The shortest distance between two points is not the route the Houston Cougars will take this year if by some slim chance they reach their goal. They will play 12 games at home in Hofheinz Pavilion and another 14 on the road, all to get right back to Houston, only this time to the Astrodome where the NCAA finals will be held in March before an anticipated crowd of 50,000. For the Cougars to get there, Coach Guy Lewis would successfully have to replace Ollie Taylor (now graduated to the New York Nets), find a center and survive a killing schedule. Houston, which admittedly had an easy time of it last season, must play at least 10 teams capable of making the top 20 ranking and will travel to such distracting places as Miami, New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans. Why these cities? "Well," says Lewis, "we went to Hawaii and Vegas last year."
The Cougars also won a surprising 25 games, overcoming their lack of a bona fide pivotman by sending the 6'2" Taylor high into the Texas heavens to average 24 points and 12 rebounds. This time, with the exception of a home-town boy, "Double D" (Dwight Davis), the other teams will have the jumpers. Houston's backcourt will be smart and swift with an improved Poo Welch and newcomer Larry Brown, who brings a 35-point scoring average from Northeastern Oklahoma A & M Junior College. Welch's marksmanship, or the sometimes glaring lack of aim, was a disappointment last winter, but Lewis expects him to select better shots now that he is a senior; his ball handling and direction of the fast break have never been in question.
In the corners are the 6'7" Davis and 6'5" Jeff Hickman, who had fine sophomore years. Davis, an intimidator on defense, was only the second Cougar in history to score over 500 points as a rookie (Elvin Hayes was the first) while Hickman may well be Houston's best outside shooter ever. Hickman can also play backcourt, as can 6'4" Jerry Bonney, a red shirt last year. The problem is in the middle. Davis could play there, and does on defense. Or the seasoned Bob Hall could. Or sophomore Gene Bodden, who is 6'9" and muscular. But Steve Newsome, another sophomore and a natural cornerman, probably will. The 6'8" Newsome was primarily a football player in high school and is still learning the fundamentals of basketball, but he has been the leading scorer and rebounder in preseason practice and seems to be maturing rapidly.
Sad though it may be, the real Houston center is on the freshman team. His name is Dwight Jones, and he is the kind of extraordinary player who makes coaches look ahead. As Lewis says of this year's varsity, "I've quit dreamin'. We're not very impressive. I wish I had Jones right now." The NCAA probably came to the Astrodome a year early.
Once upon a time all University of Utah teams dressed in one locker room and Athletic Director Bud Jack had his office in a converted lavatory. But last winter the school finally got Jack out of the John and its athletes into a five-building, $10.5 million sports center. The complex includes such delights as carpeted dressing-rooms, a palatial natatorium with automatic timers that can do everything but leave wake-up calls after the diving events, and enough shower and dressing rooms to wash and clothe the Russian army. Indeed, the third tallest building in Salt Lake City would fit comfortably inside the 15,000-seat basketball arena.
The one trouble with going deluxe is that a school has to turn out teams worthy of the treatment. The Utes are, thanks in good part to the recruitment of two distinguished players before the building program got under way, Mike Newlin and Ken Gardner. Newlin is a senior guard who averaged 26 points last season. Twice a conference player of the year, he led the Redskins in scoring in every league game. He is an honor student, he is among the best guards in the West and he is the type of player who thrives on pressure. Fouled an unusual number of times—he was among the nation's leaders in the attacked and mugged category—Newlin sank 87.2% of his free throws. His style with free throws is distinctive: bounce, bounce, bounce—as unfriendly stands count the bounces in unison—and then, suddenly, without looking at the basket, the shot.
Gardner complements Newlin. A good shooter—very sharp from the corner—he consistently scores 15 points a game and leads the Utes in rebounding. As intense as Newlin, he channels his drive into steady play.
At 6'10" and 225 pounds, Center Jim Mahler will be more than adequate against most teams, but will have trouble against the quicker, better-shooting big men. Help here could come from another senior, a 6'5" forward and center with the fetching name of Early Laster. He is strong and plays the Utah high post well, but he has a weakness opponents might exploit. His nickname is "Peaches."