The Southwest Conference, home of the Aggie joke and the wishbone offense, has finally discovered the basketball. It is round, it bounces and it goes through a hoop—especially at Arkansas and Texas. In fact, the rampaging Razorbacks and the long-legged Longhorns played a game in Fayetteville last week that was something of a radical departure for the SWC, because it was just as important to the national rankings as it was to the league standings. The game was a typical Southwest shoot-out, except there were no goalposts.
"People are calling this a happening," said Longhorn Coach Abe Lemons. "I don't think I've ever been to a happening before." But it was, and Lemons' team was the reason. Just as a loss to Texas had kept Arkansas from being unbeaten and No. 1 in football, so, too, a 75-69 defeat last month at Austin prevented the Razorback basketball team from being undefeated and top-ranked. The Hogs were second in both the conference and the country, while the surprising 'Horns were first and 12th.
When Lemons arrived at Texas from Pan American University last year, it was expected that he would improve Long-horn basketball, but not quite this soon and certainly not this much. Lemons could tell a funny story, it was agreed—but could he really coach? The answer to that question has been surprising to anyone who thought each game would bring a laugh from Abe and result in a laugher for his opponent. When he wants to, Lemons can chew out players, harangue officials, criticize the opposition and turn off the media as well as any coach. He wants to beat you, likes to beat you, even can beat you. And he does it with a style and a smile that baffle his younger, more gung-ho colleagues. Lemons would rather sit in a motel room with a glass in his hand and a story on his lips than attend practice or watch film or dabble in X's and O's, but underneath he cares as much as any of those guys who can't let go of their clipboards. "This is just the way I work," he explains.
And the way he works works. After three straight losing seasons, Texas was 13-13 last season and 17-2 before the Arkansas game, the losses being a one-pointer in the season opener at Southern California and a nine-pointer at Marquette. "I don't care what anybody tells you," the Longhorns' leading scorer Jim Krivacs says, "Lemons has out-coached everybody."
February 13, 1978
Conference coaches agree that Texas has a better record than its talent would seem to allow. Krivacs is strictly a shooter, and an average one at that, but he fills Lemons' desire for a long-range, damn-the-defense gunner. Forward Ron Baxter handles the inside scoring and rebounding, and Guard John Moore manages to have his hand in a little bit of everything. "We're as big a surprise to me as we are to everybody else," Lemons says. "After we win, nobody ever says anything nice, but I don't blame them. We can look bad winning and terrible losing."
Winning has not been as much a problem for Lemons as has adjusting to his new location. Because his two previous schools, Oklahoma City and Pan American, were isolated independents, he was his own boss, playing whom he wanted, when he wanted, where he wanted, and always saying what he wanted. At Texas it is not always that way, and Lemons feels like a wild horse under saddle for the first time. "Coming into a conference has been a revelation to me," he says. "It's like two different worlds. There's too many people to answer to, too many memos to write, too many meetings to go to. There are even people at the school who don't really care if we win or lose. They're not used to winning in basketball, and they don't need the money."
One person who can appreciate what Lemons is going through is Eddie Sutton, who experienced similar frustrations when he moved to Arkansas three years ago after five seasons at Creighton. Now he is able to look back and say, "We've been able to create an enthusiasm that nobody thought was possible. When we lose, people in the state go into mourning. Merchants even tell me business goes down."
If Lemons is the droll cowboy in boots and leisure suit, Sutton is the junior executive on the way up. Their goals may be the same but their approaches and philosophies contrast sharply. Sutton believes in long hours of work and attention to detail. His players wear reversible practice jerseys that say DISCIPLINE on one side and DEDICATION on the other, and the seats of their pants read DEFENSE, which they play with nonstop zest.
Lemons' evaluation of Sutton says a lot about both men: "We're the same kind of people, but he just doesn't want to remember that he had an outhouse in his backyard, too. Eddie takes it too seriously. He thinks he's more important than he really is." Will Rogers, meet Jimmy Carter.
Sutton has built his success at Arkansas—the Razorbacks were no slouches last season, going 26-2—around the play of junior Sidney Moncrief and seniors Marvin Delph and Ron Brewer. All three are homegrown, all three are 6'4", all three are black, all three are all-conference or better. There the similarities end. Moncrief is the leaper, Delph the bomber, Brewer the leader. Off the court, Delph has four Bibles and Brewer has four girl friends. (Delph prefers the King James version and Brewer the one back home in Fort Smith.) Moncrief, meanwhile, is a one-woman man, and he has the team's best stereo system.
"Each of us knows our role, and we don't try to take over anybody else's," says Moncrief. "On some clubs, players get mad at each other and friction starts. But there's none of that here. The only thing that bothers me is when people talk about how intense I am, as if intensity is all I have. I'd like to think I've got a little basketball talent."
More than a little, to be sure, because he leads the Hogs in both scoring (17.8) and rebounding (8.4). Numbers that high do not come from mere doggedness. Brewer is tops in steals and is averaging 17.5 points per game, while Delph is a phenomenal 57% shooter from anywhere in the Ozarks and carries a 16.8 average. Help comes from two big men: 6'11" Steve Schall (11 points, six rebounds) and 6'7" Jim Counce, a demon on defense.
Before last week's game, Sutton thought that his team might win by 20 to 25 points. "We've got everything in our favor," he said, and it was hard to dispute him. In addition to the revenge motive, Arkansas had a 19-1 record, the best in the country, a 25-game home victory streak and the psychological advantage of knowing it had to win to draw even with Texas in the conference race. Furthermore, the Razorbacks were playing with three days' rest, while the travel-weary, flu-bugged Longhorns had played and won four games—by a total of only 10 points—in the previous eight days. Most important of all, as even Lemons admitted, "Arkansas has the best team in the league." Did Texas have anything in its favor? "Oh, yeah," said Abe, taking on the whole town of Fayetteville, "after the game we can go home, and they have to stay here."
The prospect of seeing the hated Long-horns in Barnhill Arena had the Arkansas campus in a dither. When the last 500 tickets went on sale the day of the game, 1,500 undergraduates stormed the student center and did $1,000 worth of damage. To keep the frenzy at a high pitch, the Arkansas cheerleaders staged a pep rally just before the game and everyone placed an order for that Chinese delicacy, "Woo Pig Sooie."
Against all these odds, Texas battled to a 41-38 lead at the half and stretched it to 53-42 before five minutes were gone in the second half. Then Arkansas came back in a rush, led by unlikely heroes Schall and freshman Ulysses Reed, and a very likely one in Delph. Schall and Reed each scored eight points in the second half, and Delph made 14 of 21 shots for a game-high 30 as Arkansas won 75-71.
There was much rejoicing among the Razorbacks, which prompted Lemons to note sourly, "We must be getting better. You would have thought they had beaten the Celtics. After the game here last year they hissed us."
Nobody hissed this time, but Schall did say, "When we lost to them at Texas, I think it made them think they were better than they really are. Now I believe we've brought them down to size."
Still, neither team has beaten the other soundly, and it will probably take the finals of the conference tournament to determine the SWC champ. Sutton insists that his team is much the better of the two and will prove it there, but Lemons is starting to act as if he is not so sure about Arkansas' being too powerful for Texas. The Southwest Conference went 34 years without a basketball shootout of national significance, and now it could have three in one season. That's two more than Darrell and Frank had in even their best years.