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THE TOP 20 TEAMS
December 01, 1969
Not in four years has anybody dared pick against UCLA. Even with Lew Alcindor gone, to do so now is still chancy. John Wooden's teams have always been good and this year's edition is no exception. But the Gamecocks of South Carolina, an almost all-New York team, and the Aggies of New Mexico State, not to mention Purdue with Rick Mount, may have enough finesse and—most of all—enough desire to unseat college basketball's biggest winner
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December 01, 1969

The Top 20 Teams

Not in four years has anybody dared pick against UCLA. Even with Lew Alcindor gone, to do so now is still chancy. John Wooden's teams have always been good and this year's edition is no exception. But the Gamecocks of South Carolina, an almost all-New York team, and the Aggies of New Mexico State, not to mention Purdue with Rick Mount, may have enough finesse and—most of all—enough desire to unseat college basketball's biggest winner

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1 SOUTH CAROLINA

Columbia, S.C. is not your everyday hotbed of campus antiwar sentiment, but last Oct. 15, 1,000 students demonstrated on M-Day at the Carolina Coliseum. Their target was not the moratorium but an M of a different order—that twinkling, wavy-haired, stylish charmer of a basketball coach, Frank McGuire. When McGuire's Gamecocks pranced onto the court for their first practice, the students stood en masse, clapping and cheering until McGuire himself appeared, when they cheered even louder. "I've never felt anything like it," McGuire says. "...well, yes I have. There was 1957." In 1957 while at North Carolina McGuire took his team of five New Yorkers to a 32-0 season and the national championship. On M-Day the Coliseum demonstrators were simply showing their appreciation for a man and a basketball program that are—12 years and one Carolina later—in a comparable position to turn out a national champion all over again.

The five iron men who played most of the way through last season's 21-victory schedule (including a stunning upset of LaSalle in the Quaker City final) have all returned. Well, almost all. Guard Billy Walsh succumbed to his school books and will sit out the first semester. In 6'10" Tom Owens and 6'2" John Roche, South Carolina has two skinny juniors who will be playing their seventh season together (they were teammates at LaSalle Academy in Manhattan) and who work the pick and roll better than anyone in college. A brilliant passer and shooter, Roche averaged 23.6 points a game and upset North Carolina's Charles Scott for the ACC player of the year award last season. He controls every South Carolina game with verve and polish and he just may be the finest backcourt man in the history of the conference. Though Owens led the league in rebounds, he is a natural forward and will move to the corner to make room for Tom Riker, a 6'10" sophomore who is left-handed, pink-cheeked, strong and agile. Riker moves and shoots either way underneath but must control a tendency to slash people muscling the boards if he wants to stay in the game. John Ribock, a 6'8" policeman who can shoot, is the other forward (and the only non-New Yorker of the first seven) while senior Bob Cremins and sophomore Bob Carver share the second guard spot until Walsh's return.

In addition to setting up for Roche's pet moves, South Carolina will run a lot more and vary its defenses from the standard zone McGuire had to use last season in order to protect his only five. The Gamecocks are deep, stylish and remarkably poised. It has taken a while, but Frank McGuire, himself a New York expatriate, is all the way back.

2 NEW MEXICO STATE

The case against New Mexico State concerns its competition—a group of potential disaster victims, according to critics. Of course, Joe Louis never took on anybody, either, nor did the New York Jets. Nor, in fact, did the last team to come wandering out of the Southwest wastelands with a schedule everybody laughed at. The Miners of Texas Western (now UTEP) went on to plunder the college basketball world in 1966, win the national championship and—it is a long time between drinks—stand today as the only team in the last six years to interrupt UCLA's monopoly on the title.

The local gentry of Las Cruces think they have seen enough of Coach Lou Henson and his first three Aggie teams (all of which went to the NCAA tournament) to suspect that they have another good bet from the white sands. "If we had been in another region the last two years, my kids think they could have made the final four," says Henson, who lost to UCLA in the '68 and '69 Western playoffs. "It feels good to be playing for No. 1 again—when you know you have a chance."

With their first six men back plus four sophomores who will help a lot, State may have as good a chance as anyone. The Aggies have won 47 games over the past two seasons with their two stars, Slammin' Sam Lacey and Jimmy Collins, sharing most of the honors. This summer Collins took the Mississippi-bred Lacey back home to Syracuse, where they worked in construction together and scrimmaged on the playgrounds. As a result, Lacey came to school 10 pounds lighter, twice as aggressive and seriously eyeing a pro contract.

With his newly acquired depth, Henson plans to run and run some more while pressing all over the court on defense. Lacey, 6'10", and Jeff Smith, 6'8", will get the ball; Collins and Charley Criss—one of the quickest backcourts anywhere—will handle it; and the Aggies will not so much run as smoke up to the basket. John Burgess, 6'6", is an unsung but solid defender and ball handler who could free Collins to work the baseline, where he is most dangerous. Criss was sorely missed by the Aggies in the playoffs last year (he was ineligible), because he runs the offense and is a good enough shooter to deny double teams on Collins. Now he will play the whole season.

Henson is a strict disciplinarian who softsells rather than screams his players into respect, and he is not one to allow his talent to get out of hand over playing time and who scores the points. His team's bum-of-the-month club includes Oklahoma Christian, Sul Ross and Boise State, but do not be deceived. New Mexico State is no light taco. As Henson says, "We're going to have to play awfully bad to lose."

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