The latest news out of Bloomington, Ind. is that there is only good news in Bloomington, Ind. No Indiana player has been kicked off the team for smoking marijuana, and none has asked to transfer. And Coach Bobby Knight is still miles away from the long arm of Puerto Rican justice. So for now, at least, the Hoosiers are all present and accounted for, and assuming they remain that way, they should win the NCAA championship in March.
This is not an overpowering Indiana team like the one that blitzed through an unbeaten season to the national title in 1976. But it is considerably better than the one that won the NIT last March. Forward Mike Woodson is the best of five returning starters, and Guard Isiah Thomas leads a corps of five outstanding freshmen. Knight's pronouncements on the two players bear repeating. Woodson, he has said, is "the best player in the history of college basketball not to make even honorable mention All-America"; and Thomas, he has declared, is "the best player I've ever recruited."
Indiana has the ideal complement for these quick, active scorers in sturdy Center Ray Tolbert. Last year Tolbert was second to Woodson in scoring and the first among the Hoosiers in rebounding and he shared MVP honors in the NIT with teammate Butch Carter. Then in July Tolbert joined Woodson and Thomas on the U.S. team that Knight coached to the Pan American Games gold medal in Puerto Rico.
Knight did one of his finest coaching jobs last season, despite a roster depleted by the transfer of numerous players in recent years and his decision in December to kick out three Hoosiers, including a starter, for allegedly smoking marijuana. After 17 games Indiana had a four-game losing streak, a 9-8 record and dismal prospects. But it rallied dramatically, earning an NIT bid and winning the tournament championship with victories over conference rivals Ohio State and Purdue in the final two games. "I've never been happier for a group of kids," Knight said afterward.
Now he's happy that they are all back. The leading scorer will again be Woodson, who has never missed a game and has a 19.9-point career average. Tolbert and Landon Turner are the other frontcourt starters, and there is excellent depth in junior Steve Risley, freshman Steve Bouchie and two players coming off injuries, Ted Kitchel and Glen Grunwald.
Thomas is trying to crack a backcourt that already features Carter and Randy Wittman. Thomas should eventually replace Wittman, although Knight has cautioned, "Isiah's got a certain degree of carelessness that I don't like." As everyone knows, Knight detests carelessness almost as much as he does Puerto Rican policemen and American sportswriters.
Last year's experience will no doubt help the Hoosiers as they fight their way through a tough non-conference schedule that includes Kentucky, Toledo and North Carolina and then the treacherous Big Ten round robin. But after the finals are played in nearby Indianapolis, this team, like the 1976 Indiana squad, probably will have proved that being the best team in the Big Ten will also mean you are the best in the country. And in Bloomington, Ind. that is always the most welcome news of all.
2 OHIO STATE
Despite all the preseason talk in Columbus of a national championship, Buckeye Guard Kelvin Ransey insists that the present excitement pales compared to that of the moment two years ago when 6'10" Herb Williams decided to go to Ohio State. "Right then and there I knew the losing would stop and the winning would start," Ransey says.
Sure enough, the Buckeyes went from 9-18 before Williams to 16-11 and then 19-12 with him. Now Ohio State just may have, as Ransey says, "the best talent in the country."
The dozen or so Buckeye fans who camped outside of St. John's Arena for a week before season tickets went on sale certainly think so. And with good reason. OSU retains four starters and seven of the top eight scorers from last year's NIT semifinalists. Ransey, who poured in 21.4 points a game on 54.7% shooting in 1978-1979, is the only senior in a starting lineup that includes Williams, a dominating center, especially on defense, and two other juniors, Forward Jim Smith and Guard Carter Scott.
But it is a big man who wasn't there last season who makes the difference. He is freshman Clark Kellogg, who will step into the last starting spot. Kellogg is expected to make full use of the skills that not only made him one of the nation's best high school players but also have put him on some preseason All-America teams even before his first college game.
"We try and downplay freshmen here," an OSU aide says, "but there's really no way to do that in Clark's case." The 6'8", 225-pound Kellogg will start at forward, but don't be surprised if Coach Eldon Miller occasionally puts him in the backcourt, a la Magic Johnson. If so, Miller could then bring in another freshman, 6'10" Granville Waiters, whose high school team beat Kellogg's for the Ohio AAA championship last season. Also expected to make strong contributions are another freshman. Guard Larry Huggins, junior Guard Todd Penn and three-year letterman Jim Ellinghausen, a forward.
"The trick will be making all this talent work together," says Ransey. That, of course, is Miller's job, and he sure likes what he's seen at practices, which have been closed to the public "to eliminate all the distractions," he says.
"It's too early to tell about anyone's team, but we're pleased that others think so highly of ours," Miller deadpans. "We'll be good, but how good only time will tell. Talk makes no difference; sooner or later you have to go out and get it done—and that's what we'd like to do, go out and get it done."
Which is exactly what Ohio State will have to do. Besides a non-conference schedule that includes Virginia, Tennessee and Louisville, the Buckeyes' first three Big Ten games are against conference powers Indiana, Purdue and Iowa.
But Miller is not overly worried about the prospect of a rocky start in the conference. "Every team in the Big Ten will be good," he says. "You can't play favorites or worry about a particular game." Chances are Miller is right, and even if his Buckeyes are nipped for the Big Ten title, they are likely to get a rematch with the conference champ in Indianapolis.
3 NORTH CAROLINA
From the gift shops on Franklin Street to the outback dorms of South Campus, bumper stickers are popular items in Chapel Hill, N.C. Smug provincialists prefer the one that reads: IF GOD ISN'T A TAR HEEL, THEN WHY IS THE SKY CAROLINA BLUE? Scorners of North Carolina's biggest rivals favor: WAKE IS FAKE, DUKE IS PUKE, BUT THE SCHOOL I HATE IS N.C. STATE. Recently a new sticker has been vying for space on car bumpers and bulletin boards. Its message: UNC is WORTHY OF A NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP. Never mind that an NCAA championship would read better; the meaning is what matters. Observers who know basketball believe that freshman James Worthy can join four starters from last year's ACC champions and make North Carolina No. 1 in the nation.
Ordinarily, a player must wait a while before he attains bumper-sticker status, but Worthy has made it before his first game. Indeed, he has done it even though he has yet to win a starting position. But that should not take too long because the 6'8" high school All-America from Gastonia, N.C. seems to have the inside scoring and rebounding skills the Tar Heels need. "Worthy has all the tools. He's ready to go," says senior Forward Mike O'Koren. "He fits in real well."
When Worthy showed up on campus he was not your typical freshman with a map in one hand and a guidebook in the other. He had already sipped water from the Old Well, heard the chimes of the Bell Tower and played on the hardwood of Carmichael Auditorium as a three-year veteran of Coach Dean Smith's summer basketball camp.
This does not mean, of course, that Worthy is exempt from chasing loose balls with the other freshmen or that he commands immediate seating at the newly opened Four Corners Restaurant. For that matter, Smith himself was turned away both the first and second times he tried, and he's the guy who invented the four corners offense.
