Whether Memphis State can get humming and face UCLA and John Wooden in the NCAA finals up the river next spring depends on Coach Gene Bartow's ability to weave some new and admittedly impressive talent around seniors Larry Finch and Ronnie (Big Cat) Robinson, who led the Tigers to the NIT last season.
The scholarly Bartow would seem ideally suited for the job. Before he arrived at MSU in 1970, someone looking at the Tigers' record might have concluded it was compiled by players with sloping foreheads who walked with their fingers dragging along the ground. Using a ball-control system, the team trudged to a 20-56 mark in the previous three years and, worse, won only three games in the Missouri Valley Conference. Bartow replaced the Neanderthal era with the Age of Aquarius. "He taught us to love each other," remembers Finch, the team's best songbird. Love—and let's admit it, a far sprightlier style of basketball—produced an 18-8 record, then last year's 21-7 mark and an MVC co-title.
The benefits of improvement are evident: new wall-to-wall carpeting in the coaches' offices; a sold-out home court—the Mid-South Coliseum where attendance doubled after Bartow arrived—and a cluster of conspicuous junior-college transfers and freshmen, all eager to join a winner. Bartow says any of five freshmen has star potential. Among them are two big guards, Bill Cook, a high school All-America from Memphis who broke Johnny Neumann's city and state scoring records, and Clarence Jones, who turned down pro baseball offers to play basketball. The others include a 6'10" center who, at 17, is still sprouting and a pair of big forwards. Where is the NCAA being played in 1976?
More immediate help is expected from Center Larry Kenon, a junior-college All-America at Amarillo. He joins Finch, whom Bartow calls "the best college guard in the country," and Robinson, a teammate of Finch's since they were students in a Memphis junior high school. "If I had a choice of any big man in the country, Ronnie's got to be my pick," says Finch. "I can't play without him. He's just like a brother."
Finch is an extremely accurate outside shooter under pressure. With Kenon and Robinson, plus help from junior Ken Andrews, the best-shooting big man on the team, or Wes Westfall, another junior-college transfer, the opposition may have to play hard defense against the Tigers since Finch is notorious for letting the chorus sing. "If you score 50 points, your teammates aren't shooting and they're not happy," says Finch. "I'd rather win. It's not how many you score. It's how many you win."
Alumni Hall always was too small; there was something about a 3,300-seat arena that seemed awfully picayune for the big-time Friars. Indeed; with NIT and ECAC Holiday Festival championship banners draped from the rafters, the place seems hardly big enough even for practices. This is never more evident than when Providence is running its fast break, which is most of the time. It is spectacular and at every session there should be thousands of New Englanders on hand going bananas.
Starting Dec. 11, there can be 11,215 of the breed watching the Friars at the new Providence Civic Center, where the team will play 16 of its 26 regular-season games. If the Friars are looking for a nickname for their new home they could do worse than call it Marvin Gardens. The King of Marvin Gardens—if Actor Jack Nicholson will allow the comparison—is Marvin Barnes, the leading rebounder at the Olympic Trials who somehow failed to make the team. "They picked the best all-round team," Barnes says without much conviction. "I went out there knowing I wasn't going to make it. People told me there would be politics involved. I wanted to prove I could be the leading rebounder and I was. I played tough and two coaches told me to stop playing street ball or ghetto ball and play civilized."
Providence runs a very civil fast break when Barnes gets the ball off the defensive backboard and clears it to Ernie DiGregorio—the best playmaker in New England and one of the best in the country. "Ernie isn't too fast," says Coach Dave Gavitt. "If I lined up my players and told them to run baseline to baseline, he would finish near the end. But if I had them do it dribbling a ball, just watch where he would finish." And watch where he would pass the ball if Gavitt ordered that. DiGregorio seems to have six pairs of eyes and four hands, all with a soft touch.
Both DiGregorio and Barnes, a junior, could be pros next year. Barnes received substantial offers this spring but resisted. Ironically, the school almost lost him in October when he and 6'10" Larry Ketvirtis had an argument in the cafeteria after a hard practice. Ketvirtis came out of it with a broken cheekbone that required surgery. "I'm definitely sorry the whole thing happened," Barnes says, and then, anticlimactically, "there was nothing to it."