Keep still," mean Tom Chaney told 14-year-old Mattie Ross after being abandoned by his wicked gangmates, Lucky Ned Pepper and the Original Greaser Bob, in Charles Portis' tale, True Grit. "I must now think over my position and how I may improve it." Moments later Mattie replied by blowing Tom Chaney's head off, and he eventually tumbled into a pit of skeletons and snakes.
That, to hear some people tell it last week, was a fairly accurate description of the way things were going in the Missouri Valley Conference. After a season-long series of surprising ambushes, sicknesses, suspensions and racial turmoil, the proud Valley that used to send all those favored teams with Oscar Robertsons and Chet Walkers and Dave Stallworths into the NCAA and NIT tournaments was desperately trying to vindicate its reputation.
On Saturday night, in two Valley hot-spots, the cream finally rose to the top. Home-standing Louisville blew a 13-point lead late in the second half before holding on to defeat Cincinnati 72-68, as unsung local boys Jerry King and Dennis Deeken combined for 43 points. An hour later at Tulsa, Drake won its sixth straight league game by upsetting the Hurricane 87-78. With Gary Zeller opening up the defense and Willie McCarter scoring in the clutch, Drake's Bulldogs pulled away late in the game for a victory that tied Tulsa for second place. Both teams are now 10-3, one game behind Louisville with three to go. "Maybe after tonight we'll get some recognition outside of our own part of the country," said Drake Coach Maurice John. "This team is tired of not being taken seriously."
The fratricide that has characterized Valley play all year accounts in part for such neglect, despite the fact that the top four teams in the conference have a 32-5 record against outside opponents. "I'm relatively new to this conference, but you can't convince me it's a down year," says Ken Hayes, the dark-visaged first-year coach at Tulsa. "Memphis has lost 14 straight, and we needed a tip-in to beat them at the gun. North Texas has blown Cincinnati and Drake out of the gym. Wichita beat Cincy twice and lost to Louisville only on a gift. St. Louis stayed with Louisville through two overtimes. All this is balance, not a sign of weakness."
Unfortunately for Hayes's argument, the conference as a whole has a relatively poor (57-28) record against outsiders, and since 1966 MVC teams have won only one of 10 NCAA and NIT postseason tournament games. In that time no member has gone beyond the first round of the NIT. The fact is, the Missouri Valley no longer has ruling teams such as Cincinnati and Bradley once were, and the standings have been shaken with new, formerly hangdog teams in the ascendancy. Critics attribute this to an overall breakdown of talent more than to a shift in power, and the reasoning usually offered for the leveling process is twofold.
In the last five years every team except Drake has changed coaches. Ed Jucker left Cincinnati, Ralph Miller left Wichita, John Benington left St. Louis and Chuck Orsborn moved up to athletic director at Bradley. Along with their departures, the 1.6 rule, severely limiting recruitment of prospects without academic stature, hurt the Valley probably more than most other conferences. The 1969 senior class is the last one prior to the 1.6 rule. As a result of this, among the 25 best players in the league only four are true (nontransfer) juniors; just one of those, Jim Ard of Cincinnati, is in a class with past Valley stars. Moreover, of the full-time starters on the top five teams in the conference, not one is a sophomore.
There are some good freshmen coming up next year, namely Henry Bacon at Louisville and John Fraley at Cincinnati, but clearly the league will have to go for transfers—such as Tulsa's 6'11" Dana Lewis—to function smoothly in the future.
Such realities in the Valley have brought about vast changes. The best centers in the league are converted forwards. The best shooters are at North Texas State (a former doormat), and (mostly because people had forgotten about it) the sleeper team is Tulsa, whose one Valley co-championship is 14 years old.
Tulsa has not been a surprise to those who remember the 1967 Hurricane team that went to the NIT. Practically the same group was rolling along with an 11-4 record last season when Bobby Smith, the 6'5" scoring star, fractured a bone in his foot. Smith remained in the lineup but was ineffective for the rest of the season, while Tulsa lost its last eight games.
