Mounting problems leave Phelan at loss 35-year run of success is just memory amid yearlong road drought, bad luck

February 01, 1992|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun Staff Correspondent

EMMITSBURG -- Are 3 1/2 decades of good fortune too much? Is there a balance sheet somewhere that's causing Jim Phelan and the Mount St. Mary's basketball team to struggle to put a team on the court, let alone win some games?

Is Bow Tie tangled in a knot?

It's been close to a year since Mount St. Mary's won on the road, and the Mountaineers will try to end that 15-game drought tonight at Long Island University. The Mountaineers are headed to their third losing record in the past four years, as many as they had in Phelan's first 34 seasons.

Two straight wins last week broke a seven-game losing streak that was beginning to threaten the longest in school history, the 10-game slide that encompassed the final six games of last season and the first four of this one. The Mount is 5-15.

"Someone who's keeping up on us is going to look at that and say, 'Holy smokes,' " said Phelan, whose career record is 692-343 in 38 seasons at the Mount. Only seven other coaches in college basketball history have as many wins.

Yesterday, however, Phelan found out that his prodigious record wasn't enough to get him into the Basketball Hall of Fame -- not this year, at least. One of 14 nominees, he was not among the nine people elected to the Hall.

"It was just a privilege to be nominated," Phelan said yesterday, downplaying the news. "I was in good company."

Phelan's paramount objective is reversing a slide that coincided with the Mount's move to Division I in 1988. He can't see things getting any worse than they are now.

"Things never quite work out the way you think, but this is ridiculous," Phelan said. "It's been a strange year. I don't think I've had this many unusual things happen in one year."

The Mountaineers' descent actually began at the start of the 1990-91 season. Guard Kevin Booth played a big part in a 16-12 mark in 1989-90, the Mount's second year in Division I and its first in the Northeast Conference. He dislocated his kneecap in a game at Navy in November 1990, however, and redshirted the entire season.

Booth is averaging more than 19 points a game, but his mobility has decreased. He also has lost several teammates, at a time when Phelan admits that the Mount's talent isn't what it used to be:

* Sophomore Dave Kapaona, who won the point-guard spot and made the NEC all-rookie team last year, fractured a foot in preseason practice and will redshirt this year.

* Last spring the Mountaineers won a late recruiting battle for Joe Gower, a 6-foot-7 forward out of Lehighton, Pa. He did little academically, however, and left school at the end of the fall semester.

* Seven-footer Chris Cavanagh, a fifth-year senior, was turning into a big producer, earning MVP honors when the Mountaineers won their own tournament in December. He punched a wall in anger during a practice the first week in January, however, breaking a bone in his right hand. Cavanagh could suit up next week.

TC "Chris missed the 2,221st layup of his career in a drill, and decides to punch a wall," Phelan said. "We were beginning to see the fruits of five years of hard work with Chris."

Before a Jan. 13 home game against St. Francis, N.Y., senior forward Bobby Hill totaled his car on Interstate 270. He escaped uninjured, but Phelan planned to start him in what turned out to be a one-point loss. Phelan himself missed part of Monday's loss at Towson State with an upset stomach, the first time that's happened in his 38 seasons at the Mount.

"I don't know, maybe I'm paying for all the times we won games we should have been losing," Phelan said. "I am losing sleep over this. We're in a down cycle for players here, and we've also had an incredible run of bad luck. But we're going to turn it around. We have before."

Mount St. Mary's won the NCAA College Division title in 1962, and the 1981 team made it to the Division II championship game. He went eight straight seasons in the 1970s without a 20-game winner, however, and the 1970-71 and 1971-72 teams were a combined 16-31, the only time Phelan has had back-to-back losing seasons.

Until now. Phelan is 62. His quest to become the eighth coach to reach 700 college victories has been excruciatingly drawn out, but retirement is not in his plans.

He's been to five small college Final Fours, but never to the Division I tournament, and winning the NEC title would get him there. This is the first season in which Mount St. Mary's is eligible for Division I postseason play.

"You say it doesn't matter, but it does," said Phelan, whose last NCAA tournament win came in the 1987 South Atlantic Division II regional, over Virginia Union and A.J. English.

"The last four-five-six games over the last couple of seasons, everyone knew it was over, and that hurt," Phelan said. "With a postseason tournament, you always have a chance. Even this year, we're going to get a low seed for the [NEC] tournament, but we can get healthy and scare somebody."

To do more than frighten foes, the talent needs to improve.

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