Like AIC, Springfield, a city of 180,000, is enjoying prosperity these days. So many new building projects are springing up—a $13.9 million civic center, a downtown renovation with two shopping malls called Bay State West, a luxury hotel and a 24-story office building—that the city hardly noticed more than a year ago when Robert McNamara decided to close The Armory, birthplace of the Springfield rifle. Springfield even sprang for a handsome contribution to the Basketball Hall of Fame, which, after years of operating out of closets, now is housed in a modern $750,000 building and draws 32,000 sightseers a year. Despite the Naismith tradition, however, no team from Springfield has ever won a national championship. They are hoping that this might be the year.
The city and AIC may find out earlier than the NCAA finals—on Jan. 3, to be exact. That is the night the Yellow Jackets are scheduled to meet Evansville, and beating the Aces, who have won four college-division titles in the last 10 years, is never easy, particularly on their home court. Beating them this season will be a lot harder than last, when Evansville was 12-14, mostly because of the presence of two sophomores who have Indianians excited again. They are 6'3" Don Buse, who is already drawing comparisons with Jerry Sloan, Evansville's alltime everything, and 6'8" Steve (The Whale) Welmer.
Among the other powers of small-college basketball, about the only one AIC probably will not have to worry itself over is Kentucky Wesleyan, where four starters are gone, including All-America George Tinsley, who left school for the ABA's Kentucky Colonels. But AIC notably can expect considerable competition from a team in another Springfield—Southwest Missouri State. If State's rooters are any measure, then the Massachusetts Springfielders had better watch out. The Chamber of Commerce has said that: "Experience has shown it is not wise to schedule any kind of event on the same night that Southwest State is playing a basketball game." As many as three radio stations broadcast the school's games and fans have been known to stand in line all night to purchase one of 3,500 available seats. Southwest State, 75-71 loser in the college-division finals last year, returns 6'7" Pivot Curtis Perry, a 20-point, 15-rebound man, among others and should keep the home folks smiling.
There is smiling going on, too, in Lorman, Miss., where 500 residents still pride themselves over the Conn Brothers General Store—the original country store, so they claim. The prospects for Alcorn A&M, which lost some strength from a 26-1 squad but returns both guards and strong, 6'5" Floyd Mason, who can jump so well that it takes a 6'9" foe to stop him, seem excellent. If Alcorn is not the class of the South, then Bellarmine, with five of its top six players from a good 16-12 team returning, or Tennessee State may be. State, which has sent Dick Barnett, John Barnhill and Ben Warley to the pros, is saying that it has yet another like them in Guard Ted McClain.
Ashland of Ohio, basketball's equivalent to a slow pulse beat, shoots seldom, scores less and refuses to work the ball in. But the Eagles are ball hawks, to mix a metaphor or, better yet, to mix up opposing teams. Four of the five frustrators who limited foes to 33.9 points a game last Season are back, including long-armed Guard Kevin Wilson. He is only 6'5" but he gives the impression of having the longest wing spread of all in the Ashland aerie. The team is famed for tricky ball handling before its games begin. Those who have had to play against the Ohioans after the center tap-off usually wish the warmup show had never stopped. Getting the ball away from Ashland has been—and this season will continue to be—as easy as stealing an egg from an Eagle's nest.
Though basketball still plays second fiddle to football at Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., rookie Coach Don Zech revitalized things with a 20-2 season (24-3 if you count schools like Hawaii, which the NCAA does not) and, with four starters back, the Loggers should dominate the Pacific Coast. Yet the best in the West may be the NAIA defending champion, Eastern New Mexico. A running team that travels by Greyhound bus and has, appropriately, two greyhounds for mascots, it returns four-fifths of the brigade that sank 63% of its shots in Kansas City last March. Greg Hyder, a 6'6" NAIA All-America forward the last three years, teams with brother Jerry to form a solid nucleus. If John Arnold, better known for his antelope-hunting exploits in the Portales, N. Mex. hills, comes through at center, the team should repeat.
Primary challenge to American International's Eastern supremacy will come from Gannon College in Erie, Pa., a former NAIA school that just joined the NCAA. Glenn Summors last season scored 30 points against Niagara and 24 against Dayton, both major powers. He leads a lineup that includes the first six from a 24-6 team.
Should AIC manage to end up with a title and a better record than any of those schools, in Springfield they just may find a small niche for a little plaque in that building they helped erect. Dr. Naismith of the rivals would have approved of that.