Back and forth across the Carolinas and Virginias, where college basketball rates higher than barbecue, the schools of the Southern Conference torment each other with diabolic defenses, home-court advantages and 6-foot 11-inch carpetbaggers. A coach needs to gather not only his wits about him but four or five fine Yankee athletes as well, to get through the schedule with hide and pride intact.
This season Coach Lefty Driesell of Davidson College, Mecklenburg County, N.C., proved himself the most adept gatherer. His Wildcats lost their second game, to St. Joseph's in Philadelphia's inhospitable Palestra, then reeled off 22 straight victories from Jacksonville, Fla., to Madison Square Garden. The tiny Presbyterian school, highly rated academically for more than 125 years, was unbeaten in 12 league games and was the obvious choice to represent the conference against Providence in Philadelphia on March 8, the first step toward a possible NCAA championship. But few things are logical in the Southern Conference, a strange assortment of public, church and military schools that has changed borders more often than Czechoslovakia; 32 institutions have been members at one time or another since its founding in 1921.
Last week the entire season was thrown out with the leftover ham hocks. Davidson came into the Charlotte Coliseum along with seven of the conference also-rans to play it all over again in a three-day, single-elimination tournament. And as per custom since the dark ages of Dixie basketball, the tourney champion would be the conference champion. Even Virginia Military Institute, with the eighth best winning percentage, had a chance. Last year the Keydets eliminated regular-season champ Davidson in the second round, 82-81, after Davidson Guard Barry Teague had taken what would have been the winning shot in the last seconds. The ball rolled the wrong way on the rim like a loaded die.
"It's quite a job to get 'em up for the second night," said Coach Driesell before the opening round last week. "I think that's what happened last year. For the first game you've got time to get 'em prepared. But if we win that, then we don't have a whole lot of time. We've got the tourney plus three games before we go to Portland [for the NCAA finals], but it all could be over tomorrow. That's the frightening part of it. I think anybody in this tournament could win that gets a hot hand."
Charlotte's Chamber of Commerce tournament committee was packed with Davidson alumni and boosters. The city is just 20 miles south of the campus, and the Wildcats play half their home games in the Coliseum. Davidson people say Lefty Driesell has given them something to "be right proud of" at last. "I was graduated from Davidson about the same time Lefty graduated from Duke," said one alumnus. "I recall we lost about 33 major athletic events in a row. So this team is a real treat for us. Lefty was an unknown when he came here. I saw Duke play right much when I was going to Davidson, and I don't remember him at all. The first time I saw him was September four years ago, when most of the boys on this team were freshmen. Lefty did one thing. He went out and really sold boys on his product, Davidson College."
One of the buyers was tall Fred Hetzel from Washington, D.C., an All-America who made close to 60% of his shots this season. There was Don Davidson from Salem, Ohio, all-state in football and basketball as a prep and quick enough, even at 6 feet 5 inches, to handle opposing guards. And with them was a jumping junior from North Canton, Ohio, named Dick Snyder, who picked Davidson over 75 other schools that fancied him. In high school he was an All-America quarterback, all-state in baseball, honorable-mention all-state in basketball and a good student. Ohio State insisted on giving him a football scholarship, but Dick wanted to play basketball. Neither he nor his family had ever heard of Davidson. But Lefty, who works much faster than his native Virginia speech patterns would indicate, changed that. Snyder broke the record in Davidson's freshman athletic ability test, running the 100-yard dash in 10.3 and punting a football 54 yards, among other things. He plays center field and pitches for the baseball team, and the major league scouts faithfully attend every game. With scant practice he beat the school's top triple jumper by two feet.
In basketball Snyder finished second to Hetzel in Southern Conference scoring this season and rebounded as if the floors were trampolines. Each game he guarded the best front-court man on the opposing team. In the opening round of the tournament Thursday his assignment was VMI's all-conference Forward Charlie Schmaus. Snyder stayed closer to Schmaus's jersey than Schmaus did himself and held him to 10 points, his lowest total of the season. Snyder scored 28 points and Hetzel 31. Davidson won 86-73. The nation's longest victory string was extended to 23, but the folks in red-dirt Mecklenburg County were edgy, especially Coach Driesell.
He entered the dressing room after the VMI game to find reporters talking to his players and growled to the guards, "Get these boys out of here." He remembered the second-round upset of the year before, and so did everyone else. Waiting for Lefty the next night was West Virginia, several notches below the quality of the Jerry West, Rod Hundley and Rod Thorn days, but still dangerous. The Mountaineers, struggling through a rare losing season while a fine freshman team simmered, started shooting like Daniel Boone in their last regular game, embarrassing a good Virginia Tech team by a 54-point margin at Morgantown. In the first game of the tournament they shot a record 62% from the floor in beating George Washington. Perhaps this was the team with the "hot hand" to send Davidson's intellectuals back to the classroom.
"We're going to win it," said West Virginia Coach George King before the tourney. "I'll go on record on that. The kids think we'll win it, and so do I. This has been an awful year for us, but now we have a new lease on life. We can make amends."
Davidson had the pressure of the winning streak and the worries of a second-round jinx, but it also had the overwhelming support of the fans, many of whom had helped fill the arena the previous year when the tournament had brought in $93,000 net and brought down the Wildcats. Guard Barry Teague's sister Sharon, a pretty, dark-haired Charlotte student who helps lead cheers, put as much energy into the battle as he did, and Guard Charlie Marcon's sister watched tensely from the stands. West Virginia had a chorus line of lovelies, a rooting section that strained to be heard and a red-bearded youth dressed up like a mountaineer and leaning on a long rifle.