A Struggle to the Summit

West Virginia's basketball Mountaineers are No. 1 in the nation for the first time ever, after a fine job by Coach Fred Schaus—but can they stay there?
January 27, 1958

Neither North nor South nor East nor Midwest, West Virginia is a comparatively small state surrounded by bigger ones and oriented in large part toward the only authentic nearby metropolis, Pittsburgh. It is to Pittsburgh that most West Virginians look for fun and games on weekends and holidays and to the University of Pittsburgh that sports-following West Virginians look for a natural, city-slicker rival for their own state university at Morgantown. The game with Pitt is the game on the schedule of any Mountaineer team.

Last week, by the car and busload, West Virginians drove over the hills and through a snowstorm to Pittsburgh to watch the Mountaineers play the basketball game of the season, while thousands of others tuned in to a 20-station radio network that blankets the state for every basketball and football game. They saw and heard an exciting game with a happy ending, West Virginia winning 71-64 despite a typically breathtaking, top-scoring performance by Pitt's Don Hennon (SI, Jan. 6). If West Virginia had lost every other game thus far, the season was now made.

But the fact is, of course, that West Virginia has not lost a game thus far (the record: 13-0), and for the first time since the school started playing basketball in 1904, it is the No. 1 ranking team in the nation.

The two men chiefly responsible for all this are an Ohioan named Fred Schaus and a Pennsylvanian named Lloyd Sharrar, coach and player respectively. In the three years that Schaus has been coach at West Virginia, the team has won three Southern Conference championships (it never won one before); in these same three years, Sharrar has become one of the best big men on any college campus. Schaus is also responsible for Sharrar's presence at West Virginia. As Sharrar explained recently: "I had about 50 or 60 college offers my senior year in high school. I visited a lot of campuses, including Morgantown, but I had narrowed my choice down to two Big Ten schools, when Fred came by my home one day (in Meadville, Pa.). We sat around in the living room and talked with my folks. I liked him right off and changed my mind about West Virginia." The incident is typical of Schaus both as coach and recruiter. It is nearly impossible to dislike this tall, burly man, whose warmth and affinity for people is deep and instinctive though expressed in low key. And it is this quality, far more than his athletic skill, which earned for Schaus the captaincy of practically every team on which he played—in high school in Ohio, at West Virginia and with Fort Wayne in the pro basketball league—plus election as president of the West Virginia student body at the end of his junior year.

As a coach, Schaus gets every willing ounce of disciplined effort from his men because their respect for his experience and understanding of the game is matched by genuine affection. The fact is that he would likely fail if this were not so, because he teaches probably the most difficult (and, at the same time, the best) style of ball for college players. It is the pro type, free-wheeling, free-lance game, which places all responsibility on individual player initiative. He drills them everlastingly on fundamentals and then cuts them loose in games to exercise that initiative in the rapid-fire sequence of fast-breaking attack and man-to-man defense.

Sharrar's function in Schaus's style of play is to make the fast break possible by controlling the boards. He handles the assignment superbly, helped by his long-muscled, 6-foot 10-inch frame, of course, but even more by a blazing intensity of will which is especially apparent in his fine defensive work. This season he has subordinated his scoring in a balanced team effort but has led the Mountaineers to well over 200 more rebounds than their opponents. His rebounding was the chief ingredient in West Virginia's consecutive-night victories over Kentucky and North Carolina last month, which earned them the No. 1 ranking.

Elsewhere, the team is also sound: at the guards, Don Vincent, Joedy Gardner and Ronnie Retton move and handle the ball well, seldom make a bad pass. Up front, Jerry West stands out as shooter and on defense, but Bob Smith and Willie Akers are nearly as effective.

Though it is inconceivable that West Virginia will lose a conference game the rest of this season, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, at least, reserves concurrence that this is the best in the nation until Schaus's men meet Duke (Jan. 27) and St. John's (Feb. 6). Even these two do not constitute the kind of test a West Virginia team has never passed—an NCAA tournament. The Mountaineers, sad to say, have yet to win their first NCAA game.

PHOTOTYPICAL SHARRAR play shows him (center) completing defensive rebound against Pitt and passing out to start fast break.