COLLEGE BASKETBALL; Driesell’s Touch Hasn’t Gone Out of Style

By KEVIN SACK – The New York Times – MARCH 13, 2001


His moves were not particularly recognizable to young players more accustomed to Atlanta’s hip-hop scene. But Charles G. Driesell, 69, better known as Lefty, showed up for practice in the Georgia State University gym late last week and started to dance.

“He was doing this old-timey dancing,” said Shernard Long, the Panthers’ 6-foot-4-inch guard, who was named the Trans America Athletic Conference’s player of the year. “I don’t know what it was.”

But Driesell’s motivational technique, and his enduring enthusiasm, left an impression.

“Are y’all ready to go to the dance?” he asked his team, a collection of transfers from junior colleges and big-name schools. “Do y’all know how to dance? It’s time to go to the dance.”

For the 13th time in 39 seasons, Driesell is going to the dance, the N.C.A.A. tournament. Georgia State, seeded 11th in the West Regional, will play sixth-seed Wisconsin at Boise on Thursday in the first round. When the Panthers won the conference tournament on March 3 and assured themselves of an automatic N.C.A.A. bid, Driesell became the second coach in N.C.A.A. history to take four different teams to the tournament. Davidson, Maryland, and James Madison are the others. The first coach to do so was Eddie Sutton (Arkansas, Kentucky, Creighton and Oklahoma State). Jim Harrick (Pepperdine, Rhode Island, U.C.L.A.) joined the list when his Georgia Bulldogs were selected as an at-large team.

As with each of his previous programs, Driesell has built Georgia State’s success virtually from scratch. Before he arrived in 1997, the downtown Atlanta school had only three winning seasons in its 35-year history and only one N.C.A.A. appearance, in 1991, when it lost in the first round to Arkansas, 117-76.

Driesell has put together four consecutive winning seasons, each better than the previous one. This season, Georgia State is 28-4, its victory total exceeded only by Duke, the top-seeded team in the East Regional. It won the regular season conference title with a 16-2 record and cruised through the conference tournament.

Ten of Driesell’s 12 players are transfers, including all five starters. Several left prominent Division I programs, which should help prepare them for the pressure of the tournament. Point guard Kevin Morris came from Georgia Tech, guard Darryl Cooper came from Louisiana State, and Long, who leads the team in scoring with 18 points a game, left Georgetown.

“I like transfers,” Driesell said, “because they sit out a year and you have a chance to work on their weaknesses.”

Driesell and his players were disappointed with their seeding. “I think we deserve higher than that, but we’ll have to prove it in the tournament,” Driesell said.

While the seeding reflects the softness of the conference, Driesell pointed out that his team defeated several big-name schools in nonconference games this season, including its season-opening 91-79 stunner over Georgia. Georgia State played four teams that are in the N.C.A.A. tournament — Georgia, Creighton, Hawaii and California State-Northridge — losing only to Creighton, 81-74.

Driesell said he thinks his team has a chance to be the one that makes the N.C.A.A. office pool crazy. The first-round game against Wisconsin should be a contrast in style. Georgia State likes to force turnovers with aggressive defense, then push the ball upcourt for the 3-point shot. Wisconsin, a Final Four team in 2000, is known for its deliberate, halfcourt offense.

But the matchup that Driesell watchers are longing for would come in the second round, when Georgia State could face Maryland, Driesell’s former employer. In the housecleaning that followed the death of his star player Len Bias from cocaine intoxication, Driesell was pushed out of College Park in 1986 after 17 seasons and a 348-159 record.

Driesell said he would not let himself or his team look ahead. “We have to win the first game,” he said. “After that, it doesn’t matter who we play.”

Regardless of how quickly the season ends, Driesell has enjoyed a remarkable season. Despite midseason neck surgery that kept him sidelined for 10 days, he became the 10th N.C.A.A. coach to record 750 career victories and now ranks fifth among men’s basketball coaches in total victories with 761 (against 376 losses). He won 20 games or more for the 21st time, won a conference title for the 19th time, and earned a postseason bid for the 20th time. He even inspired his own fan section — Lefty’s Loonies — in the Georgia State gym, where attendance has averaged about 2,000.

Driesell’s players respect his stature and accomplishments despite what they view as his old-fashioned ways. He has banned beards and pierced ears and only grudgingly permits rap music in the locker room. He has imposed pregame curfews and a dress code. And he sent a clear message after the team’s loss at Creighton by changing its scheduled 11 a.m. flight home to a 6 a.m. flight that required a 4 a.m. wake-up call.

“They’ve had to adjust to me,” he said. “You don’t see them with earrings. That’s my rule. You won’t see any of them with beards. That’s my rule. It’s not their program. It’s my program.”

Driesell, who recently signed a new three-year contract at Georgia State, says that he can put any program in the N.C.A.A. tournament through hard work and effective salesmanship. But he has tried to keep the postseason attention focused on his players. “I like my team,” he said. “We won 28 games and lost only 4, so we’re not going to lay down for anybody.”

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