For the past few years, Hall coached the freshman team and last season he had what many people consider the finest group of freshmen in the school's history. The team had three players—Jimmy Dan Conner ( Kentucky), Mike Flynn ( Indiana) and Kevin Grevey ( Ohio)—who were considered the top prospects in their states the previous year, and a handful of others almost as talented. The freshmen steamrollered 22 straight opponents, beating a respectable University of Cincinnati team by 70 points. Denny Crum, coach at the University of Louisville, speculated one day that his freshmen were better, and Rupp said, line, we'll rent Freedom Hall, split expenses and the winner takes all the receipts. Crum never called. "The freshmen probably helped us to win the SEC title," says Andrews. "Practicing against them every day had to help. And we loved to beat them. They were getting all the publicity."
Now the freshmen are sophomores, and, according to Hall, they are men. "Conner, Flynn and Grevey are just all-round athletes," explained the coach. "They've got good body control and they've got good body strength. And they don't play like sophomores." The three joined the 6'11" Andrews and the 5'10" Lyons in the starting lineup against MSU and when the Spartans whittled down a 14-point UK lead to one point late in the second half, Hall did not panic. He knew he had the perfect solution. He added another of his seven sophomores, this time Bob Guyette, to replace a fatigued Andrews. That left four sophomores and Lyons, a junior, on the floor and a screaming Michigan State crowd going wild—a perfect spot for a Kentucky cave-in. Instead, the Wildcats dominated the game in the last four minutes with Guyette helping to control the play inside. "You know-he's got a lot of faith in you when he puts you in a spot like that," Guyette said gratefully after the game.
Kentucky's last NCAA title came in 1958 and Rupp's severest critics said he would never win another one until Kentucky stopped doing its thing in whiteface and acknowledged the presence of the black basketball player. Payne finally broke the color line two seasons ago, then signed a pro contract with the Atlanta Hawks. Last year there were two blacks on the team until late in the season, when they were suspended for missing a trip. Now, Hall finds himself with a lamentable legacy—an all-white team and the delicate problem of convincing prospective players that Kentucky is not a racist school. "We're trying to recruit the black player," he says. "Unfortunately, many don't want to come here because there are no blacks here." Hall did recruit one black freshman but another, better prospect resignedly told Hall that he would not attend UK because he had received threatening letters.
The key to the future may lie in some enlightened thinking but the key to this season resides with Jim Andrews and the team's ability to play guileful defense. One day at lunch last week, Conner told the tall center that he could be the best college big man in the country, and Andrews agreed. "I have to get motivated," he said. "And if I do, nobody can stop me." Against Michigan State, he scored 20 points, had 13 rebounds and blocked five shots, three in the opening minutes, and was the epitome of the new Hall look.
In anticipation of the coming year and the swarming new defense, Hall put his players through a torturous four-week running and weight-lifting program. "You could really tell the difference that first day of practice," said Andrews. "It was a tough workout and everybody went through it like a snap."
"Our zone press is terrific," says Conner. "The first couple of times we don't even try to steal the ball. We just get them a little nervous. Then about the third time we put the trap on them and they go crazy. We keep taking the ball from them."
With Conner shutting him off from the ball, Michigan State's talented sophomore, Lindsay Hairston, was neutralized by Kentucky last week. Hairston had missed only three shots in his team's opening game but against Kentucky he was one for 11. "It worked just as we thought it would," said Conner. "We were really prepared."
And that, of course, pleased all the Kentucky fans, including the one in the brown suit back home in Lexington. Probably he marked it up as his 880th victory. After all, who taught Joe Hall everything he knows?