Worthy can ease in gradually because the Tar Heels are loaded with experience. The only starter missing from last season's 23-6 team is defensive dynamo Dudley Bradley. O'Koren, an All-America, is the best player, and junior Swingman Al Wood, the leading scorer—17.8 points a game on 57% shooting—was an All-ACC first-team selection last spring. Senior Dave Colescott is on hand to run the offense, although he is being pressed in the backcourt by sophomore Jimmy Black. The center will probably be senior Rich Yonakor, who shared the position last season with Jeff Wolf and Pete Budko, who are still around, too. If that is not enough depth and talent, throw in last season's top reserve, senior John Virgil, and freshman Guard Jim Braddock. "I think we'll be very good." says Smith, who is never one to overstate his team's chances. "We're a legitimate contender for the NCAA championship."
Of course, the preseason outlook always seems bright at North Carolina. "When you're practicing, losing doesn't even cross your mind," says Wood. If the Tar Heels are genuine contenders, they will find out very early. A killer December schedule includes the Big Four tournament with Duke, North Carolina State and Wake Forest, non-conference games against Indiana and Detroit and an eight-team international tournament in London. If Carolina survives that transoceanic grind, the entire team might be worthy of a bumper sticker.
4 NOTRE DAME
The Irish have certainly had their moments during Coach Digger Phelps' eight seasons in South Bend. They've knocked off a 29-0 San Francisco team, stopped an 81-game Marquette home-court winning streak and done all sorts of mean things to UCLA. They have even made it to No. 1 a couple of times themselves. But while they've spent the better part of a decade cutting down nets, they've never won college basketball's greatest prize, an NCAA title. "It's all anybody ever asks me about anymore," says Phelps, "which is understandable, I guess, since it's the only thing we haven't won." Notre Dame seemed to have a real crack at the championship in 1975, but the NBA lured away John Shumate and Gary Brokaw just when it appeared they might team with Adrian Dantley to win it all. And ever since Shumate left, Notre Dame has been slow and mechanical in the pivot.
Things will be different this season because the center will be that notorious dunker Orlando Woolridge, a converted forward who is Willis Reed's cousin and who had better rebound like him if the Irish are to play run-and-shoot as often as Phelps would like them to. His forwards, Tracy Jackson and Kelly Tripucka, are only 6'6" but are capable of running off a string of points all by themselves. Despite what Phelps calls "a prolonged shooting slump" last February. Jackson still ended up hitting 51.5% of his tries from the field. At 230 pounds, Tripucka can maneuver for just about any kind of shot he wants. Notre Dame's starting guards. Rich Branning and Bill Hanzlik, are good at their roles: Branning's intelligence keeps the Irish under control, while Hanzlik's defensive forays wreak havoc among the opposition. Opponents will get even more confused when Stan Wilcox, a Nevada-Las Vegas-style freewheeler, comes off the bench.
Phelps has never had a regular from the state of Indiana, and none of this year's prize freshmen is a Hoosier either. Guard John Paxson, brother of Portland Trail Blazer Jim Paxson, is from Ohio; Forward Bill Varner is from Pennsylvania; and Tim Andree, another hulking Notre Dame-type center, hails from Michigan. All three were ranked among the country's top 25 high school seniors last season and. given Phelps' penchant for substitution, all three should see a fair amount of playing time. Last season Tripucka and Branning played the most, just under 28 minutes a game, while averaging 14.3 and 10.2 points, respectively.
With no superteam looming up on the horizon, Notre Dame's chances of winning the national championship are good. One key is Woolridge, who must play bigger than 6'9", which he did toward the end of last season when he scored 21 points against both Oklahoma City and La Salle and 22 against DePaul. The 6'3" Branning is up to 180 pounds, which should help his stamina. And Hanzlik should be better than ever, having improved both his offense and defense during trips to China, Argentina and Yugoslavia this past summer.
Although Phelps is a master of the pregame psych job, he isn't sure what gems he will come up with this year. But he is certain of one thing: "When you have the kind of players I do, you feel like you've got to get lucky one of these times."
At Brigham Young, where the administration keeps a careful eye out for students who indulge in such forbidden substances as tobacco and alcohol, it isn't surprising to find that the school has a computer which maintains a running tally of the transgressions of the basketball team. Known as TICOR, it is about the size of a briefcase and is operated by two students at courtside. During games Coach Frank Arnold can instantly find out who's giving up the baseline, getting faked out and not blocking out under the boards.
Unless half the squad takes off in midseason for Indochina or Central America to spread the word of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—some 9,000 of BYU's 26,000 students have gone on such missions—TICOR shouldn't get much work reporting Cougar slipups. BYU has eight former high school All-Americas and five returning starters who scored in double figures last season, so it doesn't take a computer to figure out that the team should waltz to its second straight WAC title and improve on its 20-8 record of 1978-79.
Top cat among the Cougars is All-American Danny Ainge, quite possibly the best collegiate athlete around. After leading his team in scoring (18.4 points a game), assists (122) and steals (46) last season, the versatile guard batted .237 in 87 games as a second baseman for the Toronto Bluejays. Bringing the ball up with Ainge will be senior Scott Runia, an 11.6 scorer and a second-team all-conference selection. Center Alan Taylor, BYU's only other senior, is built like the Michelin Man at 6'10", 238 pounds, and he used his bulk to average nearly 10 rebounds and 14 points. The forwards are Fred Roberts and Devin Durrant, who scored 14.3 and 1 3.2. respectively.
The supporting cast includes three players who would start for most any other team. In Guard Steve Craig, a starter before going on a two-year LDS mission in El Salvador, the Cougars have one of the most effective sixth men anywhere. He's the team's quickest player as well as its best jumper. To make room for him, Arnold will often move Ainge to forward. Should Roberts or Durrant falter, he will be spelled by Steve Trumbo. Greg Kite, one of the nation's most sought-after high school centers last year, will be the spare behind Taylor.
According to Arnold, BYU's balanced scoring is by design. "Our two main strengths are shooting [the Cougars' 52.9 field-goal percentage last season was eighth best in the country] and unselfishness. I don't teach a shake-and-bake. one-on-one type of offense."
What Arnold does teach is a "quick-thrust offense," which means that BYU runs at every opportunity and takes the first open shot. As a result, the Cougars averaged 85 points per game last season.
What Arnold calls "a lack of final-four quickness" and a frequent inability to stop the opponent's top scorer are the Cougars' only weaknesses. Last season, for example, St. John's Reggie Carter burned the Cougars for 39 points, Texas' Tyrone Branyan for 35 and San Diego State's Ken Goetz for 38. This year's schedule doesn't include as many heavyweights, and all but one of BYU's toughest non-conference games are at home, where the Cougars were 14-0 last season. That being so, the Cougars may need TICOR just to add up all their wins.
When a team ends up with a 22-8 record, ties for first place in the ACC and finishes the year ranked seventh in one wire-service poll and 11th in the other, the season can hardly be called a disaster. But Duke accomplished all of those things last year and then had to explain what went wrong.
