Keep still," mean Tom Chaney told 14-year-old Mattie Ross after being abandoned by his wicked gangmates, Lucky Ned Pepper and the Original Greaser Bob, in Charles Portis' tale, True Grit. "I must now think over my position and how I may improve it." Moments later Mattie replied by blowing Tom Chaney's head off, and he eventually tumbled into a pit of skeletons and snakes.
That, to hear some people tell it last week, was a fairly accurate description of the way things were going in the Missouri Valley Conference. After a season-long series of surprising ambushes, sicknesses, suspensions and racial turmoil, the proud Valley that used to send all those favored teams with Oscar Robertsons and Chet Walkers and Dave Stallworths into the NCAA and NIT tournaments was desperately trying to vindicate its reputation.
On Saturday night, in two Valley hot-spots, the cream finally rose to the top. Home-standing Louisville blew a 13-point lead late in the second half before holding on to defeat Cincinnati 72-68, as unsung local boys Jerry King and Dennis Deeken combined for 43 points. An hour later at Tulsa, Drake won its sixth straight league game by upsetting the Hurricane 87-78. With Gary Zeller opening up the defense and Willie McCarter scoring in the clutch, Drake's Bulldogs pulled away late in the game for a victory that tied Tulsa for second place. Both teams are now 10-3, one game behind Louisville with three to go. "Maybe after tonight we'll get some recognition outside of our own part of the country," said Drake Coach Maurice John. "This team is tired of not being taken seriously."
The fratricide that has characterized Valley play all year accounts in part for such neglect, despite the fact that the top four teams in the conference have a 32-5 record against outside opponents. "I'm relatively new to this conference, but you can't convince me it's a down year," says Ken Hayes, the dark-visaged first-year coach at Tulsa. " Memphis has lost 14 straight, and we needed a tip-in to beat them at the gun. North Texas has blown Cincinnati and Drake out of the gym. Wichita beat Cincy twice and lost to Louisville only on a gift. St. Louis stayed with Louisville through two overtimes. All this is balance, not a sign of weakness."
Unfortunately for Hayes's argument, the conference as a whole has a relatively poor (57-28) record against outsiders, and since 1966 MVC teams have won only one of 10 NCAA and NIT postseason tournament games. In that time no member has gone beyond the first round of the NIT. The fact is, the Missouri Valley no longer has ruling teams such as Cincinnati and Bradley once were, and the standings have been shaken with new, formerly hangdog teams in the ascendancy. Critics attribute this to an overall breakdown of talent more than to a shift in power, and the reasoning usually offered for the leveling process is twofold.
In the last five years every team except Drake has changed coaches. Ed Jucker left Cincinnati, Ralph Miller left Wichita, John Benington left St. Louis and Chuck Orsborn moved up to athletic director at Bradley. Along with their departures, the 1.6 rule, severely limiting recruitment of prospects without academic stature, hurt the Valley probably more than most other conferences. The 1969 senior class is the last one prior to the 1.6 rule. As a result of this, among the 25 best players in the league only four are true (nontransfer) juniors; just one of those, Jim Ard of Cincinnati, is in a class with past Valley stars. Moreover, of the full-time starters on the top five teams in the conference, not one is a sophomore.
There are some good freshmen coming up next year, namely Henry Bacon at Louisville and John Fraley at Cincinnati, but clearly the league will have to go for transfers—such as Tulsa's 6'11" Dana Lewis—to function smoothly in the future.
Such realities in the Valley have brought about vast changes. The best centers in the league are converted forwards. The best shooters are at North Texas State (a former doormat), and (mostly because people had forgotten about it) the sleeper team is Tulsa, whose one Valley co-championship is 14 years old.
Tulsa has not been a surprise to those who remember the 1967 Hurricane team that went to the NIT. Practically the same group was rolling along with an 11-4 record last season when Bobby Smith, the 6'5" scoring star, fractured a bone in his foot. Smith remained in the lineup but was ineffective for the rest of the season, while Tulsa lost its last eight games.
The trouble was compounded by the ugly feelings that simmered between Coach Joe Swank and Athletic Director Glenn Dobbs. Swank, an Indian-American, had a hard time communicating with his black players, and he resigned after the season. Hayes, who was Swank's assistant, is a nonsmoking, non-drinking deacon in the Evangelistic Temple Church. He restored morale, instituted a running game on offense, man-to-man play on defense and abolished Sunday practices. Smith, healthy again and the most consistent player in the league, says of Hayes, "The man keeps us loose. There are no more problems. He lets us run the way we'd been brought up to run."