Jacksonville University's Dolphins, the highest-scoring, sharpest-shooting and showboatingest college basketball team in the country, flew into Texas late last week to play Houston and, for a little R and R, Coach Tom Wasdin figured he'd take his two 7-footers and their teammates on a tour of the Astrodome. They could watch the scoreboard do its thang or daydream about returning late in March, when the Dome will host the NCAA championships. But there was a rodeo and a Johnny Cash concert going on that day, and Wasdin had to cancel the visit.
"Maybe we'll get to see it later in the year," he said, with a small smile.
Actually, if basketball must be played in the heart of the Astrodome acreage, the Dolphins are just the sort of team to make it almost logical. They could show off their 7'2" (not including three inches of Afro) goal-rejecter (and goaltender) Artis Gilmore, who led them to the championship game last season, in which they lost to UCLA. They could exhibit the sport's finest fly pattern, wherein little Harold Fox zips upcourt the instant an opponent shoots, Gilmore or 7' Pembrook Burrows III pulls down the rebound, whirls and fires a length-of-the-court pass and Fox catches it going full speed and lays it in (most of the time). It makes the normal fast break look like a square dance at Leisure World.
Alas, it appears such spectacles might be denied us. The game last weekend, which was televised nationally, was held in Hofheinz Pavilion, where the Houston Cougars had won all the 27 games they had played. Not only that, they had lost only three home games in seven seasons. Sure enough, Jacksonville, unhappy with the referees, upset at the crowd and badly outrebounded, was beaten 83-82.
Houston's victory gave it a record of 20 and 5 and pretty much assured its eighth NCAA or NIT tournament bid in 11 years. The Dolphins (who are 21-3) had their win streak ended at 15 and, although they will fill an at-large berth in the NCAAs, there is a serious question now whether they are good enough to get through the Mideast Regional.
Then again, enduring the terrific din and the loss at Houston may have been the best experience to prepare Jacksonville for another run at the title. The Dolphins had things completely their own way after a one-point loss to Wake Forest in December. JU won those 15 straight by an average margin of 26 points. Of course, the opposition included such powerhouses as Mercer, Valdosta State and South Alabama, but there were at least three victories to be proud of—over Florida State (twice) and Bradley, which, either for comic effect or out of exasperation, had its 5'4" guard jump center against Gilmore.
Along the way JU also strengthened its image as a team of hot dogs. Substitute Wing Chip Dublin led a Harlem Globetrotters-type warmup drill before each game. Fans of little-used sub Phil Carter sat in a special section called Carter's Corner and went bughouse when he entered games in the waning minutes. The game against Manhattan was such a rout that at one point Gilmore played defense by himself while his teammates stood at the other end of the court. According to Wasdin, it took Manhattan four shots and a full minute to score.
The year's highlight was consecutive victory No. 15. which came before the Houston trip. It was a home-court farewell celebration for six seniors, with East Carolina serving as the refreshments. Three or four years ago a Dolphin home game drew about as many people as a Tupperware party, but on this night the Jacksonville Coliseum was packed with 10,000 fans. Outside, scalpers were getting as much as $15 a ticket; a few suckers even bought unused tickets from previous games and were turned away at the door. The Dolphins beat East Carolina 127-69 and Gilmore had 25 points, 28 rebounds, 13 blocked shots (and was called for goaltending several times).
"Take this team and put it on a neutral floor and it could probably beat at least three teams in the ABA," said losing Coach Tom Quinn. "I don't know of any college team around that could beat them, and I've seen UCLA, Notre Dame and the best in the Atlantic Coast Conference."
JU's seniors received standing ovations, moving Quinn to mutter, "They gave everybody one but the director of admissions." Which brings up the subject of JU's academic status. Leave us say it's not quite the Harvard of the South.
Some people in Jacksonville claim Gilmore has improved his game by 30% over last year when he was embarrassed by UCLA's Sidney Wicks in the NCAA finals. Wicks, giving away six inches, blocked four of Gilmore's shots and intimidated the intimidator. That's when the Dolphin coaching staff decided they had to make Gilmore just as effective on offense as he was on defense. The answer was the "Wicks stick," an old field-hockey stick wielded in practice by Assistant Coach Jim Watson. Gilmore had to shoot over it, getting a taste of what it was like to be one of the mere mortals who play against him.
Gilmore also worked hard on his game all summer in Jacksonville, and he had plenty of opposition. Wasdin says he saw a three-on-three pickup game in which five of the six players were 7-footers (the sixth was 6'10"), all of them enrolled at JU or considering it. One of the 7-footers was freshman Dave Brent, who has run the 220 in 22.1. One can't quite say he'll step into Gilmore's size 17s next season; Brent wears 15s.
