There is something inherently unfair about this Bluegrass tradition. Last year marked the 41st renewal of the Southeastern Conference basketball race, and for the 28th time the same thing happened: Kentucky blue and white paraded to the winner's circle.
New Coach Joe Hall won the derby on his first mount, even after stumbling out of the gate. Kentucky rallied for 10 straight victories in the stretch to beat Alabama, Tennessee and Vanderbilt by a game, largely on the spirit and poise of sophomores Kevin Grevey, Jimmy Dan Conner and Mike Flynn. They promise to be even better as juniors.
Grevey honed his considerable abilities this summer with the U.S. team in China. A complete player, equipped with DeBusscheresque mobility and a soft outside touch, Grevey saved his best performances for the title push, averaging 33.5 points over the last six games, mostly from beyond 20 feet. Conner, the other forward, is a deft passer and the indomitable Flynn, who eschewed his high-scoring prep style to become the Wildcats' top defensive man, brings grit and size to the backcourt at 6'3".
Senior Ronnie Lyons, a little freckle-faced towhead who resembles Dennis the Menace, has recovered from the stomach and ankle injuries that made last season his winter of discontent. A fine shooter whose quickness and court awareness more than compensate for his 5'9" stature, Lyons should be a menace again. The departure of 6'11" Jim Andrews, it was feared, would leave the offense with a gaping hole in the middle, but the feeling now is that UK may be better off without Andrews' moodiness than with his 20 points and 12 rebounds a game. Junior Bob Guyette, while two inches shorter, excels in the three Ds: diligence, desire and defense.
Offensively, Hall will try to open up the middle for drives off Guyette screens, but the Cats will rely mainly on outside marksmanship and a devastating fast break by those thoroughbreds of his. Further, the coach's stable of competent subs is fuller than ever, giving him confidence to go 10-12 deep. Two of these are black freshmen from Western Kentucky, Larry Johnson and Merion Haskins (brother of the Phoenix Suns' Clem). Hall, who feels he lived a "fishbowl" existence last year as the replacement of a legend, is gradually erasing the racist reputation under which Kentucky basketball long labored. The Wildcats should win. If their talent does not accomplish that, tradition will. "Kentucky never graduates that," Hall say.
There were times last year when Penn Coach Chuck Daly must have cursed the Ivy League's ban on freshman play. As his varsity was struggling to a 21-7 record (which really is struggling at Penn), 6'8" John Engles was leading the freshmen to a 15-1 record. Finally Daly could control himself no more. "I love him!" he shouted as Engles made one outtasight move. Assistant Rollie Massimino had another thought: "I'll marry him!" Massimino has since taken the Villanova head coaching job (presumably with a broken heart) and Daly adoringly watches Engles improve his varsity. Such is Engles' presence that Penn can afford to alter its long-revered system of tight defense and patterned offense. "We will fast-break more," says Daly. "I haven't seen many kids who can outlet the ball like John can." His moves vaguely resembling those of a teen-age Westley Unseld, Engles has exceptional strength and the endurance of a marathon runner. When he teams with 6'8" Ron Haigler, the East's Rookie of the Year in 1972-73, Penn has one of the best forward combinations in the country. Haigler beat St. Joseph's of Philadelphia and Manhattan with shots at the buzzer. "The pressure doesn't really bother me," he says.
But will it get to the guards? One sure backcourt starter is John Beecroft, a crack free-throw shooter (87.7%) who won the Princeton and St. John's games with one-and-one situation proficiency, but Daly doubts that he can hit from the perimeter. Bill Finger, Whitey Varga and Ed Stefanski will try out for the other guard spot. It may go, however, to 6'7" Bob Bigelow who played guard, forward and center last season, "it was my schizophrenic year," he says. "I'd like to help the team any way I can, but Fm best at forward, rebounding." Maintains Daly: "We don't have any guards who can stick the ball. Bigelow is important here. If he plays guard, he must shoot." Otherwise he will compete for Penn's only forecourt vacancy with John Jablonski, Larry Lewis and 6'11" Henry Johnson, the team's only center-sized center in recent history. No problems here.
Penn is a team of paradoxes. It is young (no senior may start) but experienced (only one senior started all games last year). It had the second-best defense in the country but will give up more points while scoring more. There are no two ways about Penn prospects. The Quakers ended last season by losing to Providence and Syracuse in the NCAA regionals. The only place they can hope to avenge the losses is in the NCAA regionals. No problems here, either.