New Mexico's new $1.4 million basketball arena has 14,831 unobstructed-view seats, a springy beechwood floor, excellent lighting and—best of all for Coach Bob King—not one pane of glass between the court and the dressing rooms. Thus, 6-9 Center Mel Daniels probably will make it safely through the Western Athletic Conference race this time, and New Mexico should make the NCAAs. Midway through last season, at half time of the first Utah game, Mel followed his teammates off the floor of the old gym and through a doorway. He pushed against a windowpane in the door, the glass shattered, and the resulting deep wounds in his arm, shoulder, forehead and shooting hand required as many stitches as a bushel of baseballs. He returned, half crippled, for most of the remaining games, but the Lobos, who were 11-2 when he was hurt, ended up 16-8. This fall Daniels is fully healed, and it is obvious in New Mexico's defensive drills. Assistant Coach Harv Schmidt watches carefully, and when anyone dares to approach good shooting territory he yells, "No one comes to the hoop now, Melvin. No one!" Whereupon Daniels leaves his own man, flies through the air with scarred arm raised and spikes the intruder's shot into the floor like a volleyball player. He can pile up points, too—17 per game as a sophomore, 21 last season, when he was the team's top scorer in 16 games.
The Lobos must have Daniels in one piece to be a national contender and to cope with their regular schedule, which includes two games apiece with strong WAC rivals Utah and Brigham Young and a cactus-country classic December 16 at Texas Western. They also must have depth and quickness—and they do. Daniels' slickest ally is 6-3, 220-pound senior Ben Monroe, who moves like a jackrabbit and would go through a brick wall, or even a windowpane, to get a loose ball. He was second in scoring and rebounding to Mel last season and can handle forwards or backcourt men. The shocking thing about Ben is that he is from within the state (Carlsbad). Usually, any Brooklyn playground produces more prospects than all of New Mexico. Which brings up Frank Judge, who went to Boys High of Brooklyn (alma mater of Sihugo Green, Connie Hawkins and Len Wilkens) but never played there, making his name in playground ball and at Cameron (Okla.) Junior College. "King got the man he needed in Judge," says Texas Western Coach Don Haskins. "This guy is like a cat. He's the slickest man you'll ever see on a floor." In practice, Judge scores almost at will with his left-handed jump shot. Illinois import Don Hoover, an experienced senior, will set up the deliberate offense, and 6-7 Bill Morgan, from Canton, Ohio (13 points a game last season), is back to help Daniels challenge any wrong-colored jerseys near the hoop. The fans in Albuquerque, who used to beg the Lobos to fire away, now understand Coach King's emphasis on defense, and the university should have little trouble filling those unobstructed seats.
The league competition is dangerous, however. In Provo, Utah, where the snowy Wasatch Mountains hover over the modern Brigham Young campus, some of the lanky Cougars practically reach the snow line themselves. BYU has 6-11 Center Craig Raymond, two 6-11 juniors, 6-8 and 6-9 sophomores and three other players 6-7. Raymond is agile and experienced, but most of the others need work, as Coach Stan Watts readily admits. He also admits to some small consolations, such as 6-5 Forward Neil Roberts (11 points per game), who tore a kneecap off before the NIT last year but is again a "terrific fast-break man"; 6-4 Guard-Forward Gary Hill, a starter as a sophomore but a bad-knee victim last season; and a fine passel of newcomers, including 6-7 Kari Liimo from Finland's Olympic team and 6-5 Marty Lythgoe, a good jump shooter. If the lame and the halt recover soon enough, the defending NIT champs should make their fans forget departed Guards Dick Nemelka and Jeff Congdon.
Nobody is crying for The Fox, Coach Jack Gardner of Utah, whose surprise team finished fourth in the nation after winning the WAC championship and the Far West Regionals. Top scorers Jerry Chambers and George Fisher are gone, but the Redskins have a fine guard in Merv Jackson, only a junior, who did very well in the NCAA finals. Jackson is 6-2 and skinny, but he can shoot and he can jump. Gardner recruited two hot-shots from California's phenomenal junior college crop, 6-2 Guard Walt Simon and 6-8 Center DeWitt Menyard. They must learn his system quickly if Utah is to have a chance at another title. The thought of a healthy Mel Daniels at New Mexico should make them work at it.
RECORD VS. NONCONFERENCE TEAMS