"I heard so many questions that I started asking myself why we were a failure," says 6'11" senior Center Mike Gminski, the leading scorer and rebounder. "But then I stopped judging the team from the point of view of others and began looking at it from my own. I thought about everything we had done well. Our only problem was that we tried to live up to the expectations of others, and we put too much pressure on ourselves."
Duke disappointed a lot of people because it did not win the NCAA championship after finishing second the season before. Though the 1978-1979 roster was virtually the same as the one in 1977-1978, last season's Blue Devils did not play nearly as well. Gminski, forwards Gene Banks and Kenny Dennard and Guard Jim Spanarkel fell off in scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage. In this, Duke's year of reprieve, exciting sophomore Vince Taylor replaces Spanarkel and joins Bob Bender in the backcourt, Gminski. Banks and Dennard are back, and the starters are supported by valuable sixth man Jim Suddath and four good freshmen.
Duke's biggest advantage, however, may be that nobody favors it to win the national championship. "There's a lot of pressure in being ranked No. 1," says Banks. "We played a lot of games last year as if we were trying not to lose instead of trying to win. This year we're going back to the fun of the game. Back to the kids and the lollipops."
These lollipops will not take many lickings. Banks proclaims that "Duke is gonna be strictly awesome" and, for himself, predicts "the second coming of Tinkerbell," referring to the nickname popularized during his freshman season, when he flew with unearthly abandon. "I played too conservatively last year," he says. "To get ready for this season, I've recollected a lot of memories from high school. I want to be the leader and let it show on the court instead of just saying it with my mouth."
Banks' inconsistency was typical of Duke last season. While averaging 14.3 points a game—down from 17.1 as a freshman—he scored only 12, seven, four and 12 in four of the losses. Even more inconsistent was Dennard, who had nine games in which he scored two points or less and six in which he scored in double figures. But Dennard is another Blue Devil who predicts better results. "This year I think you'll see a different Duke," he says.
Coach Bill Foster would like to see the team of two seasons ago, the one that played with unfettered verve, especially under the boards and on the fast break. "Pressure might have been the reason for the falloff," Foster says. Now the pressure is off, which is to say only one photographer showed up for the team's picture day and tour buses are no longer stopping off at Cameron Indoor Stadium to watch the Blue Devils practice. "I was proud to be No. 1 last year," Foster says, "but the demands and the attention were so great that I'm not sure I'd know how to handle it any better this year."
Foster will not get the chance to find out unless Duke plays better than it did in an early-bird opening victory over Kentucky two weeks ago. The Blue Devils won the Naismith Hall of Fame game 82-76 in overtime, but they blew a 12-point lead in the first half and had to rally from seven points back in the second. A veteran team such as Duke's should have won more easily against an inexperienced opponent, even one as talented as the Wildcats. Still, Duke pulled it out, and that was something the Blue Devils did all too infrequently last season.
For the first time in history there are no basketball tickets to be had at Louisiana State. That's indication enough of how big the sport has gotten in Cajun country, where sellouts were previously a phenomenon known only in football. Sure, fans came out to watch the Tigers during the Bob Pettit and Pete Maravich eras, but they were not nearly as lusty as the current crowd, whose ticket purchases have enriched the LSU athletic coffers by $500,000 and whose vocal support has spurred a suggestion to rename the 14,327-seat LSU arena "Death Dome." The object of their affections is a talented, deep young team that last season brought 23-6 LSU its first SEC championship in a quarter century and a seventh-place ranking in the final AP poll. While leading the conference in scoring, margin of victory and controversy, LSU beat Kentucky twice and won 10 times on the road before the season ended in an 87-71 loss to NCAA champ Michigan State in the Mideast Regional.
This season the LSU faithful expect another SEC title—and that's just for starters. They're also talking about a national championship, and Coach Dale Brown is not about to put the damper on that kind of G-E-A-U-X Tigers fervor, because he happens to share it.
A fast-break talker with no talent for poor-mouthing. Brown says,"I guess I should tell everyone why we shouldn't be ranked so high, how we lost three seniors or how Kentucky has had its best recruiting year in history, but I don't look at it that way. I think it's reasonable for us to be considered a real threat for the national championship. We could have won it last year, and I think we have an excellent chance to win it now. I don't shirk from that. It doesn't seem like pressure to me."
Brown has won himself a host of critics who call his opinions outlandish, his coaching suspect and his offense Basic Playground. However, the skeptics include none of the Tigers, who fast-break, crash the boards, dunk and run the quick-hitting "shuffle cut" offense and the full-court press with all the delicacy of tag-team wrestlers. LSU may be incapable of doing precision patterns, but its remarkable quickness makes its fast break deadlier than most, and whatever the offense, the Tigers work together unselfishly.
Brown also may have the best pair of forwards in college ball in Durand Macklin and DeWayne Scales, two juniors who can jump, shoot, rebound and play defense. Each should be better despite personal disappointments last season. Macklin, who scored 46 points and grabbed 24 rebounds in LSU's first two games, sat out the rest of the season with a broken foot. Scales, who scored 19.4 points a game and shot 56.6% on his way to earning All-SEC honors, was suspended from the team in February for talking to a self-styled NBA agent. It is to Brown's credit that Scales returned.
Greg Cook will start at center, and he has an imposing backup in Andy Campbell, a 7'2" Australian who can touch the rim without jumping. The chief playmaker is Ethan Martin, a walk-on point guard who has led the team in assists for two straight seasons. It is he who'll make the Tigers G-E-A-U-X, perhaps all the way.
8 TEXAS A&M
It is somewhat ironic that Texas A&M, a team that succeeds on its height, is singularly cursed by a lack of depth. Or so it seems to Head Coach Shelby Metcalf, who never had enough players at preseason practices to stage a full-scale, first-team-vs.-second-team scrimmage. "A lot this season is going to depend on us staying happy and healthy," Metcalf says. "We're not going to go anywhere if we get one of our key people hurt."
But if the A&M roster is short on bodies, the Aggies themselves aren't worried. Their ambition remains as tall as their re-bounders, one of whom recently told a visitor departing College Station, "If we miss you during the regular season, we'll see you in Indianapolis. Count on us being there."
A&M's achievements probably will fall somewhere between Metcalf's vision of disaster and his players' lofty expectations. Barring a bunch of injuries, the Aggies at the very least should win the Southwest Conference title.
A&M's talent is impressive. The Aggies set a school record with 24 victories last season, beating San Francisco and Kentucky on the road, knocking off Indiana and New Mexico and winning at least one game from every conference opponent except Texas. They finished third in their conference and advanced to the third round of the NIT.
Five starters are back, headed by 6'8" junior Vernon Smith, an All Southwest Conference forward who was A&M's top scorer, and 6'11" Center Rudy Woods, who led the Aggies in rebounds and blocked 65 shots and was named the conference's Freshman of the Year. With burly Rynn Wright, a 6'6" junior who plays the high post, Smith and Woods form what Metcalf fondly refers to as "the wall."
"When you're talking about A&M basketball," Metcalf says, "you're talking about that front line. Every one of them is a good rebounder."
