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NCAA COLLEGE BASKETBALL 1995-96 : OFF AND RUNNING : The Madness Has Begun. From Midnight to March, From Maui to the Meadowlands, Another Season is Quickly Heating Up.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

LEAGUE ON A MISSION

That ol’ time religion is taking a toll on the Western Athletic Conference.

Brigham Young’s Roger Reid lost two players this season to Mormon missions--point guard Robbie Reid, the coach’s son, and Bret Jepsen.

At Utah, would-be sophomore Alex Jensen, the team’s second-leading rebounder and fifth leading scorer last season, also departed on a mission.

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Utah Coach Rick Majerus on Jensen’s departure:

“I cried more when Alex left my life than any girl I dated.”

FINE, BUT IS HE ANY GOOD AT PINBALL?

How about this Rusty LaRue?

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The 6-foot-2 senior from Wake Forest is the first Atlantic Coast Conference athlete since 1954 to play three major sports in the same school year. After finishing up as the Demon Deacons’ quarterback this fall--he threw for an ACC-record 545 yards against North Carolina State on Nov.18--LaRue will lace up his sneakers and play guard for the highly ranked basketball team, then change into spikes next spring and join the baseball team as a pitcher.

LaRue, a North Carolina native, has already married his high school sweetheart, is a computer science major and has become a dean’s List regular. Oh, he’s also a member of the National Honor Society.

LaRue could have graduated after the fall semester, but decided to wait and graduate with his class next spring.

Showoff.

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BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO

It wasn’t always a love story, but the Southwest Conference’s farewell season moved writer Gene Duffey to pen these words in Street & Smith’s:

“Memories of the Southwest Conference may be beautiful and yet . . . Phi Slama Jama, Eddie Sutton vs. Abe Lemons, Guy Lewis’ polka dot towel, the Wall at Texas A&M; and the triplets at Arkansas, Tech’s rugged Rick Bullock and Rice’s Kendall Rhine. Akeem the Dream and Clyde the Glide, Big Jim Krebs and little Slater Martin, Barnhill Arena, Strollin’ Nolan, from TCU’s Killer to Baylor’s Miller. . . . What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget as the SWC begins its 82nd and final basketball season.”

NOTHING PERSONAL, POP

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The father is an assistant coach at USC. The son is a hotshot high school prospect from Phoenix, Ariz.

It’s a lock, right? Son joins Dad at USC?

Not this time. Mike Bibby, one of the top guard prospects in the country, recently announced he would be attending the University of Arizona next season.

That’s Coach Lute Olson’s U of A, a Pacific 10 rival of USC.

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Henry Bibby, Mike’s father, former UCLA star and current USC assistant, will now have to devise ways to stop his son.

Mike Bibby averaged 34.5 points and 7.7 assists a game last year at Shadow Mountain High School.

For what it’s worth, Rasheed Hazzard, son of former UCLA coach and player Walt, is a guard for George Washington University. And Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s son, who goes by the same name, is a forward at Valparaiso University in Indiana.

RED STORM IS BREWING

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This politically correct alert goes out to the Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians and Santa Cruz Banana Slugs.

Last year, St. John’s University changed its nickname from the Redmen to the Red Storm to avoid offending Native American groups.

Unfortunately, the Red Storm is still offending. Last season, St. John’s finished 14-14, its first non-winning seasons in 75 years.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS

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Remember when your toughest decision in college was whether to eat off campus or on?

Consider Avondre Jones’ plight: He put an aspiring career as a singer-rapper on hold to play basketball at USC this season. Jones, a junior center who returns to the Trojans after a season of seasoning at Chaffey College, is out to prove athletes have been given a bad, um, rap.

“I’ve heard a lot of people and the papers saying, ‘Avondre isn’t focused because he’s trying to [begin a singing career] and he’s not worried about basketball,’ ” Jones explains in his USC media guide bio. “Well, I think that is a contradiction because before it was always said that athletes are jocks and all they think about is sports and should get something to fall back on. Now, I have something to fall back on.”

Jones’ singing has already been featured on a segment for NBC’s “NBA Showtime.” His stage name is “Schicty.”

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There’s only one area in the music business where the 6-11 Jones comes up short.

Microphone stands.

ET TU, SWEETIE CAKES?

Speaking of Frieder, it was a rough off-season for the Sun Devil coach. It was bad enough that the cartoon character look-alike lost his top scorer and rebounder, Mario Bennett, who left school early for the NBA, signing with the Phoenix Suns.

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When the 53-year-old Frieder went home to find solace, he discovered his daughter, Laura, had also gone hardship.

Laura, a horse lover and state champion show jumper, informed her dad she was skipping her senior year of high school to become a freshman in the ASU honors program.

“Even my daughter left a year early,” Frieder groused at the Pac-10 media day.

WHERE IS JOE SMITH WHEN YOU NEED HIM?

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Names only a mother could love (preseason All-America candidates):

Dana Dingle, Massachusetts.

Elvir Ovcina, Syracuse.

Aaron Swartzendruber, Kansas State.

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Shabaka Lands, Idaho State.

Mingo Johnson, Memphis.

