Rodney McCray's freshman year wasn't going to be anything special. He had come to the University of Louisville from Mount Vernon, N.Y., to be with his older brother, Scooter.
Scooter had pretty much established himself as a freshman the year before, averaging 10 points and six rebounds as the starting center. Rodney didn't particularly care about making waves.
"Rodney was very mediocre in the preseason. He had a lot of baby fat and didn't work that hard at all," Louisville Coach Denny Crum recalled today. "I think he was pretty much resigned to playing behind Scooter."
But in the third game of that 1979-80 season, Scooter hurt his knee in a game here against Tennessee, an injury that would force him to be red-shirted for that season. Rodney realized he had to come to his older brother's rescue.
"At 6-foot-6, as a freshman, he started at center and we went on to win the national championship that year," said Crum.
That national championship has been a source of pride and frustration for Rodney McCray. He played. His brother didn't.
"Three years later, I still hate the way it happened," Rodney said. "I wish it could have happened different."
This year, it may be different. Louisville went to the Final Four of last year's NCAA championship tournament, but lost to Georgetown in the semifinals.
Now, with both McCrays healthy and leading the team in assists, Louisville is considered by many to be the best team in the nation. The Cardinals (30-3) are also the top-seeded team in this week's Mideast Regional that begins Thursday in Stokely Center at 7:10 p.m. with Kentucky (22-7) playing Indiana (24-5), followed by Louisville vs. Arkansas (26-3).
Many believe this is the most competitive of the four regionals. Kentucky Coach Joe B. Hall today called it "one of the outstanding regionals in the history of the NCAA tournament." Three of the teams--Indiana, Kentucky and Louisville--among them have won four national championships in six years.
But none of the players here are being discussed more than Rodney and Scooter McCray, the only seniors (Scooter is in his fifth year) on their team; brothers trying to win a national championship together; brothers who, according to Crum, have helped Louisville sustain its position as one of the nation's elite basketball programs.
"When you talk about the McCrays just use the word class," Crum says. "They're great basketball players, but they do other things--the right things. They go to school. They go to church. They work with civic organizations. Even though they're not from Louisville, they've adopted Louisville and Louisville has adopted them."
Crum has reason to praise the McCrays, now known simply as "The Double Mac Attack." He has asked them to sacrifice what could be significant personal statistics for his team concept.
After starting 6-9 Scooter at center as a freshman, Crum asked him to move to guard when he came back the year after his injury. After starting Rodney at center his freshman year, Crum moved Rodney to forward as a sophomore. Both can virtually play every position. Throughout this season, they have started at forward.
Rodney averages 11 points and nine rebounds per game; Scooter averages nine points and seven rebounds. But the amazing stat is that Scooter leads the team with 3.5 assists per game, and Rodney is second with 3.4 per game.
"I think half of those assist passes must be to each other," said Arkansas guard Darrell Walker. "There's a lot of unspoken communication. When you have a brother you've been fighting with on the sandlots for years, you know each other. You know where each other is on the court, how each other plays. It's rare for big men to pass so well from the forward position, but they do it consistently."
And if winning for Louisville and winning for each other isn't enough, there is the memory of what could have been a third trip to the final four being ruined two years ago, when Arkansas' U.S. Reed eliminated the Cardinals by making a last-second shot from half-court.
Reed is no longer on this team, but that doesn't stop the McCrays from thinking about that shot--which, along with two games this weekend, is the only thing standing in the way of four consecutive trips to the final four.
"I don't think we'll approach Arkansas with revenge in mind," Scooter said. "But it could be added incentive. Let's just say that shot did come at an inappropriate time."
Kentucky has three players who have been bothered by ailments recently. Kenny Walker, a freshman forward, has been having back spasms; Derrick Horde, a senior forward, is bothered by a sprained ankle and Dicky Beal, a junior guard, is still recovering from an injury to his right knee. All practiced today, but Hall said he is not sure how much they'll contribute.