In Iowa the annual high school girls' basketball tournament has twice the excitement of the boys' tournament. The young ladies are not only popular—the Des Moines Register and Tribune's peach-colored sports section treats their playoffs like the World Series—but good, and it must be tough for a fellow to grow up in a state where his sister is considered a better pivot man than he is. In one recent year, Iowa Coach Ralph Miller complains, when the city of Chicago had 57 high school players (male) over 6'6" the entire state of Iowa had only one.
So the Hawkeye State, a fertile place for alfalfa and hogs, seems to lack the raw material necessary for a successful college-basketball program. Yet, as listeners to KOKX in Keokuk, WMT in Cedar Rapids, KXIC-FM in Iowa City and a peck of other stations can testify, the University of Iowa has a mighty good chance to hold off Ohio State and win its first Big Ten championship in 12 years. At the end of last week Ohio State had a 9-4 record and still had to visit tough Illinois. Iowa was 9-3, with two games left against, perhaps, the two weakest teams in the league, Minnesota and Michigan.
The Hawkeyes were all alone at the top last week, and the reason, aside from that upsetting pressure defense Miller has been teaching for years, was the good play of two sophomores from Pennsylvania (where girls' basketball isn't such hot stuff) and a slippery senior from Detroit named Sam Williams. In Iowa's 61-56 victory over Illinois Saturday night it was Williams, playing despite an upset stomach, who made the difference. He certainly looked sick in the first half, missing all six of his field-goal attempts. But in the second half he hit five straight shots before tiring, took a short breather on the bench and came back in to shoot Iowa from a 54-53 lead to a 59-53 lead. He finished with 18 points. It was the same story at the Los Angeles Classic during the Christmas holidays: the Hawkeyes were tangled in three overtimes in three games, and each time Sam kept them in contention.
Williams is yet another product of Burlington Junior College in Iowa, where such other Detroit players as Bobby Joe Hill (Texas Western) and Mel Daniels (New Mexico) have made stopovers. But before Williams went to Burlington, as Miller puts it, "he spent a year in the deepfreeze," working in a meatpacking plant, until he decided there must be something better and warmer outside.
There was indeed. After starring at Burlington for two years, Williams moved a few miles northwest to Iowa City and last season placed third in Big Ten scoring with a 25.2 average. He just loves to drive across the key from either corner and wiggle-worm his way to the hoop, or pop into the air from one of the forward spots and toss in a jumper. When he decides to concentrate on his defense he does a good job, and he's not a bad rebounder, either. At Detroit's Northern High, he was the second-best high jumper in Michigan. Sam may be the best 6'3" forward in college basketball. He has been chosen for the Olympic trials, an honor that has turned some heads—but not his. Most of the players sell their game tickets for $5 or more apiece. Sam gives his away to friends.
Even with Williams, Iowa probably would not be leading the league without its Pennsylvania pair, Glenn Vidnovic, who is 6'5" and no huskier than a cornstalk, and 6'1" Guard Chad Calabria. "Stick" Vidnovic was scholastically ineligible the first semester. He managed to improve his grades if not his weight and has been valuable in a starting role the last couple of weeks. Calabria has been even more valuable. His two free throws with 26 seconds left sewed up the Illinois game Saturday, after the Illini had closed the gap to three with 45 seconds to go. Earlier in the week, against Michigan State, he scored 25 points, including 13 of his team's first 16. Chad (it is not short for Chadwick or Chadbourne or anything else, he insists) had started only a few times when Iowa lost by 13 points to Purdue. Then Miller put him and Vidnovic into the starting lineup against Indiana February 24, and the combination has gone well ever since. Chad has joined Williams as one of the darlings of the vast Iowa radio network that even reaches those little old ladies from Dubuque.
Ralph Miller is an old hand at mining Pennsylvania talent. He estimates that in the last 16 years, at Wichita State and Iowa, he has had 14 or 15 players from McKeesport, Pa. alone. One of his assistants, Lanny Van Eman, comes from there and recruits heavily in the whole Pittsburgh area. Miller is also one of the nation's most explosive bench jockeys. Early in the second half Saturday night Sam Williams scored on one of his typical twisting layups, and Miller leaped up off the bench to yell because no foul was called. The referee quickly hit him with a technical. Ralph was calmer, if not completely happy, after the game. "We have a bunch of guys working to win a championship and, though we didn't play particularly well, we came out on top," he said. "The big point, though, is that we won and still have a slight cushion."
The cushion was slight because, back in Columbus, determined Ohio State was routing Indiana 107-93 as its muscular front line of Bill Hosket, Dave Sorenson and Steve Howell combined for 73 points. Hoosier Coach Lou Watson was much impressed. "Ohio State has the strongest ball club in our league," he said. "We played probably our two best games of the year against Ohio and lost both. I honestly think they'd represent our league best in the NCAA"—which will be small consolation for Ohio State if Iowa keeps on winning. Ohio State Coach Fred Taylor was not optimistic about his team's tournament possibilities. "Sure, we've got a good chance to beat Illinois," he said, "but somebody still has to beat Iowa to let us get a tie."
The way the Big Ten has been going, that could easily happen. Although Purdue and defending co-champ Indiana were the preseason favorites, a typical, well-balanced Big Ten gang fight followed. Purdue was tied with Iowa at the start of last week but, while the Hawkeyes stayed at home to play, the Boilermakers had to go on the road. The first stop was Michigan's new arena, and they were beaten 104-94 ("Nice of'em," said Ralph Miller when he heard what the Wolverines had done). Then, Saturday night, Wisconsin took Purdue apart in Madison 104-84, holding high-scoring sophomore Rick Mount to two field goals and 10 points.
"There's strength in the Big Ten from top to bottom," said Miller. "You're never at a point where you can feel you have a sausage coming. We can't afford to lose any of our games, because it would be nice not to have a playoff. It would be much better for our winner to have a couple of days rest before the NCAA." He's told that, too, to Sam, Stick and Chad.