In past winters one of the more exciting things to do in Lafayette, Ind. was to go out to Purdue Airport and watch the airplanes land and take off, especially the psychedelic ones from Lake Central Airlines with the cherry-red tail and the chubby white heart in the middle. Purdue basketball wasn't nearly as stimulating. In an area where fine high school teams are plentiful, Purdue hadn't produced a championship team since 1940. It hasn't yet, but 1968 should be the year. The chief reason is Rick Mount, the most publicized high school player of the decade in the Midwest. Mount chose Purdue over the more exotic settings of Miami and UCLA in order to be near home, and since he had little adjustment to make and no morale problem, he moved into campus life with all the poise of a Hoosier at a husking bee. He frequently goes home—39 miles east along U.S. 52, past acres of farmland, decaying rust-colored barns, and a sign that proudly proclaims Lebanon, Ind. as the home of Rick Mount—Mr. Basketball 1966. When he gels to Lebanon he goes to the same barber he has always used to care for the little curl he wears on his forehead (page 34). But college has had some effect. Gone are the tight white Levi's and white socks. Rick now leans toward neatly creased slacks, dark socks and tassled loafers. That is about all that has changed in the well-ordered life of Rick Mount. He still possesses one of the finest jump shots ever seen. He still has immense court presence and a lot of slick moves underneath. And he is still slow. When Purdue fast breaks, Mount trails the trailer. One of Rick's moves underneath cost him four weeks of team practice when he fractured a metatarsal bone in his foot in an off-balance attempt at a layup in late October. The foot was put in a cast for five days, and for the next three weeks, with the aid of a steel plate in his shoe, Rick was able to practice shooting. The fact that he is chiefly valuable as a point-getter is no drawback on this team. Purdue could not win a title with high-scoring Dave Schellhase nor with all-round star Terry Dischinger. This year Coach George King has a real supporting cast.
There are two outstanding forwards: 6'3" Herman (Reb) Gilliam and 6'6" Roger Blalock. Gilliam, the son of a Methodist minister from Winston-Salem, N.C., led last year's Boilermakers in scoring and rebounding and was their best defensive player. Blalock and Gilliam make the Purdue fast break work. Both can get the defensive rebound, and each can take the ball upcourt himself. Bill Keller (Indiana's Mr. Basketball in 1965) is the backcourt man who directs King's freelance offense. The fifth starting spot is the only problem. Unless 7' sophomore Chuck Bavis wakes up one morning to find that he has overcome the usual handicap of the big man by becoming well-coordinated, Purdue will probably go with 6'6" Ted Reasoner at the post. Bavis is a nicely built 235 pounds and remarkably handsome, with deep-blue eyes. He could be the tallest leading man in Hollywood history—but he still has a lot to learn about basketball. And, unfortunately, his first taste of varsity play will come against Lew Alcindor this Saturday, when Purdue dedicates its new 14,123-seat field house. This circular, red-brick arena has everything from sauna baths in the coaches' lounge to dressing rooms for pompon girls. It is now called, simply, Purdue Arena, but the rumor is that if things go according to plan it will be renamed Mount's Mound at the end of the season. At least the people of Lebanon think so. They bought 10% of all season tickets that went on sale to the general public.
Two Big Ten teams usually dangerous if only because of their coaching—Iowa and Michigan State—have the miseries this year. With Ralph Miller's "pressure basketball," Iowa has started fast the past three seasons but slowed down considerably at the finish. Miller has high scorer Sam Williams back and a few promising sophomores, but he has no height. John Benington is in worse shape at Michigan State. He has three regulars returning but little help from the freshman team. The dark horse is Northwestern, which has a talented bunch of newcomers.
But more than likely, Indiana University will make the Big Ten race an all-Indiana happening. Last season the Hoosiers and Michigan State shared the crown; the nucleus of that Indiana squad is back and Coach Lou Watson says flatly, "This year's team will be much better." Sophomores Joe Cooke and Ken Johnson can score and rebound, and both should move into the starting lineup. Rugged Bill DeHeer (6'9", 240) is back at center, and veterans Butch Joyner, Vernon Payne and Earl Schneider round out a strong top six. In reserve will be letter-men Rich Schrumpf (6'9") and Bill Stenberg (6'7"), as well as Mike Noland and Rick Atkinson. Either Noland or Atkinson could make the starting five, thus freeing Cooke for swing assignments at guard or forward. Two other players from last year's strong freshman team who will add depth are Mike Niles and football Halfback John Isenbarger. If Lou Watson is wrong, the people of Bloomington can try plane watching. Lake Central flies into their airport, too.