It was perhaps only natural that the spotlight should remain centered upon football, for the great autumn pageant of the American college scene still had to observe a few curtain calls. It had been another smash season with an old but always delightful plot. The oldest alumnus grew young once again as he watched it unfold—and the youngest coach grew old. All-America halfbacks were born under the publicity man's typewriter touch and blazed to glory on the field—or perhaps faded to obscurity under a rattling tackle made by a nameless guard. But while bowl teams ran through endless rehearsals for the big Jan. 2 finale (meanwhile keeping an eye cocked on the governor of Georgia), a new act slipped onto a corner of the stage. College basketball bounced in.
The entrance attracted more attention in some sections than others. There were still those among the old guard of the Ivy League who packed away their coonskin coats with a steadfast resolution not to stir again until eight-oared shells are lowered gently into the Charles and the Thames next spring. But elsewhere—well, at the University of Iowa, where sellout crowds watched Iowa play one of the nation's stoutest football schedules, thousands of fans switched over to the Iowa field house on Saturday afternoon and joined a national television audience of millions in watching the opener against Nebraska. At Ann Arbor, a big Michigan end named Ron Kramer tugged off his cleats and shoulder pads, slipped into a pair of canvas shoes and satin pants and prepared to take over top billing in the winter spectacular. At West Point a tall cadet named Don Holleder followed the example of Quick Change Artist Kramer, hoping to help win another victory over Navy on a different field of friendly strife.
But most of basketball's cast of characters—the youngsters who will make the college sports headlines for the next 100 days—are athletic specialists, and basketball is their specialty. Perhaps at the head of the cast is a 21-year-old named Bill Russell, whose presence at San Francisco is the chief reason the Dons are expected to be again the best college team in the U.S.
Bill Russell is a 6-foot 10-inch Negro from Monroe, Louisiana. His father hoped that he would be a left-handed baseball pitcher because "only girls play basketball." In high school, after the family moved to California, he was overshadowed by an older brother who was a better athlete; it appeared that his family, which had religiously saved to send him through college, would indeed have to pay his way. Then Phil Woolpert, coach at San Francisco, decided to risk an athletic scholarship. Now, four years later, Russell is described only in superlatives by such neutral observers as California Coach Pete Newell who says he "is the finest individual performer ever on the Pacific Coast," and this is an area which produced Stanford's Hank Luisetti and Jim Pollard.
Russell is a tremendously modest young man and, even out on the basketball court before a game, stands awkwardly ill at ease, looking as embarrassed as a teen-age girl in her first Bikini bathing suit. But, once in action, he has to be seen to be appreciated. He covers the court in incredibly long strides, goes up in the air to block sure baskets (he can high jump six-foot-seven) and the next moment is down at the other end of the court to tip one in for San Francisco. Opening the season against Chico State, Russell played only part time but still collected a handsome 26 rebounds and scored 15 points. Saturday night, against a good Southern California team, he stepped up his pace and almost blew the Trojans off the court. It was like a big boy playing keep-away with small boys. USC's Tony Psaltis broke for the basket all alone; a sure layup for two points. Tony jumped in the air, pushed the ball confidently against the backboard. Out of nowhere a large hand reached up and pinned the ball against the boards. Bill Russell eased the ball down and threw out to a teammate. Ten long strides and Russell was under his own basket. The teammate missed a set shot but the large hand reached up again and stuffed the ball in the basket. It was that way all night. In the first half Russell personally outscored the opposition with 19 points and led San Francisco to a 34-16 advantage. Then he came back to drop in five more points, make it 43-18 before his coach mercifully pulled him out of the game. San Francisco won 58-42.
If basketball men had to name a team right now which would be playing San Francisco in the NCAA finals March 24, many of them would say Kentucky. This is part reflex action, part the reputation of Coach Adolph Rupp—and part Bob Burrow. Rupp has had seven All-America centers in 26 years at Kentucky; Burrow, a six-foot-seven-inch retired bass horn player from Texas, may become the eighth.
Burrow is a friendly young man with short-cropped brown hair, a grin and a knack for making friends. He majors in physical education, makes average grades, wants to play pro basketball when he finishes college and later become a coach. Son of a lumberjack, Burrow came out of the east Texas pine country to become the nation's No. 1 junior college player in 1954 with little Lon Morris, a small Baptist school which benefited from his presence to the tune of 2,191 points. Rupp never saw him play until he reported for practice last year but he accepted Burrow on glowing scouting reports. It was a wise decision. Now a senior, Bob proved to be a tough and aggressive man under the basket, played almost every minute of Kentucky's games last year, averaged 19 points a contest and earned a reputation as one of the greatest rebounders in the nation. "The only way to beat Kentucky," says DePaul Coach Ray Meyer, "is to break Burrow's control of the backboards."
Saturday night, as Kentucky beat LSU 62-52, Burrow had his troubles. With an injured foot hurt in an athletic club initiation the Tuesday before possibly contributing to an off night, the big center played only part time, scored only seven points. But the season is a long one and none of Kentucky's opponents can afford to take much consolation from Burrow's sore foot.
