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BYU Goes From Being Underdog to Unbeaten

February 07, 1988|JOHN FEINSTEIN | The Washington Post

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — There may not be a more famous ramp in sports than the one that leads to the playing floor here in the arena known as "The Pit." It is so steeply sloped that one has to be careful not to fall head over heels when walking down it.

When a visiting team arrives at the bottom of The Ramp, it walks into a sea of red and a caldron of noise. Earlier this season, top-ranked Arizona walked down The Ramp unbeaten and walked back up it 12-1.

Saturday afternoon as he led his Brigham Young teammates down The Ramp to face the University of New Mexico, Michael Smith heard a voice a few feet away from him. "Welcome to the Pit, Michael," the man said.

"Thank you," Smith answered with a wide grin. "It's very nice to be here."

Two hours later, Smith and BYU walked back up the The Ramp, leaving behind a lot of quiet people in red and a scoreboard that told the story: BYU 89, New Mexico 82. Thus the Cougars remained unbeatenand, all of a sudden, people are noticing.

"Actually, the lack of attention doesn't bother us very much," said Smith. "I just look back at our 1984 football team. It kept winning and winning and nobody noticed and it won some more and nobody noticed. Then, when it was all over, they were No. 1."

Smith smiled. "Now, if Temple (the only other unbeaten team) were to lose on Sunday and everyone put their heads together and decided to make us No. 1, then all of a sudden we'd get a lot of attention. But you know what, I'm not sure we're ready for that. It might be better for us just to go on being unnoticed."

That isn't very likely, although Temple did fall from the ranks of the unbeaten with Sunday's loss to Nevada Las Vegas. The Cougars are unbeaten in the Western Athletic Conference, which is likely to get four NCAA bids, perhaps even five.

And the best of the conference -- which includes preseason darling Wyoming -- is BYU. The Cougars have proven that emphatically in the last 10 days by winning convincingly at Wyoming, Texas-El Paso and New Mexico. This is a team picked in no one's preseason top 20, one that only recently cracked the rankings, one its coach insists can play with anyone.

"Right now, we're playing the best basketball in the WAC," Coach Ladell Anderson said. "And, although a lot of people in the East might disagree, I think that's saying a lot. This is a great league. The only difference between our league and the ones back East is publicity.

"Last week, Wyoming loses at UTEP and New Mexico and they drop seven spots in the rankings. What people don't realize is that's as tough a road swing as there is in the country. If that happened in the Big East or the ACC, they would drop two spots, maybe."

Lack of attention is a disease easily cured by winning in March, something teams out west have failed to do with remarkable consistency this decade. While Anderson might worry about rankings and headlines, his players don't.

"We know if we keep winning, we'll get everything we could possibly want," slick-passing guard Brian Taylor said. "We take a lot of pride in being unbeaten right now. You know, every game that goes by, that zero means more and more."

The story of that zero, as with any Brigham Young team, is not like most college basketball success stories.

It starts, strangely enough, in the first seconds of BYU's offseason. Last March, having been beaten in the opening round of the NCAA tournament by New Orleans, the Cougars were heading for their dressing room, their heads down.

As they walked down the hallway, Alabama, about to take the floor for its game, was going in the opposite direction. But the Tide players weren't running, they were walking. And, as the BYU players went by, they heard this: "Tide, get ready to roll, hey Tide get ready to roll."

It was a rap-chant, the players tightly bunched, clapping their hands as they went. "It was," said Taylor, "exactly the kind of thing we needed." It may only be a symbol, but since adapting the chant to their needs -- "Cougs, get ready to roll, hey Cougs get ready to roll" -- BYU has not lost.

A rap-chant might seem an unlikely rallying cry for Brigham Young. After all, BYU is a virtually all-white, Mormon-run school. There is one black on this team, senior Jeff Chatman. Ironically, Chatman is from Alabama.

"I thought it was great to take the chant from Alabama," Chatman said. "That was the place I was dying to play when I was in high school. I would have given one of my arms to play for Alabama. But I played for a small school (Munford County) and no one noticed me."

BYU noticed him when assistant coach Roger Reid, in Birmingham in March 1984 for the NCAA tournament, saw him play one day after Chatman had watched the Cougars win their opening round game against Alabama-Birmingham. Chatman was amazed but receptive when BYU approached him. Did he worry about going to an almost all-white Mormon school?

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