BATON ROUGE, La. -- Shaquille O'Neal is leaning back in his chair, fielding questions and answering in tones soft for someone 7 feet 1 and 294 pounds. With a big smirk across his face, the Louisiana State center is generous in responding to all queries -- until the question comes up about Feb. 8.
"No comment," O'Neal answers, a bit more deliberate in his response. "I have no comment."
Why all the silence about tomorrow afternoon, when LSU will be host to top-ranked Duke at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center? On the surface, it's one of those made-for-television games -- the nation's best team against college basketball's most talented individual.
But tomorrow is redemption day for O'Neal. A year ago, the 19-year-old junior known as "Shaq" (pronounced "shack") dominated opponents, averaging 27.6 points and 14.7 rebounds. On the way to being named college Player of the Year, O'Neal and LSU suffered their worst loss of the season, 88-70, to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. In scoring 15 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, O'Neal was outplayed thoroughly by Duke center Christian Laettner (24 points, 11 rebounds), taunted by the Duke faithful and embarrassed in front of a national television audience.
A man so big never looked so small.
"I learned from that game -- I learned don't let the crowd get to me," said O'Neal, who has the date circled on the calendar in his dorm room. "I learned to stay on my feet, and I learned I have to play better defense away from the basket.
"It was kind of frustrating. But we lost, and I had to come out the next game to play well."
That is exactly what O'Neal is doing at this point of the season. He was the preseason player of the year and the reason why the Tigers began the season ranked sixth. But the Tigers dropped out of the polls after losing three of their first six -- including an 87-67 loss at Arizona during which O'Neal had 10 points and four rebounds before fouling out.
LSU (14-4) is back in the polls this week at No. 22, having lost just one game since the early slump. It's no surprise that O'Neal has begun to assert himself more since the early-season woes. And an assertive O'Neal is an extremely difficult player to stop.
"The guy's 7 feet tall and 300 pounds and is probably as athletic as our point guard," said Northern Arizona coach Harold Merritt, who earlier this season watched in awe as O'Neal scored 43 points in 35 minutes in a 159-86 LSU win. "We played him front and back with a lot of help. He's just tough to defend."
And almost impossible to defend with one man, which is why most coaches collapse two, three and sometimes four defenders on O'Neal once he catches the ball in the pivot.
"On one play [in an LSU exhibition game], they collapsed five men on him," said LSU coach Dale Brown. "And he still tried to power it through."
It was because of the defensive attention that many felt O'Neal should have opted for the riches and the man-to-man defenses of the NBA.
"I stayed in school because there's a lot I need to learn," said O'Neal, who emphasizes that he also enjoys just being a college student. "My first year, my role was rebounding and junk baskets. Last year, all I was able to do was block shots, rebound and dunk.
"Going into the NBA, guys are big like me, strong like me and quick like me. So I wouldn't be able to dunk all the time. I wanted to develop a hook shot, a jump shot and work on my all-around game."
Even without those shots, O'Neal almost certainly will be the first pick of the NBA draft if he opts to pass up his last year of eligibility.
"I think he's one of the best players at his position in college," said NBA scout Marty Blake.
Or, as O'Neal describes himself, "a new breed" of center of which there are only two -- he and David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs.
"I can move, I can run the floor, I can jump and I can shoot a little bit," said O'Neal, who has worked out this season with former NBA greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton.
O'Neal's assessment of his game is not a matter of being cocky. Last season, he was a consensus All-American and the first Southeastern Conference player to lead the league in scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage and blocks in the same season. But O'Neal won't say he's the college game's top player.
"On one hand, people say Christian Laettner is the best, and, on the other hand, people say I'm the best," O'Neal said. "If you want to call me anything, call me one of the best. Sometimes, I play like the best, and, sometimes, I play like a freshman. I just go out to play to win, and whatever happens happens."
If he plays like the best the rest of the season, O'Neal could find himself wearing the "USA" jersey alongside some of the NBA greats in this year's Olympics in Barcelona. One spot has been reserved for a college player, and O'Neal is the collegian whose name is mentioned most often.
"If they do call me, it would be a great honor for LSU, for me and for my family," O'Neal said.