This year Illini fans are polishing up their orange-and-blue "I Like Harv" buttons early because 1) football is having a few problems in Champaign-Urbana and 2) Schmidt has three starters back plus as fine a pair of sophomores as there is in the Big Ten, which happens to be loaded with fine sophomores. Best of the newcomers is 6'6" Nick Weatherspoon from Canton, Ohio, skinny, knock-kneed and aggressive. 'Spoon had a knee operation when he was a freshman, but it has not slowed him up or affected his excellent shooting. It was Weatherspoon who recruited another hotshot Nick from Ohio, 6'6" Nick Conner, whose high school team in Columbus had a 72-1 record in his three years and won two state titles. Conner jumps even higher than Weatherspoon.
In his fourth season Schmidt at last has the players who can speed things up, and there will be changes in the Illini attack. He is toying with the idea of using one guard, sharpshooting Rick Howat, with four front-court men moving in and out of the middle. It is hard to imagine 6'8", 260-pound Greg Jackson taking his turn in the corners, but Schmidt insists the new attack can work, particularly with Jackson, a boulder of a fellow, setting picks for Howat and Weatherspoon. And with Jackson, Weatherspoon, Conner and 6'4" Fred Miller up front, Illinois will be a formidable rebounding team. This especially pleases Schmidt, who says, "The Big Ten is the best it's ever been, and the league's going to be won or lost on the boards."
There is a good bench, too. Should Schmidt revert to a two-guard offense, Jim Krelle most likely will play beside Howat, with Miller as the swing man. As usual, Schmidt will stress what others call defense but he hides. As he puts it: "We will give up points with reluctance." Tight-lipped. Tight defense.
During practice sessions at Duke, folding chairs ring the edge of the court, each labeled with the name of a Blue Devil. It is all part of Coach Bucky Waters' philosophy of carefully regimented practices in which even the time-outs are designed to simulate game conditions. When a player is not participating in one of the drills, he must sprint to his seat. Once he sits down he finds he cannot talk with other resting teammates—even if he dared to—because Waters has the chairs spaced too far apart. The bench-sitting practice should come in handy for some of Duke's starters from last season. All five of them are back—reason enough to expect the Blue Devils to improve their 17-9 record of a year ago—but as many as four of them may not start.
Their places could be taken by a whole squad of sophomores who were Waters' first recruits when he came to Durham two years ago. They gave Duke the only undefeated (16-0) freshman team the school ever had, which is saying a lot, considering the quality and quantity of Duke players of the past. The lone returnee whose job is secure is Randy Denton, a 6'10", 240-pound senior center. Denton hesitated to use his bulk to punish opponents as a sophomore, but he toughened up last winter and now is a top pro prospect. Denton showed his new aggressiveness when he scored 36 points against Jacksonville's Artis Gilmore in a scrimmage and outscored (21-12) and outrebounded (17-1) All-America Dan Issel in the first half of Duke's game against Kentucky. He also decisively outplayed Michigan's Rudy Tomjanovich, the second pro pick last spring.
Sophomores Jeff Dawson and Richie O'Connor, both of whom scored more than 20 points a game as freshmen, will battle holdovers Rick Katherman, the only strong outside shooter among the upperclassmen, and Brad Evans for the wing positions. Dawson is almost sure to start since Evans decided to play football this year and will not join the team until after the season has begun. Either senior Larry Saunders or sophomore Alan Shaw, both 6'9", will open in the low post.
The most interesting battle for a starting spot will be between two-year starter Dick DeVenzio, a 5'10" point man who is an honor student in English and an aspiring author, and Gary Melchionni, a brother of the Villanova Melchionnis. Gary has four inches over DeVenzio and uses them to good advantage, especially on defense where he has shown exceptional poise. But the quarterback position is the one where experience counts the most. Who plays there will best indicate how Waters solved a preseason problem. "I have to decide whether to start the sophomores or the veterans," he said then. "I've got to determine how the older players would perform coming off the bench. It's called blending egos and ability, which is what they pay me to do."
Lou Watson, coach of the Hurryin' Hoosiers, missed last season while recovering from a back operation that removed two ruptured discs from his spine. They had "just disintegrated," said Watson, wincing at the memory. While he was immobilized, the team disintegrated, too, finishing with a sorry 7-17 record and earning, for the third year in a row, the Big Ten booby prize. What hurt Watson most of all, however, was the fact that he was well enough to watch the games. He had taken over from Branch McCracken six seasons earlier, had been first or last ever since, never in between, and was sick. But now he is healthy, and so is Indiana.