There've been some changes made in this division: new coaches at New York, Kentucky and Memphis; a new owner, general manager and board of directors at Kentucky and new stars for New York and Carolina. However, plus �a change, plus c'est la m�me chose.
Carolina, which last season surprised as division champion, now must bear the favorite's burden, particularly since it got 6'11" Jim Chones from the Nets. Forced to play at forward in his first pro year, Chones was unhappy and unspectacular. Coach Larry Brown has switched him back to center, and he will start once he has adjusted to the Cougars' style and regained his self-esteem. Tom Owens will man the pivot in the meantime. When Chones is in the lineup the 6'10" Owens can be used at forward or as the backup center or in a double-post offense. The acquisition of Chones and the marked improvement of Forward Dennis Wuycik take a load off Cougar star Billy Cunningham. Chones will help Cunningham rebound and Wuycik is an added scoring threat. Brown's main concern is whether to continue platooning his guards. Last season he paired Mack Calvin with Steve Jones and Ted McClain with Gene Littles. They split playing time, coming into the game for short periods and burning opponents with their running and pressing. Should Brown abandon this system he could vitiate the quick pressure defense that was the key to the Cougars' success.
With Julius Erving making a remunerative return to his native Long Island, the Nets could challenge, but it may take them much of the season to attain their stride. They had hoped to get Steve Jones in the Chones deal, but will have to make do with a talented but smallish trio at guard—Bill Melchionni, Brian Taylor and John Roche. Rookie Larry Kenon of Memphis State is expected to start with Dr. J up front. Kenon was the No. 1 pick of the Memphis Tarns, but when that franchise seemed about to fold early this summer the league awarded his contract to New York. Kenon is a fine shooter and tough on the offensive boards, and should complement hulking Center Billy Paultz. At the very least the Nets will provide a refreshing change of pace for new Coach Kevin Loughery, who had a 5-26 record at Philadelphia last season.
Kentucky returns with its playing personnel intact but its front office disbanded. Naming Mike Storen ABA commissioner was a plus for the league, but a minus for the Colonels; new General Manager Gene Rhodes will have a hard time taking his place. The new owner, Mrs. John J. Brown Jr. ( Mr. Brown was Kentucky Fried Chicken), and her almost all-girl board of directors—the exception is Adolph Rupp—make fingerlickin' good copy but little difference to the won-loss record. Coach Joe Mullaney's successor, Babe (Magnolia Mouth) McCarthy, is both quotable and a notable tactician. "This was an almost perfect team last year," he drawls. "We're just striving for that elusive playoff win."
McCarthy will keep Dan Issel at forward, using him at center only when Artis Gilmore is on the bench. McCarthy expects to have the Colonels running more; in fact he may have them flying—he is starting Wendell Ladner at one forward. Ladner, who has recovered from his crash landing with a water cooler, is a regular attraction at Ellie Brown's luncheons to sell season tickets. When Ladner played for McCarthy two seasons ago, Babe said, "Wendell doesn't know the meaning of the word fear, but then he doesn't know the meaning of most words." Both may still be true, but when Ladner is not soaring into the fifth row, he hustles, scores and rebounds. The Colonels' backcourt is made up of Louie Dampier, who has the best assist-error ratio of any ABA guard; Rick Mount, a pure shooter; and Mike Gale, who helps atone for that pair's defensive shortcomings.
It is tempting to write off Virginia because of the Erving sale, but the Squires will make their presence known. They have acquired two solid veteran forwards in Cincy Powell and George Carter; swingman George Gervin starts his first full season with the club and Jim (Jumbo) Eakins is a capable center. Coach Al Bianchi has depth at guard, with Fatty Taylor running the break and handling the ball, a vastly improved Dave Twardzik and rookie Barry Parkhill of the University of Virginia. Another rookie, Sven Nater of UCLA, will see less action, but, says Bianchi calmly, "He has his basketball ahead of him." Bianchi views the wholesale defections of the past philosophically, too. "One guy [ Rick Barry] left because he didn't want his kids saying, 'Y'all.' One [ Charlie Scott] left because there was nothing to do after nine o'clock. One [Dr. J] left because he was offered $3 million. At least Julie stayed in the ABA."
Memphis almost didn't. Charlie Finley abandoned the Tarns over the summer in hopes of moving the club to Providence, and did not hire Bill van Breda Kolff as coach and general manager until three days before the first exhibition game; up to then, the franchise was a shoe box full of papers in Trainer Don Sparks' garage. The next day the Tarns finally signed Memphis State's 6'2" Larry Finch. Too little, too late.