We can beat anybody in the country on our home court," said Mississippi State Coach James (Babe) McCarthy last week after his Maroons had impressively defeated the nation's No. 1 team, Kentucky, 66-58. McCarthy was feeling his oats, no doubt, but you can hardly blame him when you consider that this clear-cut victory brought State's string to 31 in a row at home. And he could also be forgiven for noting that State's basketball fortunes have undergone quite a change in the few years he has been there.
For more than two decades after the Southeastern Conference was formed in 1932, the folks who run the athletic program down on the quiet oak-strewn campus at Starkville, Mississippi looked on basketball as pretty much of a nothing sport, a wearisome interlude between football and baseball.
Then into the Mississippi State basketball coaching chair in 1955 came the handsome, outgoing McCarthy, a 31-year-old oil salesman of talent who was a graduate of the school some years back. McCarthy seemed the perfect choice to keep up the awful basketball tradition. He had neither coached nor played college ball in his life, although he had played some fine intramural pivot for Sigma Phi in his undergraduate days. His last coaching job, which he abandoned for a future in oil, was at a junior high school in nearby Tupelo. He was a nice guy, a soft-salesman, moving into a position that offered, if little else, an enormous opportunity.
But McCarthy was an eager student of basketball, a fundamentalist. He had a way with parents and a sure eye for talent, too, and in Mississippi and southwestern Tennessee, where some of the hamlet high schools play upwards of 50 games a season, there were plenty of prospects. He recruited and, as Faulkner would say, he endured, and this year State has its first all-McCarthy team, the top seven members of which were discovered within 160 miles of the campus.
THE SCHEDULE HELPS
This is a good team; by Starkville standards it's perfect. Some measure of its success, inescapably, is a result of the unwieldiness of the 12-team Southeastern Conference. This year, because of the unavoidable SEC practice of rotating schedules, Mississippi State has a light load and a dearly important home-court advantage. For instance, each of the strong teams of the league's northeast division—Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech—has played Mississippi State only once this year, all at Starkville.
Credit McCarthy, too. He is employing the pass�, but unsettling, techniques of ball control and zone defense. "Everybody curses the zone," McCarthy says, "but they're no damn good against it. We won't let them get a close-in shot. As for me, I don't much like the zone myself, but I'll use it, just so long as it wins ball games for us."
But the real hero at State is a bashful, All-America center named Bailey Howell, who is the best thing that has happened to basketball at Starkville since someone hung up the first hoop in 1906.
Howell is a 6-foot 7-inch, fresh-faced boy with blue eyes, a precise brush-cut and a good sweep of teeth. He is in his senior year now and, although he claims his enjoyment of basketball has diminished as the pressure increased through the years, he still appears to enjoy the game fully. While roaming a wide pivot area, rudely bumped and buffeted by one or two opponents, an abstracted smile of concentration arches his eyebrows and he seems to be humming. Back and forth he goes, leaning, spiking with his elbows. Then suddenly the ball will be fed him by one of the white-and-maroon-shirted guards, Jerry Keeton, who is his roommate, or the adroit dribbler, Ted Usher. Howell pirouettes, the ball hung high over his head, now urgently looking for one of these men to pound past him or for one of the forwards, Jerry Graves or Charlie Hull, to break across from their spots in the corners. Or perhaps there will be no cutting at all and Howell will choose to go in for himself. With bouncy fakes, full and swift, he gains a half step and a shoulder on the defense, bangs through and springs above the tangle of arms for a crip shot from the very peak of his astonishingly upstretched body. And then, if he misses, or if any of his teammates miss, it's the rebound and struggle for position. Tirelessly, Howell is in on nearly every Maroon play. And he has been for three seasons.
In his tiny home town of Middle-ton, Tennessee, where his father is a rural mail carrier, Howell didn't find much to do aside from fool around with a basketball, and in his senior year of high school he set a state record of 1,187 points in 38 games. This wasn't enough to carry Middleton into a tournament, but it did bring the college scouts down in droves. They found the youngster had the makings of a great player: height, strength, good motions, good habits, big heart, big hands and a normal-sized hatband. They offered gold and clothes and car keys. One even offered a scholarship to his sister who, incidentally, was some basketball player herself.