"Right now, Gilmore is still three years away from his potential," says Watson. "He'll be a dominating factor on defense his first year in the pros, and if he continues to work as hard up there as he has for the past year he'll become a top scorer, too. The biggest thing, of course, is that he's learned to take the ball to the basket and take advantage of his size to get it in. Where he was going up and away from the basket, he's now using his strength to make the power moves inside. Then, too, he's not being forced to score as much—like at William & Mary, where Artis got only two points but played one of his better games. He completely dominated the game defensively with 13 blocked shots and 20 or so rebounds, and the team scored 100 points."
The week leading up to the Houston game was a painful one for Jacksonville—mostly in the ankles. In the East Carolina win, reserve Greg Nelson leaped high for a lob pass, landed on somebody's foot and tore ligaments in an ankle. Later in the week Vaughn Wedeking, JU's best ball handler and outside shooter, twisted his ankle playing one-on-one with teammate Mike Blevins, who already had a twisted ankle. The same day an assistant manager turned an ankle. Neither Wedeking nor Nelson made the trip. The manager had to suit up so JU could scrimmage Friday.
Wasdin thought the Dolphins could win without Wedeking, even though Oklahoma City Coach Abe Lemons had told him he might as well chalk up a loss even before he got on the plane for Houston. One reason Wasdin was confident was that the teams had agreed there would be a "split crew"—one ref from the Missouri Valley Conference, which normally works Houston games, and one from the Southeastern, which services JU. About 20 minutes before tip-off Wasdin learned both refs were from the Missouri Valley, and both were Texans.
As it turned out, JU didn't get homered. The refs worked a fairly good game, especially in the first half. Poor defense, poor rebounding and Wedeking's absence had much more to do with the loss than the whistles.
Houston, certainly, had plenty of size and talent of its own, including 6'7" Dwight Davis, the leading scorer and shot blocker, and Guard Poo Welch. (TCU has a player named Goo Kennedy. All-Star pickers in the Southwest have got to put Poo and Goo on the area team.) In addition, the Cougars had Coach Guy Lewis' zone defense, a "one-Artis-one." Wasdin countered with a box-and-four, Gilmore being the box all by himself.
Early in the game Burrows and Fox worked a couple of their fly patterns, but the Dolphins were pathetic on defense, giving up uncontested close-range jump shots. Houston's 6'7" Steve New-some took the most advantage, getting 20 points in the half, which surpassed his previous game high. Still JU, helped by Gilmore's cowing presence on defense and Fox's offense, built up a nine-point lead, and when Dwight Davis got his fourth foul Houston had to abandon its full-court press.
JU led at the half 45-40 and seemed in good shape; it had been outrebounded 28-17 and still was ahead. Morever, Newsome had three fouls, and Fox had held Welch to four points.
Shortly before the second half started, Wasdin came over to the press table. "You know what happened?" he said in a strangled voice. "Some fan tripped Fox when he was coming out and he sprained his ankle." (After the game, Fox said a spectator kicked him in the left ankle and then ran into the stands. Another version had Fox tripping over his own feet.) Wasdin went over to Guy Lewis to complain. "Tom," said Lewis, "I didn't put anybody over there to trip him."
Fox started the second half and was as quick on the fast break as ever, but Wasdin claimed the sore ankle hampered his lateral movement on defense. Whatever, Welch, Fox's man, scored 16 of his 20 points in the second half.
Houston quickly assumed the lead, and although JU regained it and went ahead by five at one point, Houston got back on top for good with just over four minutes to play. Most of this time Wasdin was complaining about the pennies that were being thrown on the floor, trying to get the referee to call a technical on the home team. When he picked up a coin and threw it off the court, which was also in the general direction of Referee Bobby Scott, Scott hit him with a tech. "Another thing Lemons told me," said Wasdin, "was to expect a technical if the game was close."
On the way back to his motel, Wasdin spoke of "the good crowd enthusiasm," as he called it. "Every time I stood up," he said, "I got hit with something. I hope both of us keep winning and we play again under a little more favorable circumstances." (Like next season, in Jacksonville, with the president and vice-president of the booster club making the calls.)
Wasdin might have felt a little better if he had heard Guy Lewis' postgame prediction: "I think Jacksonville has a good chance to be in the Astrodome in March. It wouldn't surprise me a bit if it was South Carolina, Jacksonville, Kansas and UCLA."
That ol' Guy Lewis sure is a good winner.