wanted to play behind him. He said, 'Well, if you think so, let's try it.'" Wicks would personally change the direction of the game thereafter by blocking four of Gilmore's shots. Shaken, big Artis would not be a factor thereafter, ending up only 9 for 29 from the floor. The Bruins surged to a 41-36 halftime edge and never looked back in cruising to an 80-69 win.

Still, in retrospect, it was quite a ride for Jacksonville in 1969-70, not just reaching the national title game, but also as the first college team to ever average better than 100 points (105 ppg, to be exact) for a season. The Dolphins hit the century mark 18 times that year. "I still think about that 100-point average today and wonder how in the world was that possible," F Rod McIntyre said in a recent interview. "There was no shot clock, no dunking allowed, and no 3-point shot line. All I can think is that we must have been motoring every game."

Yet almost as soon as Jacksonville appeared on the national radar, it would dispappear. Within a week of the finale, Williams would leave Jacksonville for the head coaching job at former employer Furman, where Williams coached with good success in the '70s and would return to the NCAA Tourney with Paladins teams led by F Clyde Mayes. Williams would eventually coach at another of his former employers, Florida State. As for Jacksonville, though Morgan would graduate and play a couple of years for the Boston Celtics, it stayed relevant with Gilmore and Burrows still in tow in 1970-71, with Wasdin taking over as the head coach. But there would be no magic run through the Big Dance, as WKU and Jim McDaniels earned revenge in a 74-72 first-round win at South Bend. And that was about it for Jacksonville as a force on the national scene.

As for Gilmore, he would move to the ABA, and eventually the NBA, for a distinguished 17-season pro career that would eventually (and after a very long wait) earn him deserved entrance into the Hall of Fame.

There have been some other Cinderella stories in college hoops, and there will undoubtedly be more in the future. But there will always be only one Jacksonville.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * '

We're not sure there is another Jacksonville lurking in the college basketball weeds this season, but there are a handful of generally under-the-radar types that we believe could be teams to keep an eye as we move deeper into the season.

Boise State...The Broncos are not exactly flying under the radar, as they qualified for the Big Dance play-in game last season (where they lost to La Salle), and were generally regarded among the top two or three teams in the Mountain West entering this season. Nationally, however, Boise still remains something of an unknown, but maybe not for long with a potent lineup featuring the top six returning scorers from last season, led by a squadron of deadeye long-range bombers highlighted by G Jeff Elorriaga (21.7 ppg and 67% triples in the first four games), Aussie dagger-thrower Anthony Drmic (24.8 ppg), and bombs-away soph G Mikey Thompson (50% triples in early going). The Broncos shoot the three so well that opposing defenses are forced to guard the perimeter, creating less congestion in the paint for star junior G Derrick Marks (15 ppg) on his patented commando raids to the bucket. Head coach Leon Rice, a former Mark Few aide at Gonzaga, has imported many of Few's progressive offensive concepts from Spokane, and the Broncos are adept at finding clear looks for one of their many scorers on the attack end. Another Aussie, 6-7 frosh Nick Duncan, can also shoot the 3-ball (hitting 56% beyond the arc in the early going). There are concerns in the paint, where 6-9 workhorse Ryan Watkins carries a heavy burden, and frontline depth is suspect. Lack of size, however, is not a deterrent in the Mountain West, and Rice's effective 4-G offense is going to cause plenty of headaches for opponents this season.

UC Irvine...Most closely approximating the 1970 Jacksonville model, at least appearance-wise, might be UCI, which like those Dolphins of 44 years ago also looks for its first-ever Big Dance berth. Physically, there are some similarities to the Gilmore Dolphins, with the Anteaters boasting perhaps the tallest roster in the country, and certainly the tallest in memory in the Big West. That's partly because of 7-6 frosh Mamadou Ndiaye, a Senegal native who lived locally with a host family in Orange County during his high school days at Brethren Christian. Though raw, Ndiaye attracted the attention of many major programs, including Georgetown, but turned them all down to remain close to his adopted home and enrolled instead at nearby Irvine. Ndiaye is already distorting games, such as a recent Anteater win in Seattle against Washington when the 7-6 giant scored 18 points and blocked 9 shots and effectively cordoned off the paint against the Huskies. Ndiaye's efforts have been predictably erratic, but his footwork and coordination are not bad for someone with his height and limited basketball exposure. Some NBA scouts believe that Ndiaye could even be a lottery pick by 2015. He's not all that HC Russell Turner has on a roster that also includes 6-8 All-Big West jr. F Will Davis, a Pac-12 caliber talent who leads UCI in scoring at 13 ppg. In all, Turner has five players 6-10 or taller on the roster, though UCI will probably also need big years from Gs sr. Chris McNealy (11 ppg) and soph Alex Young (11 ppg and 55% triples in the early going) to have a chance at the school's first-ever Big Dance invite.

UMass...Again, like Boise, not exactly an under-the-radar side, considered one of the teams to watch in the Atlantic 10 after winning 21 games last season and qualifying for the NIT. Early efforts this season, however, suggest HC Derek Kellogg has his best team in six seasons at Amherst, with an impressive win in the recent Charleston Classic, as well as earlier successes vs. capable Boston College and LSU, stamping the Minutemen as an early team to watch this season. An already-potent backcourt has been augmented by Western Kentucky transfer Derrick Gordon, scoring 11.2 ppg in the early going and whose ability to slash to the bucket has created a delightful mix on the attack end with go-go G Chaz Williams (16 ppg), the former Hofstra transfer whose roadrunner act unnerves opposition. UMass also has a real post presence with 6-10 jr. Cody Lalanne (team-best 17.8 ppg up to Thanksgiving) and plenty of other 6-6 to 6-8-types on the frontline. Kellogg has balance (five DD scorers) and plenty of depth, and the Minutemen have already started to build a nice at-large case for the Big Dance.

Eastern Michigan...MAC sources suggest keeping an eye on HC Rob Murphy's Eagles, who did a lot of things right last season except shoot the ball (that's a big negative, we know). But early efforts this season suggests a significant upgrade, thanks in part to 6-7 juco transfer Karrington Ward, a versatile offensive weapon scoring 18.2 ppg up to Thanksgiving, while 6-3 soph G Ray Lee is emerging as another potential go-to threat while scoring 18 ppg and hitting 55% from the floor in the first five games. The improvements on the offensive end are big news, considering that the EMU defense remains sticky; Murphy is a former Jim Boeheim assistant who, like his mentor, prefers the zone defense, although in Murphy's case he utilizes more of a matchup zone than the 2-3 Boeheim prefers. Murphy has also lured a handful of capable D-I transfers the past few seasons, including ex-Arkansas 6-8 F Glenn Bryant (scoring 12 ppg), ex-Duquesne G Mike Talley (7.6 ppg), and an ex-Syracuse big, 7-0 Da'Shonte Riley (5.2 blocks pg). A real sleeper could be 6-10 Nigerian Lekan Ajayi, who had previous stops at FIU and Wyoming, and most recently at the JC level, but who intrigues with his raw athleticism and has given hints of better things to come in December. MAC sources have alerted to watch these guys closely.


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