Out in the mountain states, where Utah is expected to have one of the best teams of the year, Coach Jack Gardner proudly lists four returning starters from last season's Skyline Conference champions. The chief of these is Art Bunte, a deceptively easygoing fellow with the face of an overgrown cherub and the build of a football tackle. His normal playing weight is 215 on a 6-foot-3 frame, which makes him about the shortest big-time pivot man in the game, but he makes up for it with his deceptive speed, a beautiful shooting touch and one of the roughest sets of hips and elbows under the basket this side of the pros of the National Basketball Association.
Bunte's confidence in himself and his teammates is supreme. "Shucks, coach," he will tell Gardner, who, like all basketball coaches, verges on apoplexy when things fail to go just right, "we'll murder these guys." And they usually do. Last year Bunte, who hooks with both hands and can hit on the jump and set shot as well, averaged 19.2 points and once scored 43 against Utah State. Saturday, when Utah opened the season against Wichita, it was an easy game and Bunte didn't have to work too hard. Playing only about half the game, he scored 12 points in a 73-51 Utah victory which saddened the initiation of Wichita's new, gleaming,' flying-saucer-shaped field house. For once he had no trouble sleeping after the game. "This one wasn't close at all," Bunte said. "Not much to worry over tonight."
The antithesis of Utah's happy warrior is a seven-footer from Dayton named Bill Uhl, who lacked something last year in the way of confidence and aggressiveness but still averaged 18.6 points a game. While Bunte lives for basketball, Uhl seems to be equally interested in going into the insurance business with his father and brother, in water skiing, building hi-fi record players and operating his ham radio set. He also gained a certain measure of fame last winter when Dayton moved into New York for a performance at Madison Square Garden. Uhl became probably the tallest acolyte in the history of St. Patrick's Cathedral by serving Mass for Father Charles Collins, Dayton's dean of students.
It is hard for Uhl to heed Coach Tom Blackburn's advice and "get tough." As a high school youngster he was tall, awkward and self-conscious ("I used to hit my head all the time going through doorways") and until his senior year in high school, after his mother died, shied away from sports. He sleeps diagonally in an oversized bed but still hangs over at the edges and, for a rather unusual reason, likes New York best of all the places Dayton plays basketball: it is the only place he knows to buy socks for his size 17 feet.
Last year, playing in his quiet, peaceable way, Bill Uhl led Dayton in scoring by hitting more than 45% of his shots from the floor, rebounded like a big cat and was a giant on defense. During the summer he worked as a bellboy for Kutsher's in the New York resort area and played basketball under Boston Celtics' Coach Red Auerbach. Somehow in the catalytic Catskills he found the aggressiveness he lacked last year. In the opener last week against Pepperdine, Uhl played only a little over half the game, scored 16 points in a 75-35 victory and caused Pepperdine Coach Duck Dowell to compare him favorably with Russell. "Russell is a little faster but he hasn't the power this Uhl has. This guy just runs over you. He's one of the top pro prospects I've seen." Two nights later Uhl hit 24 points in an 87-61 victory over Gustavus Adolphus.
Holy Cross ranks somewhere down the line when the talk is of such teams as San Francisco, Kentucky, Utah and Dayton. But the Crusaders may be the best in the East and Tom Heinsohn, who learned to play the game under a street light in Union City, N.J., may easily qualify as one of the best anywhere. Kentucky's Rupp, without qualification, calls Heinsohn one of the outstanding players in the nation.
Heinsohn had an early determination about basketball. He remembers having to wear gloves and a Mackinaw, as a boy, to play the game outside on cold winter nights, sweeping up the snow first of course. But Heinsohn is also a cartoonist of talent and an earnest and intelligent student with an 86 average while majoring in economics.
Last year Heinsohn proved he could move gracefully despite his six-foot-seven, hit from inside or out, rebound and pass off. He averaged over 23 points a game and ran his two-year scoring total to 1,049. Saturday night, in the opener against St. Anselm's, he started out after Bob Cousy's all-time Holy Cross record of 1,775 points, achieved in a four-season career. As the Crusaders rolled up an 80-55 victory, Heinsohn tossed in 23 effortless points, picked off a dozen or so rebounds, blocked St. Anselm's shots and captained the team with assurance. In short, Holy Cross appears to have found this year's successor to LaSalle's fabulous Tom Gola.
But these five stars—and these five teams—are only a handful of the headline makers as the 1955-56 season begins. Here are more to watch, section by section.
THE COLLEGES: A SECTION-BY-SECTION PREVIEW
THE MIDWEST. In the Big Ten, it's Iowa—maybe. The Hawkeyes, defending champions, lost only Deacon Davis by graduation and have back a wonderfully balanced team. Forward Carl Cain may be the standout but they're all good—and that is Iowa's strength. Illinois will be a strong challenger with a very promising sophomore—6'7" Ted Caiazza—threatening to crack an all-letterman lineup. And Indiana has enough good sophomores to be strong despite its loss of a great player in Don Schlundt. The best basketball player in the league—and certainly one of the finest shots in the country—could be Robin Freeman, whose Ohio State team is not expected to worry the leaders too much over the season.
