Adolph F. Rupp has a scowl that could freeze a basketball player in midair. It is a truly magnificent expression, etched by crags and seams that have been carefully developed in more than 37 seasons as head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats. The face's main features are a forehead that has more furrows than any Fayette County farm and an upside-down U of a mouth that is accentuated by two deep creases that run from the corners down to under his chin. Last season was the worst of his career (13 wins, 13 losses) and his grimace and growl worked overtime. This season things are back to normal—that is to say, he is as cantankerous as ever, but his team is winning again.
Through last weekend Kentucky had a 17-4 record and was leading the Southeastern Conference. There was a time when that kind of record for Kentucky was hardly one of those things you shot off rockets about. Down among the bayous, everglades and peach trees, football was the religion and people like Bear Bryant and Bobby Dodd were the prophets. Today that has changed and, while the SEC is still one of the best football conferences, it also just might be the best basketball conference.
LSU's Pete Maravich, only a sophomore, is the leading scorer in the country. Florida's Neal Walk, a 6'10" junior, may be—next to Houston's Elvin Hayes—the nation's best combination scorer-rebounder. A college marketing professor in Dayton has figured out that Mississippi, Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee have played the five toughest schedules in the U.S., and the latter four schools, plus Alabama and LSU, have lost a total of only six non-conference games.
"I think the balance in our league is the best it ever has been and as good as any in the country right now," said Florida Coach Tommy Bartlett. "For example, Vanderbilt has beaten clubs like North Carolina and Duke, which are one-two in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Davidson, which is No. 1 in the Southern. Still, Vanderbilt is only No. 4 in our league right now [that changed last Saturday when the Commodores beat defending champ Tennessee in Nashville].
February 26, 1968
"We are the only league in the country that has three teams [Kentucky, Tennessee and Vandy] in the Top Ten...and they have been there almost all season long. The only reason they ever drop in rating is that they are beaten by another SEC team."
The man most responsible for the SEC's improvement is the Baron of the Bluegrass himself, Rupp. His winning teams finally forced the other schools to improve. As Georgia Coach Ken Rosemond, who has brought winning basketball to a school that had 16 straight losing seasons before this one, points out, "Following Kentucky's lead, the part-time coaches who were physical ed instructors and assistant football coaches had to be replaced by basketball men, men like Rupp. New arenas then had to be built to finance the recruiting necessary to keep the pace, and then recruiting had to be emphasized to justify the big arenas."
But it took the SEC a long time to wake up. While it dozed between football seasons, Rupp built up a backlog of wins that helped him to become the most successful coach in basketball history. The game that put him ahead of his old coach at Kansas, Phog Allen, came against Mississippi, which had not beaten Rupp in 29 tries. It was Rupp's 772nd win. After the game the fans gave a standing ovation to the Baron, who fancies himself, no doubt correctly, as the grand old man of basketball. He beamed, but Ol' Miss should expect no mercy the next time they meet. He scowled at that win, too.
Of course, Rupp is not making any baskets himself. He has very good talent to manipulate and glower at, most notably a bowlegged farmboy named Mike Casey, a 6'4" sophomore from Simpsonville, Ky. who was basketball's Mr. Kentucky, or Kentucky's Mr. Basketball, or something like that.
Casey is not as dazzling as LSU's Maravich, but he has not fared too badly in their two confrontations. Kentucky won both games with ease. In the first, Maravich scored 52 points, the most ever made by an individual against a Rupp-coached team, but he was rat-a-tat-tat-ing like a machine gun (51 shots). Casey took only 22 shots and made 13 for 31 points. In the second game, Maravich scored 44 to Casey's 29, but Maravich played almost twice as much and took 15 more shots and Casey had a bad case of flu.
"I told him I didn't want him to play," said Rupp, "but he's a tenacious kid. He's just got to win."
Casey is a sophomore, however, and sophomores make atrocious errors, as the Baron has proclaimed many times. Casey has made far fewer mistakes than his share, but one at Auburn could eventually cost the Wildcats the SEC title. With Kentucky ahead by one point and with 36 seconds left, he fouled an Auburn player under the Wildcat basket—a completely unnecessary foul—and Auburn won on the two free throws. Even though Auburn's Quonset-hut gym is the last snakepit in the league, Kentucky should not have lost there.
Two other sophomores are starting for Rupp and both are outstanding. Dan Issel is 6'8" and agile, and about the only bad thing you can say about him is that when Kentucky first made contact with him at his home in Bata-via, Ill. he had never heard of Adolph Rupp. He was not Mr. Illinois, but he was close to it, and he certainly is familiar now with Adolph Rupp.
Mike Pratt a 6'4" forward, is as strong or stronger than Kentucky's muscleman All-America of last season, Pat Riley. He cannot shoot like Casey or rebound like Issel, but he can do a fair amount of both. As good as he is, he might not ever make All-SEC because the conference is loaded with other talented sophomores. Besides Maravich, Casey and Issel, Georgia is being led by 6'11" Bob Lienhard, who comes from the Bronx, and Guard Jerry Epling, from West Virginia. Tennessee has 6'10" Bobby Croft, from the Canadian National Team, and Vanderbilt has leaping Perry Wallace, the first Negro to play basketball in the conference.
This league of youth has been mixed up all season but Rupp's youngsters found themselves last week in position to take over the lead. They met Tennessee at Lexington on Monday night and, before a standing-room-only crowd, beat the Volunteers, 60-59, on Casey's bank shot and Issel's layup.
By the end of that night it looked as if the SEC would end in a three-or four-way tie, but Saturday's games went a long way toward helping Kentucky finish alone. Tennessee played at Vanderbilt, its fourth road game in a row, and it became the Vols' third straight loss. They had won 33 straight at home in Knoxville, but they obviously do not like living out of suitcases. Vanderbilt has a wonderfully dexterous team that features two Kentuckians and, though it had stumbled since beating North Carolina, Duke and Davidson in one smashing week, it is still in the SEC running. It shot beautifully against Tennessee to win rather easily, 75-63.
Dejected Tennessee Coach Ray Mears was asked last Saturday afternoon about the possibility of a four-way tie.
"I wouldn't bet on it," he said. "It could come down to two, but probably only one."
That night in Lexington, the one team looked like Kentucky. The Wildcats were somewhat flat against sharpshooting Mississippi State but in the last 10 minutes they went to work and chewed the Bulldogs to pieces, 107-81. Issel was tough on the boards and scored 22 points. His fraternity brother, Casey, was even better, scoring 30 points and making one of the guttiest plays of the night.
He ran down the court on a one-on-one fast break, shot and missed. By this time another Mississippi State man had arrived but Casey outfought them both for the rebound, twisted between them, shot again and missed. And once again he grabbed the rebound and finally made the basket. Spectators got the impression that Casey would have scored the basket if he had had to shoot all night.
The little battle happened only about 10 feet from where Baron Adolph was sitting, and the smile on his face actually looked like a smile. He did not, however seem too overjoyed. He knew he still had to play Georgia on the road and Vanderbilt at home in his last regular-season game. That's enough to put a scowl on St. Francis' face, let alone the Baron's.