The recruiting cycle continues to turn in Southern California. To remain competitive with that other school on the far side of the traffic jam, USC went out and got a forward from Denver, a guard from New York and six assorted sizes of players from California. They comprise the best freshman team in the history of the school and will be on hand to watch the finals of the NCAA tournament next March on their home court at the Sports Arena. But are they a year too late? Well, maybe. Last winter was the watershed for Coach Bob Boyd's Trojans, who had as glorious a season as a runner-up could hope for. They won 24 games, lost only to UCLA twice and set the college world on fire by winning 16 straight and moving to the top of the polls before blowing a nine-point lead and The Game to UCLA 64-60. In the process, USC caught the city's fancy. Five years ago, the school sold 98 season tickets for basketball. By the opening game next week USC expects to have sold 2,000.
"We sense excitement, involvement, basketball noise," says Boyd. The USC coaches also sense the odor of a hospital. Early in preseason practice their hopes for a season equal to last year's were jarred when Forwards Bruce Clark and Monroe Nash were done in by old hurts. Clark fractured the same shinbone that kept him off the team last year, and if he returns at all it will not be until early January when the Pacific Eight season opens. Nash is out for the year after undergoing his second operation for a ruptured disc. The injuries definitely decrease team speed, scoring and, most importantly, the depth that Boyd needs to run his pressing, bustling game. All is not lost, however, as the coach admits (18 wins is his prediction even if everything goes horribly). Returning as starters are shooting Forward Joe Mackey, skinny 6'8" Center Ron (Spoon) Riley, who holds all the USC rebound records, and Paul Westphal, the marvelous guard whose flashing, driving, either-hand hook through the key is still the most exciting move in the college game.
USC will miss defender Chris Shrobilgen, sixth man Dana Pagett and, especially, the streak shooting and defense of Dennis Layton, but precocious sophomore Dan Anderson is steadier in the backcourt and complements Westphal better. The problem is inside, where only bulky Bill Taylor helps Riley on the boards. Still, Westphal—now a senior and in his last run at the school ( UCLA) he turned down—remains unconcerned. "This is the year I've waited for," he says. "We're going to get them."
To most of the nation. Rhode Island has long been a comic myth, as distant and unbelievable as Lilliput. So back in 1969 when it became known that something called Providence College had won 242 basketball games in 12 years, it was as annoying, say, as having to take antibiotics after a gnat bite. Then Providence went bad and everybody forgot the pest—until last season. The Friars, under handsome Dave Gavitt, rustled up a 20-8 record despite averaging only 6'3" in height. Now four of the best from that team return, and there is new height, too. Real pests.
But to begin with the smallest, the best of those back is 6-foot Guard Ernie DiGregorio, a product of the North Providence playgrounds and so esteemed that he was given an 800-ticket testimonial dinner while still in high school. He was named to the NIT, ECAC Holiday Festival and Tennessee Classic first teams last year as a sophomore. He scored 522 points, but his real strength is his wide-screen passing eye. "I've never seen anybody better in college ball," Gavitt says flatly. "To take full advantage we've done crazy things like lining everybody up at the baseline and having them scatter wildly while Ernie picks off the open man. He's so good it's infectious. Ernie has made Don Lewis a much more confident passer and offensive player."
A defensive classic at the other guard, Lewis in return has made DiGregorio acceptable on defense. Sum Lewis up by saying he was assigned to Massachusetts' one-man team, 6'6" Julius Erving, gave away seven inches and held Erving to 19 points. The pros are having trouble doing that this year. At one forward is Nehru King from Jersey City, N.J., so named because his mother admired the placidity of the Indian Prime Minister. Nehru is an unplacid 6'4" hot dog who as a freshman would vacuum the boards, make a spectacular move—and throw the ball away. Unfortunately for the big powers of the East, Nehru King has curbed his excesses. So has 6'7" Fran Costello, who shot at everything in his freshman year and at nothing the next. Now, with Marvin Barnes, 6'9", and—when he recovers from anemia—Larry Ketvirtis, 6'11", around, he is programmed differently. Among the best sophomores in the country, Barnes has so overwhelmed Rhode Island competition that his main problem has been overcoming boredom. His almost exact opposite is Ketvirtis. Calm, almost priestly, off the court, Ketvirtis goes berserk in competition, his one flaw being that he may seriously injure someone. With their new height, the Friars will be picking, screening and rolling and, in short (and tall, too), will be counting their blessings. There are those in Little Rhody who are counting them providential.
NEW MEXICO STATE
There were three good basketball teams in Las Cruces last winter and only one happened to be the New Mexico State varsity. The freshmen weighed in with a 6'7" lefty named Hal Robinson and a guard named Austin Lehmann, a pure shooter whose range, in hyperbolic moments, is equated with that of the missiles at White Sands. And on deposit with the Farmers and Merchants Bank, an AAU team, Coach Lou Henson had two Aggies, both ineligible freshmen, who could guarantee almost anybody's mortgage. One was Roland (Tree) Grant, a 7-foot Philadelphian the coach modestly describes as "a player." The second was John Williamson, an Earl Monroe type who is sure to be one of the fine shooters in the nation. Now all four are on the varsity and Henson must decide how to use them. At the moment, he plans to build around Grant. He has such faith in his agile Tree, in fact, that he has installed a single-post pro offense. That means that passes will be lobbed to Grant who will then do his best to remember that the dunk is illegal.