The Aggie attack is triggered by the deft playmaking of Dave Goff, a point guard who sharpens his ball handling by dribbling two basketballs simultaneously. Goff led the Aggies in assists last season. "We've got an adaptable team." he says. "We can press, run and score 100 points or slow it down, score 60 and still win."
Uncharacteristically, the Aggies will frequently employ a zone defense this season in an effort to keep Woods under the basket and everyone from fouling out. The new defense may be easier for the players to accept than their coach. Metcalf is a disciple of former Oklahoma State Coach Hank Iba, who believed that any defense that wasn't a man-to-man was no D at all.
Whatever the defense, the Aggies will be strong on both boards and may make up for their deficiencies in outside shooting, depth and speed with tip-ins, rebounds and high-percentage shots. They will be formidable in College Station, where their 7,500-seat gym is not so much an athletic facility as an echo chamber. Officially known as G. Rollie White Coliseum, it is the "Holler House of the Brazos" to A&M fans and opponents alike.
"Last season should have been better," says the precocious Woods. "This year we can be very strong. I expect more from this team than the coach does." So does just about everyone else.
9 ST. JOHN'S
"Some who are last will be first, and some who are first will be last."
And now, it would seem, St. John's has an opportunity to be first. All five starters return from last season's 21-11 team, which twice defeated Duke—once when the Blue Devils were ranked first in both wire service polls—and came within a jump shot of the NCAA finals after having been the 40th, and last, team selected for the tournament. Add to that an excellent crop of recruits and an outstanding transfer player, and it appears that the Redmen deserve the lofty title most experts have conferred on them during the preseason: "Best team in the East." Earning that honor on the court will not be easy. Both Georgetown and Syracuse, teams St. John's must defeat to win the championship of the new Big East Conference, seem to have improved, though each must compensate for the absence of a key starter. The Red-men also suffered losses, though only from their reserve strength: Guard Tommy Calabrese and swingmen Gordon Thomas and Rudy Wright had each participated in three NCAA tournaments. "We have to go on the assumption that everybody else is improved," says Coach Lou Carnesecca, who practically willed St. John's to its sixth straight 20-victory season after the Redmen had gotten off to a 9-8 start. 'We are going to have to remember how we left off, try to capture that intensity and build on it."
And Carnesecca has plenty to build on. Guards Reggie Carter, St. John's best player and last season's leading scorer at 15.0 points a game, and Bernard Rencher, who led the Redmen in assists with 123, are back, but junior Swingman Curtis Redding, who scored 1,030 points, grabbed 443 rebounds and twice earned All-Big Eight honors before transferring from Kansas State, could force the creative but erratic Rencher to the bench. In that event Carter, who was selected in the second round by the Knicks in last spring's NBA draft but chose to complete his eligibility, would move to the point. Carter will not be anywhere when the season begins this week, however. Because he played in an unsanctioned game last summer, the NCAA suspended him for last week's exhibition against Poland and Friday's opener against Oral Roberts.
Freshman Forward David Russell is so gifted he will eventually replace one of last season's starters, Ron Plair or Frank Gilroy, who is nursing two painful knees and a broken nose. A devastating offensive rebounder, Russell must improve his outside shooting and his defense. "David is a challenging player because, even though he's young and inexperienced, he'll get by on his talent," says Center Wayne McKoy, who like Russell was an All-America while attending high school on Long Island. McKoy, said the college scouts, was a player who could single-handedly turn a team around. But after he didn't live up to his advance notices during his freshman year (1977-78) at St. John's and then was outplayed by rival pivotmen Roosevelt Bouie of Syracuse and Jeff Ruland of Iona in two showdowns late last season, the big question became whether he can turn himself around. "I'm going to have to be stronger on the boards and draw a lot more fouls instead of committing them," McKoy says. "I'm more aware of my game this year. There were things I did last year that I didn't realize were that important." The most damaging was getting himself into foul trouble too often. Although McKoy was second to Carter in scoring with a 14.9 average and was the leading rebounder (7.7), he averaged nearly four personals a game and fouled out seven times. His freshman replacements, Donald Jones and Trevor Jackson, will receive their baptism early. "The kids will have to give us 10, 12 minutes a game," says Carnesecca. "They'll be thrown to the wolves."
A rugged December schedule that includes Oral Roberts, Michigan State, Tennessee and Rutgers will test the young Redmen's poise, but the irrepressible Carnesecca refuses to worry. "I'm not concerned about a damn thing," he says. "We're going to play every game as if we're 0-25. We're not going to put pressure on the kids; we'll put it on the coaches. We're not going to pull a Duke here." That's because Looie wants St. John's to be first.
By the standards of other schools, last season was a banner one for Syracuse. It had a 26-4 record, third best in the nation, and equaled its highest victor total ever. The Orangemen became the 14th major college team to get 1,000 wins and had a 19-game victory streak, their third longest ever. They stretched their unbeaten string at Manley Field House, a/k/a The Pit, to 45, the longest in the nation. They were ranked in the Top Ten by the NCAA in more statistical categories—six—than any other school. On the average they defeated their opponents by a wider margin, 17.2 points, than any team in the nation, and they earned their seventh consecutive NCAA tournament invitation, a record surpassed only by UCLA (13) and Marquette (nine). But despite these imposing achievements, the folks in Syracuse were disappointed; there's no NCAA championship banner hanging from the rafters at Manley. There's not even an ECAC Upstate-Southern pennant. Syracuse was defeated for that championship by Georgetown and then fell to Penn in the NCAA East Regional semifinals.
The Orange has pledged not to repeat last year's el foldo, and the chances are excellent because graduation claimed only one regular; Forward Dale Shackleford. With the rest of the starters returning, along with four other lettermen and three heralded freshmen, Syracuse is formidable once again.
Back for its fourth and final engagement is the Louie and Bouie Show, starring 6'8" Forward Louis Orr and 6'11" Center Roosevelt Bouie. Starters since their freshman season, they lead the Orange at both ends of the floor. Orr, up to a slender 200 pounds after having arrived at Syracuse at an emaciated-looking 160, was the Orangemen's third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder. "He's our best outside shooter, best passer and best rebounding forward," says Coach Jim Boeheim. "When he has had a poor game, it's because he's been muscled, but that's not going to happen much anymore." Bouie, another former string bean, added 15 pounds and now weighs an imposing 240. He was Syracuse's leading scorer—with 15.2 points a game—last season, but he's expected to be even sharper offensively this time around. "He's at least 200% better on offense than he was last season because he's looking for his shot," Boeheim says. On defense Bouie is the key for Syracuse. He has blocked 256 shots in three seasons and was the team's top rebounder last season. "Very few guys have had a good game at center against us since Roosevelt came," says Boeheim.
Replacing Shackleford, a superior defensive player and Syracuse's second-best scorer three years in a row, won't be easy. The backcourt, however, is in good shape, because point guards Hal Cohen and Eddie Moss, who between them had 14.7 points and nearly seven assists per game, and outside bomber Marty Headd are back. Freshman Tony (Red) Bruin, who has a terrifying baseline repertoire, could be a starter at guard before the season is very old. "Physically, Red is the best player we've had here since Dave Bing," says Boeheim, who was Bing's backcourt partner at Syracuse.
