SI Vault
Joe Jares
January 20, 1969
At least eight schools in the Midwest's biggest conference are good enough to play with the best in the country. But the sleeper may be the Fighting Illini, who can't get to the NCAA but can cause trouble
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January 20, 1969

A Roughhouse In The Big Ten

At least eight schools in the Midwest's biggest conference are good enough to play with the best in the country. But the sleeper may be the Fighting Illini, who can't get to the NCAA but can cause trouble

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The winds came, and even in Columbus football suddenly was no longer news. Across the Midwest last week, citizens were moving indoors to thaw out and check on such weighty matters as Rick Mount's new hair style, Rudy Tomjanovich's aching back and Northwestern's toy bulldog.

It is pleasant to report that Mount indeed sports a new look, with the blond curl that once bisected his forehead now combed to the side so that he currently looks like a stockbroker in shorts. It is even pleasanter to report that the Purdue junior is otherwise the same old Rocket, tossing in 30-foot jump shots while falling out of bounds or standing on his head.

Michigan's new coach, John Orr, was publicly distraught not long ago about his ailing star, Tomjanovich. But the poor lad has managed to stay out of traction long enough to be averaging 27.2 points a game (Mount has 32.3). As for the bulldog, Northwestern stations it on the scorer's table at each of its games; to implement this sorcery the Wildcats also carry around the leg bone of a cow. Minnesota came up with a less delicate totem. It practiced in a parking lot of the San Diego airport one morning several weeks ago using, instead of a ball, a roll of toilet paper with the weight of an official basketball clearly printed on its side.

If all this seems to add up to nothing, one other fact may help clarify matters. The Big Ten has been winning quite a few games recently. Wisconsin beat both Kansas and Kentucky and lost by only one point to Notre Dame. Minnesota, with a new coach, Bill Fitch, and two of George Mikan's sons playing, knocked off nationally ranked Marquette and Detroit. Ohio State gave UCLA its toughest game of the season and Iowa is a respected dark horse. But in many ways the most impressive team of all is Illinois. Wrecked by a slush fund scandal only two years ago and still not eligible for the NCAA tournament, the Illini have run up an impressive 11-1 record, including an 82-77 overtime victory at Northwestern last Saturday in the Big Ten's TV game of the week.

One of the important reasons for the Illini's success is Harv Schmidt, a skinny alumnus who stepped into the coaching job following the scandal and did not waste a minute before getting to work. Hired, he was introduced to the press in Champaign on a Wednesday, was on a bumpy flight to Albuquerque (he had been an assistant at New Mexico) Wednesday night, took one day to settle his affairs and was back in Illinois the next day to attend the high school all-state banquet and meet a load of potential recruits. He has been scouring the state from Kankakee (where he played in high school) to Moline (where he coached) ever since.

Schmidt's success last season and this came as no surprise to his old boss at New Mexico, Bob King. "I told those people back there at Illinois that he'd get the job done," said King. "He's very intent about what he does. The two of us would be there on the bench chewing Mylanta antacid pills by the pack. If he was chewing them as an assistant coach, he must be really putting them away now."

The Illini, led by a big, mobile forward, Dave Scholz, "the six-eighter from Decatur," went through their first nine games unbeaten, then opened their Big Ten season with an impressive 80-58 win over Minnesota at home. In the middle of last week it was pass-the-pills time again for Schmidt because his team had to travel to Purdue's big roundhouse and play the Rocket and his friends, favorites to win the championship. Yet Schmidt did not sound as though he were worried.

"I can tell they are sky high for the game," he said. "I have never seen them sharper. I think it'll be hellish close."

It turned out to be merely hellish. Purdue zipped to an early 14-point lead, let Illinois get back into contention, then moved ahead for good with a fast-breaking offense and a pressing, man-to-man defense that exposed Illinois' lack of good ball handlers. Mount, playing the middle in a 1-3-1 formation cooked up by Coach George King, made 16 of 24 shots, mostly long jumpers, and 37 points. But the clue to Purdue's strength is that Mount was not the only Boilermaker hero in this game. Illinois had as much trouble containing stocky, 5'10�" Guard Bill Keller, who would wow everybody with his outside shooting on any team that did not have Mount. Sophomore George Faerber, 6'5", got down the floor quickly and drove in for baskets even with men hanging all over him. And at the other end of the floor he did a good defensive job on Scholz.

The performance of 7-foot Center Chuck Bavis, however, was the most pleasing for Purdue. Bavis is so slow that King normally does not start him against smaller pivotmen—he did not even play against Wisconsin. But, to offset Illinois' husky, 6'8" sophomore Greg Jackson, Bavis started and the results were sensational. He was seven for seven from the floor, while Jackson was zero for five and sat out much of the game. "Bavis ate our kid alive," said Schmidt afterward. "He took him right out of the game."

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