We can beat anybody in the country on our home court," said Mississippi State Coach James (Babe) McCarthy last week after his Maroons had impressively defeated the nation's No. 1 team, Kentucky, 66-58. McCarthy was feeling his oats, no doubt, but you can hardly blame him when you consider that this clear-cut victory brought State's string to 31 in a row at home. And he could also be forgiven for noting that State's basketball fortunes have undergone quite a change in the few years he has been there.
For more than two decades after the Southeastern Conference was formed in 1932, the folks who run the athletic program down on the quiet oak-strewn campus at Starkville, Mississippi looked on basketball as pretty much of a nothing sport, a wearisome interlude between football and baseball.
Then into the Mississippi State basketball coaching chair in 1955 came the handsome, outgoing McCarthy, a 31-year-old oil salesman of talent who was a graduate of the school some years back. McCarthy seemed the perfect choice to keep up the awful basketball tradition. He had neither coached nor played college ball in his life, although he had played some fine intramural pivot for Sigma Phi in his undergraduate days. His last coaching job, which he abandoned for a future in oil, was at a junior high school in nearby Tupelo. He was a nice guy, a soft-salesman, moving into a position that offered, if little else, an enormous opportunity.
But McCarthy was an eager student of basketball, a fundamentalist. He had a way with parents and a sure eye for talent, too, and in Mississippi and southwestern Tennessee, where some of the hamlet high schools play upwards of 50 games a season, there were plenty of prospects. He recruited and, as Faulkner would say, he endured, and this year State has its first all-McCarthy team, the top seven members of which were discovered within 160 miles of the campus.
February 23, 1959
THE SCHEDULE HELPS
This is a good team; by Starkville standards it's perfect. Some measure of its success, inescapably, is a result of the unwieldiness of the 12-team Southeastern Conference. This year, because of the unavoidable SEC practice of rotating schedules, Mississippi State has a light load and a dearly important home-court advantage. For instance, each of the strong teams of the league's northeast division—Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech—has played Mississippi State only once this year, all at Starkville.
Credit McCarthy, too. He is employing the passé, but unsettling, techniques of ball control and zone defense. "Everybody curses the zone," McCarthy says, "but they're no damn good against it. We won't let them get a close-in shot. As for me, I don't much like the zone myself, but I'll use it, just so long as it wins ball games for us."
But the real hero at State is a bashful, All-America center named Bailey Howell, who is the best thing that has happened to basketball at Starkville since someone hung up the first hoop in 1906.
Howell is a 6-foot 7-inch, fresh-faced boy with blue eyes, a precise brush-cut and a good sweep of teeth. He is in his senior year now and, although he claims his enjoyment of basketball has diminished as the pressure increased through the years, he still appears to enjoy the game fully. While roaming a wide pivot area, rudely bumped and buffeted by one or two opponents, an abstracted smile of concentration arches his eyebrows and he seems to be humming. Back and forth he goes, leaning, spiking with his elbows. Then suddenly the ball will be fed him by one of the white-and-maroon-shirted guards, Jerry Keeton, who is his roommate, or the adroit dribbler, Ted Usher. Howell pirouettes, the ball hung high over his head, now urgently looking for one of these men to pound past him or for one of the forwards, Jerry Graves or Charlie Hull, to break across from their spots in the corners. Or perhaps there will be no cutting at all and Howell will choose to go in for himself. With bouncy fakes, full and swift, he gains a half step and a shoulder on the defense, bangs through and springs above the tangle of arms for a crip shot from the very peak of his astonishingly upstretched body. And then, if he misses, or if any of his teammates miss, it's the rebound and struggle for position. Tirelessly, Howell is in on nearly every Maroon play. And he has been for three seasons.
In his tiny home town of Middle-ton, Tennessee, where his father is a rural mail carrier, Howell didn't find much to do aside from fool around with a basketball, and in his senior year of high school he set a state record of 1,187 points in 38 games. This wasn't enough to carry Middleton into a tournament, but it did bring the college scouts down in droves. They found the youngster had the makings of a great player: height, strength, good motions, good habits, big heart, big hands and a normal-sized hatband. They offered gold and clothes and car keys. One even offered a scholarship to his sister who, incidentally, was some basketball player herself.
"I wanted to go to a school where I'd get to play," Howell explained in his easy voice as he stretched out across his seven-foot bed after the Kentucky game. "I figured I could play at Mississippi State. Maybe somewhere else I'd sit on the bench and lose my scholarship. Here I get the regular, play or not: room, board, tuition, books and $15 a month for laundry. It's worked out fine. Coach McCarthy is a good guy," he said, then added, grinning, "He doesn't even run a bed check."
Howell has done very well at State, both with baskets and books. At the moment, despite the team's deliberate attack, he is averaging 28.6 points per game, which places him third in the nation. He already has been chosen twice as the Most Valuable Player in the SEC and should earn that honor again this season. As a physical education major, he has thirty As, seven Bs and six Cs on his record thus far.
When State played Kentucky, the largest crowd ever to attend a basketball game in Mississippi (more than 5,400) sat in the sultry heat of the Maroon fieldhouse and hammered ecstatically on cowbells and plow points as State played perhaps the best game of its history.
Right at the outset, McCarthy threw a change-of-pace at the national champs: the Wildcats, expecting to fight through a zone defense, ran into a gluey man-for-man defense. Furthermore, they found State was not attacking as it normally did.
Howell, to be sure, was roaming the post. But his forwards were drawn out near the centerline and cautiously milling with the guards. McCarthy wanted an early lead and his strategy was threefold: 1) give Howell acres of room, 2) pull from the baseline Kentucky's fine rebounder, John Cox, and 3) be ready to muffle a Wildcat fast-break. It worked. State led 9-4 after eight minutes and then went into its zone and regular attack. Kentucky, its poise crumbled, couldn't get rolling; State, rebounding powerfully, working scrupulously for the crip shots, playing the zone beautifully, never lost the lead. It was swollen to 18 points when Howell fouled out with four minutes left. Howell was perfection that night, picking off 17 rebounds, only five fewer than all the Wildcats, and scoring 27 points.
THAT UNWRITTEN LAW
Five nights later, State took to the road and easily whipped Florida 115-67, Howell scoring 43 points. They are clearly favored to share the SEC title with Auburn and are sure to win more games than any other team in the school's history. Auburn is waiting out an NCAA probation penalty and will not be eligible to participate in the NCAA championship tournament in Louisville, so that Mississippi State is the likely candidate to represent the SEC.
To the despair of McCarthy and his entire team, however, they may be forced to pass up the honor and the opportunity. An unwritten law in segregationist Mississippi prohibits white athletes from competing with Negroes. Until the official NCAA tournament bid is received, no one in authority in Mississippi will speak out on the subject. But a strong statewide rumor has it that, if his team is refused permission to play in the tournament, Babe McCarthy will resign. And on the campus at Starkville students are saying, "If they don't let us play, we'll march on the Capitol."
Says Bailey Howell, perhaps most responsible for the dilemma, "Sure, I'd go. I don't care who I play against."