With a much tougher schedule, the challenge of competing in the new Big East Conference and fewer home games, Syracuse doesn't figure to match last season's victory total, but Boeheim doesn't care. "We just want to be playing well at the end of the season," he says. That would make it tough to squeeze the Orange out of the Final Four.
11 VIRGINIA TECH
Virginia Tech, or VPI, or Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University never quite knows what to call itself. To remedy this identity crisis, the school paper recently decided on a new name for the school. The envelope, please. The winner: the Eastern Institute for Enlightened and Intellectual Outgrowth, or EIEIO, a little play on the school's country bumpkin reputation ("Old MacDonald had a farm..."). Even the sports teams in Blacksburg have two nicknames, the Gobblers and the Hokies. But whatever you call it, one thing is certain about this season's basketball team: it's no turkey.
The entire front line and the playmaker from the squad that won the Metro 7 last season are back. At the center of it all is Dale Solomon, who led the Gobbler-Hokie scorers with 17.8 points a game, made the all-league first team and earned the MVP award at the Metro 7 tournament despite missing the first game because of the death of his grandmother. And he was only a freshman. How's that for enlightened outgrowth?
Solomon will be joined up front by Wayne Robinson, Tech's top rebounder, second-best scorer and a sort of collegiate Willie Stargell in the leadership department. The other forward will be Les Henson, who led the team in steals, blocked shots and dunks while scoring 12.5 points a game. Getting them the ball will be Guard Dexter Reid, whose nickname, "Fat Daddy," belies his quickness. Reid was good for 123 assists.
Coach Charlie Moir can always be counted on for two things: he won't get a technical foul—he hasn't had one since coming to VPI in 1976—and his team will run and shoot. In fact, while the school is shopping around for a new name, it might want to try Charlie Moir's Gun Club. "We've been compared to Nevada-Las Vegas—without the recruiting violations," says Moir. Even with a frantic offense, Tech managed to shoot a school-record 51% from the floor. It will be even quicker up front now that Solomon and Robinson have shed 10 and five pounds, respectively. However, it will miss Marshall Ashford, the guard who spearheaded the fast break and the full-court press for four years.
Replacing Ashford will be either Chris Scott, a steady senior who's waited on the bench for three years, or Jeff Schneider, a sophomore who was twice West Virginia's Player of the Year in high school. Schneider has already shown he can play under pressure: in a game at West Virginia last year, he scored 14 points while the fans, miffed that he had left the state, booed him every time he touched the ball.
VPI has had only one losing season in 24 years and is always deadly at home—10-1 in 1978-79. If the team can avoid the mid-season slump that hit it last year, it should have no trouble improving on its 22-9 record. There's even a chance that Robinson's dream will come true. "Ever since I was a boy. I've dreamed of making the winning shot in the NCAA tournament," he says. Who knows? Maybe the Gobblers-Hokies will be able to call themselves national champions before it's over.
The last two coaches al UCLA (University of California at Lost Allegiance) ended up in the basketball wastelands of Birmingham, Ala. and Monmouth. Ore., respectively, but that's the way it goes when one tries to cope with the ghosts of Westwood: the 10 national championships, the 13 straight Pacific 10 championships, the All-America players, the first-round pro draft choices. How would you like to coach with John Wooden still sitting at a desk just around the corner? It has been four years since the Bruins' last NCAA title, and this fall the Wizard finally moved his office out of the athletic building and into his home. "The past is gone," Larry Brown said recently as he packed up trophies, plaques and frames in the UCLA coach's office, his office. "I told our kids the pictures going up here now would be of them." Brown and Wooden are not at cross-purposes; the latter helped with recruiting, and Brown says he wants "Coach Wooden to feel a part of this and be proud of me."
But make no mistake. This will be a new era in Westwood. "The Bruins are in for culture shock," says one coach a continent away, which is how far Brown has brought his style of basketball. It's straight out of the East—high school on Long Island, college at North Carolina. Those elements in his background will be more important in how UCLA plays than his pro years with the Cougars and Nuggets. Even in the ABA and NBA Brown was always a "college" coach: zones, traps, pressure defenses, constant movement, passing games, free substitution. The first day the Bruins heard all that, Brown says, "they looked at me like I was speaking Brooklynese." Unlike his predecessors, Gene Bartow and Gary Cunningham—who between them compiled a 102-17 record—Brown has not been left with a whole lot of talent. Or has he? In David Greenwood, Roy Hamilton and Brad Holland, the Bruins lost 54 points per game and, according to Brown, "75% of everything else." But in the next breath the coach says senior Kiki Vandeweghe is "Bobby Jones with offense" and freshman Darren Daye is "Doug Moe with speed." Oh, well, once a Tar Heel....
In truth, the Bruins will run their old high-post stuff often, but the team Brown has created out of the likes of veteran centers Darrell Allums and Gig Sims and forwards James Wilkes and Vandeweghe, plus a flock of rookies and former hideaways, is so quick, adaptable and versatile that it seems born to press and play the passing game. Last season Vandeweghe was the best shooter (.622) on the best shooting team (.555) in college history while forwards Cliff Pruitt and Daye were the most highly recruited high schoolers in Los Angeles. All three occasionally may move out of position—Vandeweghe or Pruitt to the pivot. Daye to guard—to make way for Forward Mike (Slew) Sanders, who sat on the bench as a freshman but who could be a sophomore star. The backcourt is inexperienced, but Tyren Naulls. who's 25 pounds lighter this year, did beat Notre Dame; Tony Anderson, another stranger who missed last season because of knee surgery, is the Bruins' best athlete; and freshmen Mike Holton and Rod Foster should be fire and lightning in relief. "Right now we lack self-esteem," says Brown. "But there is no reason we cannot be a great team." There is, uh, precedent. Not to mention pressure. The other day Wooden came by to mention, with a twinkle in his eye, that he was 38 when he started his career at UCLA. Larry Brown, who was 38 when he was hired, had a chuckle over that one.
Talk about a dramatic reversal of fortunes. In 1971 DePaul had no full-time assistant coaches, no recruiting budget, no stars culled from the talent-rich Chicago public high school league and seemingly no future in big-time college basketball. The Blue Demons were in the midst of what would become a 10-year absence from postseason play, and there were rumblings in the school's administration about a need for new, younger blood in the head coaching position. Ray Meyer was 57 then, and after practice one night he told his family, "I seriously wonder whether I can do it anymore."
Eight years later, it's DePaul's beleaguered opponents who are worrying about how much longer old man Meyer can do it, because he and the Blue Demons now have everything going their way. In a 21-day span last season, DePaul beat Marquette twice, and Notre Dame and UCLA en route to a 26-6 record and a third-place finish in the NCAA tournament. And despite the loss of two key starters, the Blue Demons should be even better in 1979-80.
The big man in the DePaul attack will again be Mark ("Don't ask me about my weight!") Aguirre, the wide-bottomed forward who led the nation's freshmen in scoring last season with 24.1 points a game. Aguirre, who tips the scales at roughly 235 pounds, was the best player in the Chicago public league his senior year in high school, and when he signed on with the Blue Demons it became fashionable for others of his ability to follow. Two of last season's best, Teddy Grubbs and Terry Cummings, will start with Aguirre to give DePaul the best young frontcourt in college basketball.
