The absence of Payne, along with two other starters from Rupp's 26th SEC championship team, nevertheless raises bothersome questions about the upcoming season. The Wildcats are thin in numbers and, most unusual, count four out-of-staters among the likely starting five. One of them is a lad who swears not to have heard of Rupp until he was a senior in high school. The lone Kentuckian is 6'6" Larry Stamper from Beattyville who had an undistinguished sophomore season.
Payne will be replaced by promising but foul-prone Jim Andrews, a frequently used 6'11" reserve last year whose rebounds-per-minute average was actually the best on the team. He even appeared brilliant on occasion, as in the game against Auburn when, as the story goes, he followed a missed shot by leaping from the foul line, turning around in midair and putting the ball in with his back to the basket. "Well, not exactly," Andrews admits today. "I was trying to pass."
The mainstay of Kentucky's team is 6'7" Tom Parker, whose 17.6 average topped the Wildcats during the 22-6 campaign. He is as durable and consistent as he is talented, and something of an optimist about the new season. "We can be better this year because Eve never been on a team that got along so well. We've got plenty of talent and Andrews will help improve the defense."
Kent Hollenbeck, a 6'4" guard who averaged 14 points per game, is Kentucky's only other returning starter. He will be joined in the backcourt by Bob McGowan, who was caught bellying up to the bar a season and a half ago and sent into exile. At the time he was a frequent starter who had been chosen Most Valuable Player of that season's UK Invitational Tournament. The reserves are headed by a pair of sophomores, 6'7" Rick Drewitz and little Ronnie Lyons, Kentucky's outstanding high school player two years ago, who averaged over 24 points a game as a freshman.
At 70, Rupp seems to be enjoying his best health in years. His last season, you dare wonder? Rupp has said nothing, but it appears that after several so-so recruiting years he has a ballyhooed freshman team that could be his best ever and, well, you know....
Twenty years ago St. John's went to the NCAA final before losing to Kansas and Clyde Lovellette. The Redmen have not climbed quite that high since, but this season the subway-riding students, the Vincentian Fathers and even The Great Stone Face himself, second-year Coach Frank Mulzoff, have hopes that the team will be the best in school history. That would be a singular accomplishment since St. John's has won exactly 1,001 games in 64 seasons and earned 20 NIT invitations. Only two other schools have a better winning percentage over the years.
The main reason for all the optimism on the Borough of Queens campus is 6'7" junior Forward Mel Davis from Boys High of Brooklyn, one of the most famous player incubators in the country. As a sophomore, Davis averaged 20.7 points and 17.8 rebounds while the Redmen were winning 18 and losing nine. Davis goes up so high that he wears five pairs of socks to ease the shock when he comes down. But that's nothing at all for the Redmen. His teammate, 6'6" sophomore Ed Searcy, wears seven pairs of socks, meaning he leaps higher than Davis—or maybe his shoes are too big.
Searcy played for a powerful team at New York City's Power Memorial High, alma mater of Lew Alcindor. Two of his illustrious teammates went to Maryland, but Searcy opted for Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He was unhappy, transferred to St. John's and sat out last season. His presence (he's eligible for the last 13 games) will ease Davis' rebounding responsibilities. But just in case those two do not grab every carom in sight, there is 7-foot Billy Phillips and 6'9" Greg Cluess, the team captain, both starters last year. The St. John's backcourt is only slightly less impressive. The main candidates are 6'5" Bill Schaeffer (second high scorer last season at forward), Kevin Raftery, Larry Jenkins and Richie Lyons. "We'll have some vicious practices because we have eight or nine men," says Mulzoff, his usually immobile face cracking into a broad grin.
There are some minuses, of course. The Redmen have only three home games in December, playing tournament dates in Maryland, West Virginia and New Mexico. They will have to face such top teams as Davidson, Vanderbilt and the tourney opponents before Searcy becomes eligible. Schaeffer has yet to prove he can make the transition to guard, and Davis must start driving to the basket once in a while to keep the defenses honest. He knows the problem, says Mulzoff, and is working to correct it.