In a season rife with oddity, it should surprise no one that the nation's best record (24-1) belongs to the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. No, not plain Maryland, but its country cousin just a shaky 30-minute commuter plane ride across Chesapeake Bay from Baltimore's Friendship Airport.
Recently UMES slipped into the rating scene with a 96-86 win over Howard University, its 20th straight and, at the time, the longest streak in the nation. The Hawks also lead the NCAA in scoring, averaging more than 100 points a game. But the achievement they yearn for most this year—participation in the NCAA tournament—may be denied them. "I'd like to believe we could get an at-large bid from the NCAA," says Coach John Bates, who resembles a paunchy Reggie Jackson, "but looking at it realistically, I don't think we will. I also think we belong in the Top 20."
The Hawks were ranked 20th one week, before they lost to Morgan State 72-70. Morgan's Marvin Webster, called the Human Eraser, lived up to his name, scoring 20 points, grabbing 21 rebounds and blocking six shots. UMES was indeed erased from the ratings. But Bates likes to point out that four ranked teams have lost at least five games. "The NCAA won't even watch us play," he says, "so how can it know how good we are? Since we've been granted university status what else is there to go on other than our record?"
Of that critical loss to Morgan, he adds, "I don't want to use this as an excuse, but we had spent 15 hours on a bus over the previous four days. We played in Durham Friday, in Greensboro Saturday and in D.C. on Monday."
Maryland-Eastern Shore, formerly Maryland State, enrolls a little more than a thousand students, 27% of them white. It is a branch school of the fifth-ranked Terps of College Park and a member of the three-year-old Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. The league as a whole competes at the university level although some members, Morgan State for example, remain in the college division. The Hawks actually have dual citizenship, being members of both the NCAA and the NAIA; in the latter, they finished runner-up to Guilford in last year's tournament, and posted a 26-5 record for the season.
"I figured we would have a good team this year since everybody is back," says Bates, "and I wanted to make sure we played in some national tournament at the end of the season. I didn't want to get to the river and find no water to drink."
The Hawks are thirsty, if for no other reason than the fact that all five starters are being closely watched by pro scouts. They range from 6'2" to 6'10" and average 13, 14, 16, 17 and 18 points a game, using basically a three-guard offense.
Talvin Skinner, a four-year starter, is the most highly regarded pro prospect, and he is surely the most spirited. But Skinner is not counting on the Hawks landing an NCAA tournament berth, either, firmly believing that they are being deliberately overlooked. He recalls sitting on the bench beside Marvin Webster when the U.S. team was host to the Russians in Baltimore. "Marvin kept asking me, 'Do you think we'll get in, man, do you think we'll get in?' " says Skinner. "Finally Coach Bob Cousy called for 'Marvin' but it was Marvin Barnes of Providence he wanted. We did not get to play."
Bates thinks any of his players could score 30 points on a given night, "but we're extremely team-oriented." Of his team's chances in the NCAAs he says, "A lot of people ask me how we would do against UCLA. How has everybody else done against UCLA during the past seven years? Let us play for second place like all the others do. A reporter once pointed out that we didn't even have a press box here. My answer was we didn't play in the press box."
The school has only itself to blame for one item that contributes to its "forgotten" image, as Bates describes it. Failure to mail its 1973-74 schedule promptly to the NCAA resulted in its being omitted from the Official Collegiate Basketball Guide.
Still, as Bates would say, the Hawks do not play basketball in the Basketball Guide either.