In the Big Seven, Kansas has one of the best basketball players in the world. But he won't be able to help Phog Allen's varsity this year because Wilt (The Stilt) Chamberlain is a freshman. Even so, Kansas should challenge Colorado, a surprise NCAA semifinalist last year, right down to the finish. Kansas has one of the good ones in high-scoring guard Dallas Dobbs, while Colorado points with pride to a handsome 6'4" rebounder named Jim Ranglos and 6'7" center George Hannah. Missouri, a definite contender, has perhaps the league's best all-round player in Norm Stewart. Nebraska is building hopefully around last year's fine sophomore, Rex Ekwall.
Bradley returns to the Missouri Valley and although probably not quite ready to bid for the championship, helps to make this, as usual, one of the country's best-balanced conferences. Houston, with 7-foot Don Boldebuck one of the top scorers and rebounders, is favored. Oklahoma A & M should rank with St. Louis as a strong contender but lacks a player with the all-round ability of St. Louis' Jim McLaughlin.
Two of the nation's best basketball teams are midwestern independents—Dayton and Marquette. All-America Bill Uhl of Dayton gets handsome help from 6'6" Jim Paxson, back from service, and Marquette, a quarter-finalist in the NCAA, returns with 6'9" Terry Rand. Loyola of Chicago, Notre Dame (which lost only All-America Jack Stephens) and Cincinnati also look good.
THE WEST. What else can you say about the Pacific Coast except San Francisco and Bill Russell—plus Russell's running mate, K. C. Jones, who may also wind up as an All-America. It's a strong combination to beat—and no one really expects to beat the Dons as they aim for their second straight NCAA championship.
In the Coast Conference, Washington is loaded with height and may take the play away from the southern schools, UCLA and Southern California. The Huskies have 7-foot Gary Nelson, 6'8" sophomore Bruno Boin, and experience at every position. UCLA could win with a cast built around Morris Taft and Willie (The Whale) Naulls. Tony Psaltis, a fine all-round player for Southern Cal, and little George Sellect, Stanford's standout 5'8" guard, are two of the league's stars.
Utah, with Art Bunte and the rest of last year's championship crew, is favored to win the Skyline Conference again—but things may get awfully rough. Brigham Young opened with two straight victories over UCLA and could upset Utah as it did last year. Brigham Young shines with 6'8" Herschel Pedersen and a tiny playmaker named Terry Tebbs. Close behind is Wyoming, with three good players over 6'7".
THE SOUTH. There are good basketball teams in the Southeastern Conference this year and Kentucky may not be the dominant force as in seasons past. Alabama has a squad playing together for the fourth straight year and a star in Jerry Harper. Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech could make it a race.
George Washington: first in war, first in peace and almost surely first in the Southern Conference—if it can beat West Virginia. Both rank with the nation's best and each has a first-class star, towering Joe Holup for George Washington and Hot Rod Hundley, who took time out from clowning long enough last year as a sophomore to score 711 points for West Virginia. Furman may not scare anyone but it has a shooter who certainly will—Darrell Floyd, the nation's most awe-inspiring pointmaker with his 35.9 average last season.
North Carolina State and its high-scoring Ron Shavlik again should lead the Atlantic Coast Conference but it won't be easy. Maryland, with an ambitious schedule and most of its letter-men back, will join Wake Forest, Duke and North Carolina, the latter led by Star Lenny Rosenbluth and rich with imports from the New York area, in challenging the champions.
THE EAST. Gone are Tom Gola and Dick Ricketts, who made LaSalle and Duquesne the big names of eastern basketball for the last three years. But Duquesne has back an All-America in spring-legged Si Green and a good supporting cast which misses only a strong big man. Holy Cross appears to be powerful with Heinsohn ranking alongside Green as the class of the area's individual stars. Niagara suffered losses but has a standout sophomore center in 6'7" Boo Ellis. Columbia, sparked by Chet Forte, appears to be one of the strong teams of the Ivy League, along with Dartmouth. Yale's excellent 1954-55 freshman team moves up to begin causing trouble. Fordham, St. John's of Brooklyn, Syracuse and Seton Hall will win a lot of games. One of the area's best performers is little Hofstra's big Bill Thieben.
THE SOUTHWEST. As usual the Southwest Conference is anybody's race, with more good big men showing up than ever before in this weakest of all basketball sections. As in football, the balance is so delicate that anyone can win—even the favorite. In this case it's SMU, the defending champion, by a very slight margin. SMU lost only Art Barnes and this year 6'8" Jim Krebs should be even better. TCU has the area's highest scorer and a preseason selection on several All-Americas, 6'7" Dick O'Neal. But TCU may lack support for their big boy and could easily drop behind Baylor, Arkansas or Rice, the latter blessed with 6'10" Temple Tucker, who scored at a 30-point clip last year for the freshmen. Ken Loeffler faces a rugged task after transferring from LaSalle to Texas A & M (see page 14) and will probably wind up battling Texas for the cellar.
Texas Tech, with good height and a fine player in Jim Reed, seems the class of the Border Conference.