One night just a year ago Coach John Dromo was sitting all alone at the press table, his swarthy brow knitted into the puzzled frown of a man who did not know whether to laugh or cry. Out there on the floor in Freedom Hall his varsity team was stumbling its sorry way to a 107-90 loss to the freshmen, of all people. It was not until season's end that Dromo knew for sure that he should have been laughing uproariously. By then his varsity had tied for the Missouri Valley championship and run up a 21-6 record. The lesson of that preseason debacle was obvious: his varsity was good enough but, brother, just wait till next year. "Potentially, we're better than we were last year," underestimated Dromo as practice began this fall. "This is going to be an exciting bunch of kids to watch."
Not since the early days of the Westley Unseld-Butch Beard teams has basketball excitement been so high in Louisville. The fans were talking about winning the NCAA championship with such earnestness that even a natural optimist like Dromo felt compelled to temper the enthusiasm. "Look, our problem is that we've got four great individual sophomores," he said, "but it's tough trying to harness them into a team. It's like the paratrooper going out the plane door for the first time. He wanted to know what would happen if his chute didn't open and his instructor said, 'I would say you're jumping to a conclusion, son.' Well, that's exactly what our fans are doing with these kids. Thank God we've got Grosso."
Grosso's first name is Mike and he is the only starter returning. At 6'9" and 235 pounds, he was the leading rebounder last year despite a bum right knee and now, with the knee more or less workable, he should become a Louisville center in the Unseld-Charlie Tyra mold. "He's unselfish like Wes and Charlie—he'd rather score 5 and win than get 25 and lose," says Dromo. "He's the cement that can hold us together."
As for the sophomores, 6'9" Forward Al Vilcheck is expected to help Grosso get plenty of rebounds, while 6'0" Guard Larry Carter is regarded as the Cardinals' best shooter in years. The other guard, 6'2" Jim Price, is as smooth and gifted all-round as Beard, but the best athlete of all may be 6'3" Forward Henry Bacon, a homegrown high school All-America who "pound for pound is the best player in America," in Dromo's opinion.
The Cardinals will be tested early on, playing Florida and Florida State in back-to-back road games Dec. 20 and 22. "Those two games are it," says Dromo. "If we win them, we know we'll be loaded." Get with it, John—the fans know it already.
When Bob Boyd arrived to begin the resuscitation of USC basketball three years ago, Lew Alcindor started his varsity eligibility at UCLA. While Alcindor and the Bruins packed in the crowds at their Pauley Pavilion, a lecture on medieval art could have outdrawn the Trojans on some of those same nights. Now, suddenly, USC has sold more season tickets than it ever has, and the Sports Arena on game nights will be something more than a nice place to do homework.
One reason for the new interest is USC's 46-44 upset of UCLA on the Bruins' own floor last season, but more important is the presence of the most talented group of sophomores in the school's history. These five had a 19-0 record as freshmen and each one averaged in double figures while making better than 50% of his shots. To give them some competition Boyd has two good junior lettermen and, for whipped cream, three fellows from Phoenix JC who played together on a two-time state championship high school team in Newark.
"There is more potential here than in any group I've coached at USC," says Boyd, "but it's also the most inexperienced team I will have coached. Just say I have guarded optimism."
His novices should learn quickly with a December and early January schedule that includes Florida State, St. John's, Vanderbilt, Colorado, LSU, Houston and the Far West Classic in Portland, Ore. Then comes the Pacific Eight, which "may well be the top basketball conference in the country this year," Boyd says.