Grubbs is a finesse player who can shoot the lights out, while the 6'9" Cummings will rule the backboards against much taller opponents. The two, like Aguirre, are excellent rebounders, something that Dave Corzine and other recent DePaul standouts definitely were not. Or as one Blue Demon assistant coach—there are three such fellows these days—was heard to exclaim at a recent scrimmage: "Isn't it nice to see some hands above the rim for a change!"
Rounding out the Blue Demons' starting five will be their cool-headed floor leader, Clyde Bradshaw, a lefty, and probably Skip Dillard, a junior-college transfer who went to high school with Aguirre. So did Swingman Bernard Randolph, a freshman who scored 50 points in one game at Westinghouse High. Jim Mitchem, a senior, has already been drafted by the NBA's Golden State Warriors. He may start early in the season to take some heat off Grubbs.
Having won somebody's Coach of the Year award each of the past two seasons, the 66-year-old Meyer has no plans to retire. Meyer having been out of the limelight for so long, DePaul's revival is like a second childhood for him. "Now that I've had another taste of success," he says with typical restraint, "I like it."
University Hall in Charlottesville, built in 1965, is a strange-looking edifice loosely based on one of the many designs of Thomas (Dr. J) Jefferson, the school's founder and a great guy in a high post. Around campus the arena is fondly referred to as "the Pregnant Clam." This season the Clam will have a 7'4" pearl inside named Ralph Sampson. On May 31 Sampson finally announced that he was going to the University of Virginia, and so ended one of the most exciting chases in the history of recruiting.
Sampson may be the biggest thing—literally and figuratively—to hit Charlottesville since The Rotunda, another of Jefferson's buildings, but so far he's been given a lukewarm reception by his schoolmates. An editorial in one of the college's papers complained that in the midst of a campus housing shortage, Sampson was being given—gasp!—a room to himself. Well, if he lives up to only 3'8" of his potential, the students may be clamoring to give him a whole dorm next year. Sampson averaged 30 points and 20 rebounds a game at nearby Harrisonburg High last year and had college scouts comparing him to the young Lew Alcindor, and we all know who he grew up to be.
Sampson's adjustment to college ball will be relatively smooth because Coach Terry Holland has some other pearls to string along with him, including 6'6" junior Jeff Lamp, the All-ACC guard who led the conference, as well as the country's sophomores, in scoring last season with 22.9 points a game. "Jeff's only problem is that he's so critical of himself," says Holland. "He can be his own worst enemy. He can't accept anything less than the best from Jeff Lamp." Holland spent a good part of the off-season fretting over his two jewels. First Sampson went to Puerto Rico with the U.S. Pan-Am Games team and lost 15 pounds off his bobby-pin frame. Then Lamp caught pneumonia. Fortunately, Sampson is back up to 207, and Lamp is again driving himself crazy.
In all, the Cavaliers have 75% of the offense returning from last season's 19-10 team. The other starting guard will be sophomore Jeff Jones, the son of Kentucky Wesleyan Coach Bob Jones. As a freshman Jones broke Barry Park-hill's school assist record with 136, and he should get even more feeding Sampson. Also back is Forward Lee Raker, a junior who averaged 16.5 points a game and made the second team All-ACC. "He doesn't jump very high, and he doesn't run very fast," says Holland. "He just beats you." The other forward will be senior Mike Owens, the best shooter on the team and the most likely to get hurt. As a freshman he broke his jaw, as a sophomore he injured an Achilles tendon, and last year he severely sprained an ankle. Terry Gates, a junior who played with Lamp and Raker at Ballard High in Louisville, will spell Owens, especially when the Cavaliers need tighter defense. Virginia has another talented freshman in Forward Craig Robinson from Montclair, N.J., but the Cavaliers need one more dependable guard to back up Jones and Lamp.
Although this is easily the best team Holland has had in his six seasons at Virginia, he could use a little more speed and a lot more heft. "Our major weakness is that we're not a physical team," he says. "Ralph is not a weak kid by any means, but he may be at a disadvantage when it comes to bulk." The lack of muscle may not tell in the ACC, where the officials tend to call tight games, but it could make a difference come tournament time. "We have the potential to be great next season," says Holland. "But this year I'm trying to take it slowly. That attitude should last me about two losses into this season."
15 FLORIDA STATE
A couple of Joe Williams' coaching buddies, Bobby Knight and Abe Lemons, told him he was making a mistake when he left Furman to take over at Florida State last season. Sure, the weather in Tallahassee and the deep-sea fishing trips on the Gulf would be hard to beat, but with the Paladins Williams would have had Jonathan Moore and a lot of other good veterans to rely on. In contrast, the Seminoles had lost four starters from their Metro championship team and seemed to be slipping a bit after a decade of success under the departed Hugh Durham.
But Williams has never been accused of conservative thinking. He wore white suits throughout the 1970s and now favors Sasson jeans and saddle shoes. His reading ranges from Rolling Stone to the Bible, and there are evenings when talk of basketball must wait until he has satisfied his desire for oysters on the half shell.
"I suppose I shock some folks at first," Williams said recently while downing 45 oysters before dinner. "I used to have pretty long hair and I've never had many training rules for my players. Basically I'm a real easygoing guy, and I think I wear well on people."
Williams also enjoys the challenge of making something out of nothing. The only experienced players he inherited when he accepted the Florida State job were Tony Jackson, a fine passer and defender but a 35% career shooter, and sixth-man Mickey Dillard, who scored 40 points in FSU's first two games last year, then broke his leg and missed the remainder of the season.
Fortunately, there was a hidden bundle of talent on the team in Murray Brown, a seldom-used forward who, remarkably, had attempted only 21 shots during the previous season's conference games, but had hit 17 of them. Thus, Williams went to work designing an offense that would get Brown the ball close to the basket. He knew what to do with it from there. He converted 30 of his first 34 shots last season and went on to lead the nation in field-goal percentage—.691—while scoring 21.7 points per game. By skillfully deploying Brown and by playing the same brand of racehorse offense and high-pressure defense that had characterized Durham's teams, the Seminoles made it to the finals of the Metro tournament and finished with a highly respectable 19-10 record.
Williams' center this year will be Elvis Rolle, a Florida high school star who initially chose Oral Roberts over Florida State. He transferred to Tallahassee after his freshman year when the Titans changed coaches. Opposite Brown at the other forward spot will be either Pernell Tookes, a skinny sophomore, or Rodney Arnold, a tobacco-chewing gunner who followed Williams to Florida State after scoring 20 points a game as a freshman at Furman two seasons ago. Dillard, whose leg has healed, and Jackson are in the backcourt, along with 5'8" Bobby Parks, who shot 50% in Dillard's absence.
Tallahassee has always shown a decided preference for Seminole football. However, for the first time in history all 1,800 seats on the townspeople's side of tiny Tully Gym are sold out. Clearly, to the citizens of Tallahassee, Williams is wearing very, very well.