The trouble was compounded by the ugly feelings that simmered between Coach Joe Swank and Athletic Director Glenn Dobbs. Swank, an Indian-American, had a hard time communicating with his black players, and he resigned after the season. Hayes, who was Swank's assistant, is a nonsmoking, non-drinking deacon in the Evangelistic Temple Church. He restored morale, instituted a running game on offense, man-to-man play on defense and abolished Sunday practices. Smith, healthy again and the most consistent player in the league, says of Hayes, "The man keeps us loose. There are no more problems. He lets us run the way we'd been brought up to run."
With Smith scoring 25 points a game from the outside, and Rob Washington, a 6'6" rebounder, averaging 20 a game on the inside, Tulsa's forecourt is hard to match. Al Cueto, a Cuban whose family fled when Castro came to power, is a quick center, but he lacks strength and tends to foul often. Tulsa lost two early-season games on the road, but then quietly seized the conference lead and held it while going unbeaten through 10 games. The team has now lost three straight, however, and vitally needs resuscitation for the three road games remaining.
Tulsa's difficulties seem to be endemic. The season in the Valley has produced three grave trouble spots—at St. Louis, Memphis State and Cincinnati. The problems have been racial, often aggravated by bad relations with the local press. At St. Louis, Coach Buddy Brehmer has twice been sidelined because of hypertension and may lose his job. At Memphis State, young Moe Iba has received little cooperation, and two weeks ago he suspended his most valuable player, Rich Jones, and three others for the balance of the season.
And at Cincinnati, the best team in the league has been shattered by dissension for months. Coach Tay Baker, who was recently hanged in effigy on campus with the words TAY GO WAY, has been carrying on a running battle in the newspapers with Rick Roberson and out of the papers with Gordon Smith. "A boy can't assume all the problems of his people and still play," says Baker, whose team has been racked by internal strife before. The freshman star Fraley, and his coach John Bryant, a Negro, are also at odds, and Assistant Varsity Coach Ray Dieringer recently stepped in to assist Bryant on the bench. Baker indicated in the spring that Cincinnati might better be served by leaving the Valley to join the Mid-American Conference, but Tay may go away long before the Bearcats do.
Nothing has kept the league's other strong teams, Louisville and Drake, from matching their potential. At Louisville, Coach John Dromo is doing more with less than he had the past two years, having lost Westley Unseld. The remnants (Butch Beard, King and Deeken) of the defending championship team have joined with sore-kneed Mike Grosso, the league's best rebounder, to compile a 17-3 record. The Cardiac Cards have won seven of their games by a total of 15 points.
The brawl that ended Drake's 84-70 defeat at Louisville last month left little doubt that there was spirit remaining in the Valley. "Wait till we get you in Des Moines," the Bulldogs shouted just after police broke up the fight and restrained Coach John from pursuing a Freedom Hall heckler unaffectionately known as The Big Cigar.
Drake is led by Wingmen McCarter and Dolph Pulliam, and it is a veteran team with quickness and strength underneath. Forward Willie Wise missed the first Tulsa game because of an ankle injury, but he had 15 points and 11 rebounds and appeared to be robustly healthy in the victory Saturday. Drake has not lost since its humiliation at North Texas, after which John decided to go with his "quick" team (with 6'5" Al Williams replacing Garry Odom). The Bulldogs are playing the best basketball in the league, and they look like the champions. "Is it the whole ball of wax at Tulsa?" a Wichita reporter asked John after Drake had destroyed the Shockers 120-94 last Thursday night. "Not for us," he answered, "but it is for Tulsa. If they lose, they're finished. They haven't had pressure at home all year. We'll just wait and see."
The Bulldogs now have the edge. They get Cincinnati and Louisville at home and face weak St. Louis on the road. Louisville plays St. Louis at home and has to go to Bradley, no easy task, for the final game of the season. Tulsa, meanwhile, must win ail three of its road games (the tough one being at North Texas' "bowling alley" gym) to stand any chance.
Mean Tom Chaney may be no more. One should not, however, conclude that the Missouri Valley is peopled only by skeletons. There's a lot of life in those snakes.