The screech of tipoff whistles, the slap of a thousand sneakers on hardwood, the swish of leather through cord herald the start of the college basketball season this week. Sports Illustrated's selection of the 20 best teams begins on the following page, and on page 54 the editors note some others that may spring surprises.
The scholastic standards of New York University occasionally pay off for Coach Lou Rossini when they attract someone like Barry Kramer, a premed student who is—coincidentally—the best college basketball player in the U.S. this year. More often, though, those standards raise havoc with Rossini's plans. Like players in a marathon poker game, squad members move in and out of the lineup as their grades are reported. Latest returns from the dean's office show Tom Boose back in, Neil O'Neill out. Both are guards, though Boose is a converted forward. He is the better scorer, but O'Neill will be missed because he is the best backcourt playmaker the Violets have or, rather, had. Pending further academic bulletins, however, NYU has everything else.
This should be the first national champion from the East in a decade. Every coach, of course, has problems, but they are usually of the we-need-a-big-man or we-need-some-one variety. Rossini has the personnel. Even without O'Neill, he has enough to overwhelm every squad on his schedule. His chief concern is to get his first five to play together as a team instead of as a bunch of individual showboats. ( Kramer is a happy exception.) A lesser but serious problem is 6-foot-7, 225-pound Happy Hairston, who has the speed, mobility and natural talent to be an All-America like Kramer. But Hairston takes such a casual attitude toward basketball that no one would be surprised if he forgot to show up for a game.
On the plus side, every Violet player is a superb and enthusiastic rebounder; when a team misses a shot against NYU it rarely gets a second chance. Kramer is an all-round whiz: pass, shoot, jump, defend. Transfer student Ray Bennett, 6 feet 8, completes a fast, powerful front line. NYU's guards, 6-foot-5 Bob Patton and 6-foot-3 Boose, will be bigger than most of the backcourt men they meet and will yield nothing in speed. The bench is more than adequate. Sure early victories over weak teams will propel NYU into prominence, and then the incentive of a national title within their grasp should force these fine players to act as a team.
Unranked and unnoticed, the Dons moved with a typically deliberate speed last season that almost carried them to the championship of the Western Regionals. They lost no one of importance, have some talented newcomers, and a year of experience with their highly disciplined style at both ends of the court has made them into a tough, cohesive unit. They are going to surprise all the pollsters. The Dons are so well drilled by Coach Pete Peletta that they rarely beat themselves. Peletta is a bright young strategist and an effective recruiter. Previously, he was also a fidgeter and shouter, but he became so uncommonly quiet in practice this fall that two well-meaning senior players asked him seriously if he were "sick or something." Peletta is sick like Popeye the Sailor Man. "Our weakness, if we have one," he says, "is defense." Well, the Dons were ninth in the nation in defense last year and cannot fail to be better. Defense is an obsession with the basketball school Peletta represents; other successful practitioners have been Phil Woolpert and Pete Newell. With improved rebounding, SF occasionally will use a fast break this year. Normally, however, Peletta prefers a patterned offense that, as the season wears on, will be directed more and more by sophomore Russ Gumina. At 6 feet 2 and 210 pounds, Gumina looks like Rocky Marciano and is just as strong. Senior Jim Brovelli broke a small bone in his wrist, but will be back in three weeks to team with Gumina in the backcourt. Huey Thomas is the other starting guard. The Dons have their best center since Bill Russell in 6-foot-8 Ollie Johnson, who averaged 17.3 as a sophomore. But the top point man this year may turn out to be Dave Lee, a 6-foot-7 forward who came on strong late last season. Eddie Thomas, a fine defensive performer, will start at the other forward, but two sophomores—Joe Ellis and Erwin Mueller—are putting pressure on the first five. SF players are aware, if the polls are not, that they can be title contenders. So is Peletta. His pipelines are so crammed with basketball players that he eased up on recruiting last year. When Pete Peletta stops hollering and cuts down on recruiting at the same time, he is holding a very pat hand.
In 1948 Ozzie Cowles coached the only postwar Big Ten champion from Michigan. When he and the team got back to Ann Arbor from the NCAA tournament, a campus acquaintance stopped him, inquired politely about his health and asked where he had been for the past few days. As soon thereafter as possible, Cowles left Michigan for places where basketball was appreciated a bit more. Times have changed in Ann Arbor. Nobody asks Coach Dave Strack where he has been lately. It is evident he has been out in the bushes drumming up talent, and he has got a hatful. If Michigan comes out unbowed from the annual bloodbath that is the Big Ten conference race—and it should—it may well be the favorite in the NCAA title round. Basketball is now so big in Ann Arbor that this fall, for the first time, students paid for football tickets. This doesn't make sense until you understand that 20,000 students used to be admitted free to football games, but this year they paid $1 a game in order to get preferential seating for the basketball season.
Michigan was 16-8 last year, but 10 of the wins came in the first 11 games. Center Bill Buntin, first in the Big Ten in rebounds, third in scoring, simply ran out of help. The difference this year is a superb group of sophomores. Up front with Buntin are two of them—Jim Myers (6 feet 8), who is primarily a scorer, and Oliver Darden (6 feet 7), strong on defense and rebounding. The Wolverines' board work compares with NYU's and Loyola's. Cazzie Russell, a 6-foot-5 sophomore who will start at guard, "can play in our league right now," says one NBA coach. Russell will also fill in at forward and is even able to relieve Buntin at center. He will cause quite a defensive stir among teams with 6-foot guards. Strack has another good 6-foot-5 backcourt man in Larry Tregoning, but Captain Bob Cantrell probably will start with Russell. Doug Herner, another starter last year, gets bumped. Cantrell has a big role: he must pace the kids. They may be too frisky and too sure of themselves for the smartly coached teams in this conference. Russell, for example, has already forecast two NCAA titles for himself and his classmates. He may be right.