Pino Pipes, North Carolina Charlotte.

Bonzi Wells, Ball State.

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Boo Nwaogwugwa, Bradley.

Velvious Goodloe, Middle Tennessee State.

Moochie Norris, Auburn.

Scoonie Penn, Boston College.

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Alico Dunk, Tennessee.

JaJa Richards, Chicago Loyola.

God Shammgod, Providence.

NO, REALLY, WE’RE NOT THAT GOOD

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There’s only one thing worse than telling a coach he’s going to have a lousy season:

Telling a coach he’s going to have a good one.

Utah’s Majerus is having a hard time believing his team is ranked 10th in the preseason Associated Press poll.

“Those are guys who don’t have cable TV that are picking us that high,” Majerus says. “All you have to do is turn on the TV. We have a nice club. I don’t even know if we can win our league.”

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And what of the writers who are touting the Utes?

“Those are guys who ate with me and I picked up the bill,” Majerus says. “I just don’t know who really would look at us and realistically pick us that high.”

Majerus says he doesn’t think the preseason pub has gone to his players’ heads.

“Well, luckily, living in the land time forgot, we don’t get many papers and magazines out here. They’re delivered late.”

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Same story at Stanford, where the pollsters have touted the Cardinal as a top-20 team.

“I don’t like it,” Coach Mike Montgomery says. “But it’s also an indication that we’ve got a program people respect, and talk about. That’s the good news.”

The bad news?

“That means nothing,” Montgomery says of the polls. “If they’re still talking about us on the same level in March, then we’ve earned it.”

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Arizona State Coach Bill Frieder wouldn’t even give UCLA’s Jim Harrick the chance to downplay the Bruins’ chances of repeating as Pac-10 champs.

“UCLA is going to be picked again whether Harrick likes it or not,” Frieder said.

GET THE BALL TO WHAT’S HIS NAME

Interested in a career in broadcasting?

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Practice your pronunciation skills with a simulated scrimmage involving this group of touring collegians:

“Alvydas Pazdrazdis (McNeese State) gets the inbounds pass, dribbles up court, passes to Mindaugas Timinskas (Iona) at the top of the key, he drives the lane, feeds a no-look pass to Tunji Awojobi (Boston), he shoots, BLOCKED by Ibn-Hashim Bakari, he gets the outlet pass to Duski Ivas (Samford), Ivas dribbles upcourt, throws an Alley Oop pass for Vitaly Potapenko (Wright State), the ball bounces off the backboard, rebounded by Iker Iturbe (Clemson), SLAM DUNK!”

HARIS!!!

At last glance, Indiana’s Knight was giving one of his vintage tongue-lashings to a Rance Pugmire, who had the misfortune of being a moderator at last year’s West Regional tournament press conference after Knight’s team was eliminated in the first-round by Missouri.

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No telling who Knight will first lash out against this year, but the guess here is 6-foot-9 forward Haris Mujezinovic, a junior college transfer from Bosnia.

CAN YOU HURRY UP WITH THOSE TOWELS, DAD?

What the heck, he needed a job.

When Steve Alford was named Coach of Southwest Missouri, one of the first things he did was hire his dad, Sam, as an assistant coach.

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Alford won acclaim as an Indiana phenom when he played for his father at New Castle High School. Alford, Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball,” in 1982-83, went on to a love-hate career at Indiana under Coach Bob Knight.

No word yet on whether Steve Alford will have a curfew for his staff on the road.

THANK YOU AGAIN, TYUS EDNEY

Class act, this Missouri Coach Norm Stewart. While leading his Tigers on a “good-will” tour of exhibition games in Australia last summer, Stewart was ejected from two games.

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Missouri, ousted from the NCAA tournament last spring by Tyus Edney and UCLA, finished 1-6 on the trip, and Stewart strained Aussie-US relations by walking down streets wearing a T-shirt that read, “Sex Lessons Given, First 12 Free.”

THE TARK FILE

You may have heard . . . Jerry Tarkanian is back in the coaching business, at Fresno State, after a three-year layoff.

This, of course, is bad news for towels.

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One of Tark’s trademarks through the years was biting a moistened towel during tense moments of a game.

A computer data search into towel history revealed that the first time Tarkanian munched on one was Feb. 16, 1960, during a league championship game between Tark’s Redlands High School team against Ramona.

Legend has it that the gym was unusually warm that night, and Tark chose biting a towel over taking off his shirt.

Add Tark:

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He never gets enough credit for this, but Tarkanian, coaching in the United States’ People to People program, led Ecuador’s women’s basketball team to its first victory against rival Chili, on Feb. 18, 1960.

OH, THOSE WILDCATS

Let’s just say expectations are high this season in Lexington, where the beloved Kentucky Wildcats are all but having their ring fingers sized in anticipation of winning their sixth NCAA title.

The top-ranked Wildcats recently drew 23,000 to Rupp Arena for an exhibition game against Athletes in Action.

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At halftime, the Kentucky mascot climbed a ladder and pretended to cut down the net in a mock preview of national championship ceremonies next April.

There are only a few things standing in the way of Kentucky and its dream.

They’re called games.


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