What's this? Georgetown University is one of the best teams in the country? Isn't that the Georgetown located in Washington, D.C.? Isn't that the Georgetown that's infinitely more renowned for producing hotshot lawyers than first-round draft choices? Yep, that Georgetown. Last season the Hoyas had a 24-5 record, their best ever, and defeated NIT titlist Indiana, NCAA semifinalist Penn and Eastern nemeses Syracuse and St. John's en route to the second round of the NCAA East Regional. Shot-blocking Center Tom Scates and two-year starting Forward Steve Martin, last year's acknowledged leader, are gone, but three outstanding starters have returned.
The mantle of leadership that once was Martin's now rests upon the muscular shoulders of senior Guard John Duren. The responsibility is not lost on Duren, a member of the gold-medal-winning Pan-Am Games team. "If someone has confidence in you, they'll do what you say," he says. "It's up to me to gain the respect of the other players. I'm not playing with the type of guys you have to hit upside the head." Duren, who has started 61 straight games, last season led the Hoyas in minutes played, assists and steals and was their second-leading scorer. Duren and Eric (Sleepy) Floyd form perhaps the East's top backcourt. In 1978-79 Floyd, who toured Brazil with the U.S. Junior National team last summer, established a school freshman record with 480 points, led Georgetown in scoring with 16.6 points a game, was the fourth-leading rebounder and played surprisingly good defense. The presence of Duren and Floyd, along with seniors Terry Fenlon, Lonnie Duren (John's older brother) and sophomore Ron Blaylock, will allow Thompson to bring freshman Kurt Kaull, a classic point guard, along slowly.
Senior Craig Shelton, dubbed Big Sky because of his vertical leap, is set at power forward, while sophomore Eric Smith, a former football quarterback, Mike Hancock, a good shooter, Jeff Bullis and Al Dutch, a onetime starter who sat out last season, are fighting for the other corner spot. Shelton is a marvel. He was the Hoyas' top rebounder, second-leading scorer and a .604 shooter. "People ask me who the MVP on the team is and I say, without a doubt, that Shelton's the man," says Coach John Thompson. Dutch, forced to the sidelines while patching up a shaky marriage, has been the most intense performer in practice. "He's playing like it's his Last Supper and he knows it," says Thompson. Sophomore Ed Spriggs, who ably replaced the injured Scates during the NCAAs last spring, gives Georgetown improved agility and offense in the middle, but the Hoyas cannot afford to lose him. The 6'10" Thompson may be the second-best center on the team, though he's about 20 pounds over his playing weight. "Spriggs has got to become very experienced very quickly," says Thompson. Spriggs gained some experience this summer as the third international traveler among the Hoyas. He played for an ECAC All-Star team that toured Yugoslavia. Now Georgetown appears ready to hit the road toward becoming a national power.
No matter how good his situation might appear to those around him, Lee Rose is always tormented by ghosts from the past, present and future. He winces every time he thinks about Jerry Sichting's jump shot that didn't drop in the waning seconds of Purdue's 53-52 loss to archrival Indiana in last year's NIT finals. He grumbles at the prospect of coaching this year without Sichting, whose only mistake in four years may have been missing that probable game winner. And when Rose tries to envision staying in the Big Ten race with Center Joe Barry Carroll forced to play one-against-five, he becomes positively morose.
Carroll is the quiet, 7'1" senior who has succeeded in doing exactly what he said he would do when he came to Purdue: "I'll let my playing do the talking for me." He led the Big Ten in scoring last season with a 22.8 average, was second in rebounding and paced the Boilermakers to a conference co-championship with Iowa and eventual NCAA champ Michigan State. He might have been expected to do pretty much the same this time around, except that Rose was unable to recruit a top-notch shooting guard to take Sichting's place.
Rose is not exactly bereft of talent, but there isn't a great deal of scoring punch once you get past Carroll. Forward Arnette Hallman is a superb leaper and a defensive ace who can be a spectacular all-round player when his streaky shooting turns hot. He worked hard on his shot all summer, and it looks better. However, in a preseason victory over the Yugoslavian national team he was still shooting one air ball for every two or three swishers.
Playmaker Brian Walker dealt out nearly 200 assists last season and has one guard spot nailed down. The other will go to either Keith Edmonson or Kevin Stallings, a junior-college transfer. Drake Morris will also play there when not at forward.
Despite the Boilermakers' shortcomings at guard, which will allow defenses to sag all over Carroll, Rose could scarcely be in worse shape than he appeared to be in the spring of '78 when he arrived at Purdue to coach a team depleted by the graduation of three starters. Worse, Rose got a late start in recruiting and didn't pick up any notable replacements. What he did do, out of necessity, was change the Boilermakers from the pro-style, run-and-gun outfit they had been under Fred Schaus and his predecessor, George King, to a deliberate team that succeeded because of defense. Purdue, which had been picked to finish seventh in the Big Ten, won a school-record 27 games principally because it held opponents to 62.5 points a game, best in the conference.
"You'd think we never even played in a postseason tournament for all the good the NIT did us around here," says Rose, bemoaning another poor recruiting year. "I know this is just so much mental gymnastics, but when you've got a player as dominating as Joe Barry it's hard to believe there's not a good guard out there who'd like to play with him."
But even a pessimist of Rose's stature couldn't fail to be cheered by Stallings' play against the Yugoslavians. His long jumpers, blond hair and countrified looks remind a lot of Boilermaker fans of Rick Mount. A poor man's Mount, to be sure, but on a team with Carroll, that may be good enough.
In its long and illustrious history, Kentucky has never had a big man quite like Sam Bowie. The 7'1" freshman from Lebanon, Pa. lacks the brawn of Rick Robey and Mike Phillips, the twin pillars around which the Wildcats' 1978 national championship team was built. In fact, when Bowie arrived at Lexington, he was a scrawny 199 pounds. After lots of running, weightlifting and eating, Bowie now tips in at a respectable 223. And the extra poundage and strength haven't cost him any agility and quickness.
The addition of Bowie and three other prize freshmen—Derrick Hord, Charles Hurt and Dirk Minniefield—has turned the Wildcats from a good team into a dark-horse contender for the national title. Left over from last season's NIT entry are such talented players as Kyle Macy, Dwight Anderson and LaVon Williams. "This is the most athletic group I've ever had," says Coach Joe Hall. "They can all run and jump and play defense. This is something I haven't had. In the past I've had to work with some immobile players."
Bowie came to Kentucky with visions of playing forward, but Hall quickly convinced him he'd be a lot more valuable near the hoop than outside launching the bombs he loves. "Sam will get to shoot some jumpers," Hall says, "but we want him to be able to score both inside and out." With that goal in mind, Bowie has spent most of his practice time learning to play the pivot against the kind of big, tough centers he will face this season. He and Williams, the Wildcats' leading rebounder in 1978-79, will operate in a high-low post that could be devastating by season's end.
"We'll be more flexible this year, have a more varied attack." says Hall. "We'll have a good outside shooting game, and we could have a good inside game with Bowie. Once he learns to post up stronger and recognize his scoring opportunities, he's going to be all right." Bowie is the only one of the superfreshmen almost sure to start. At least initially, Hord will come off the bench as a swing-man, Hurt will be a substitute at forward, and Minniefield will be Macy's understudy as floor leader. "Our system is such that older players do better," says Hall.
One of the older players, junior Fred Cowan, last year's No. 2 re-bounder, will start at forward, and another, Anderson, will move from small forward to the starting guard spot alongside Macy, who again will be Kentucky's leader. He's a superb ballhandler, playmaker, passer and outside shooter. And he has fully recovered from the broken jaw he suffered last summer when a Cuban player assaulted him during the Pan-Am Games. Macy is a forceful competitor who could pull Kentucky's raw talent into the kind of cohesive, selfless unit that Hall loves. "Kyle's strengths will show up later in the year, when we get together as a team," the coach says. "We may be going in different directions early."
This lack of cohesiveness was a major factor in the Wildcats' 82-76 overtime loss to Duke on Nov. 17. They proved they have the talent—Bowie outscored Blue Devil Mike Gminski 22-21—but they also showed they need the maturity that can only come with experience. Nevertheless, the performance was encouraging. The young 'Cats may be going in the same direction much sooner than Hall expects.
The zealots who follow University of Toledo basketball are never at a loss when it comes to helping Coach Bobby Nichols overcome the Rockets' shortcomings. Be bolder in the last two minutes, one says; get some quicker forwards, adds another; etc., etc., ad infinitum. Well, folks, Nichols appreciates your offers, but thanks, no thanks, the Rockets are doing just fine on their own—66-20 over the past three seasons and 244-115 during Nichols' 14 years as coach, to be exact.
This season could be the best of all. Seven of the top nine players are back from last year's 22-8 Mid-American Conference champion, which defeated Iowa and gave Notre Dame a big scare in the Mideast Regionals before finally losing 79-71. Heading the list of returnees is Forward Dick Miller, an alternate on last summer's Pan-Am team. Miller has been a starter since the first game of his freshman season, averaging in double figures every year. Also on hand are starters Center/Forward Jim Swaney, last season's on hand are starters Center/Forward Jim Swaney, last season's leading scorer with a 15.9 average; Guard Jay Lehman and the Rockets' Mr. Excitement, Forward Harvey Knuckles, who when he isn't turning the ball over to the opposition—he had three consecutive traveling calls versus Iowa—puts it through the hoop with a dazzling variety of jump shots and dunks. Knuckles has supposedly been cured of his case of hapless feet, but if not, look for Ken Montague to see plenty of action.
Although Toledo hopes to run more than in the past, the scores of Rocket games should continue to be low because Toledo has one of the nation's stingiest defenses. Last season it allowed 62.4 points a game. That tough D helps to compensate for the Rockets' lack of height—the tallest starter is 6'8"—and poor team speed. A dominant center and a quick backcourt are possibly all that stand between Toledo and the NCAA finals, but what could get them there anyway is the coaching ability of Nichols, who, says his Notre Dame counterpart, Digger Phelps, "is in a class by himself."
And he very nearly is. Toledo is one of only five schools with 20 or more consecutive winning seasons. The explanation for the Rockets' success is Nichols' ability as a teacher. "Raw talent is the easiest thing in the world to find," he says. "The thing I've done best is pick the right type of player, the one that fits into our way of doing things."
His way starts with intensity—"A lot of teams just can't match us in that area," Nichols says—and includes rigorous discipline. The Rockets rarely go beyond the framework of their capabilities; instead, they just execute the basics better than their opponents.
"We may lose control of parts of a game but never the whole thing," Nichols says. "We just hang around and around, at the end of the game we'll be there." Indeed, the Rockets have lost only two games by 10 or more points in the last 10 years.
Indiana may be the sole team on Toledo's schedule capable of handing the Rockets that kind of loss this season. But if things should get unexpectedly rough for Nichols and his players, they know they can always get a little help from their friends.
At a cocktail party in Little Rock the other day, Arkansas Coach Eddie Sutton was discussing the stars from the team's glorious recent past. "You know about Ron Brewer," he told the 23 sponsors of the Razorback television broadcasts. "He's already a true NBA star in Portland. Sidney Moncrief would be doing as well in Milwaukee, but the Bucks have an established team and they're winning, and he's a rookie. Steve Schall, Marvin Delph and Jimmy Counce are all regulars with Athletes in Action and they've won their first seven games." These players formed the nucleus of Arkansas teams that had the finest record (102-20) in NCAA basketball the last four seasons and the best five-year league record (63-15) in Southwest Conference history.
This success began with Sutton's arrival in 1974. In the last three seasons alone, the Razorbacks have won or shared three league titles and earned three NCAA tournament berths, finishing third in 1978. "I don't see how we can keep this thing going," Sutton said. "But that's what I told you last year." Texas Coach Abe Lemons, for one, figures Sutton not only can keep it up, but will. "I'm picking Arkansas," he says, "and you know that's not sentiment or wishful thinking. That's realism." Too true. The Razor-backs have three starters back from an outstanding 25-5 team that lost a heartstopper to Indiana State in the Midwest Regional finals. In fact, from top to bottom the Razorbacks may be as strong as ever. And that's without anybody named Moncrief, Brewer or Delph.
Arkansas will also have the youngest team in Sutton's five years in Fayetteville. Power Forward Alan Zahn is the only senior, and the other holdover starters are junior Guard U. S. Reed and 6'10" sophomore Forward Scott Hastings. Hastings didn't become a regular until the 12th game last season, but he quickly established himself as one of the conference's top freshmen, getting 8.3 points and 4.6 rebounds a game. If Hastings has recovered from the loss of his hero, Moncrief, he should be even better. Hastings admired the former Razorback so much that in high school, while leading Independence, Kans. to the state championship, he kept Moncrief's picture tucked beneath his uniform. Thus, it might be said, when Hastings was recruited, Arkansas clearly had the inside position. Joining Hastings and Zahn on the front line will be sophomore Tony Brown, who played 15 minutes a game last year and started at times.
Reed is cut from the mold of the Arkansas stickouts who came before him. At 6'2" he is not especially tall, but he is devastating inside on offense and is a superior defensive player. In Keith Hilliard, a 24.8 scorer at Northeastern Oklahoma JC, the Razorbacks may have their first true point guard. "He's the quickest player I've ever coached," says Sutton, who's specialized in recruiting jackrabbits. Junior Mike Young and sophomore Brad Friess add depth in the backcourt, while James Crockett, Carey Kelly and Leroy Sutton will fight for time on the front line.
Because Arkansas lacks the experience of recent years, the team probably won't mesh as smoothly as usual until the beginning of the conference season. The Hogs' early schedule—in which only LSU figures to be a tough test—will give Sutton a chance to discover the right combination of players for his aggressive man-to-man defense and passing-game offense. "We aren't where we're going to be," he says. "But we have time to get there. Texas A&M ought to win our league, but maybe the Aggies will screw up." If they do, you can bet the Razorbacks will be ready to add some more names to their honor roll.