However, the transitional period will be perilous, even for a team that Coach Denny Crum says, with uncoachly optimism, could be better than last season's NCAA third-place finisher. At least until the Metro Six can put together its double round-robin regular-season schedule in 1976-77, the league's champion—and NCAA representative—will be determined by a postseason tournament. It is the Cardinals' good fortune that the event will be held this season in Louisville's Freedom Hall, which also will be the site of the NCAA Midwest Regional.
"In effect, we'll be playing a Missouri Valley schedule without having the chance for a conference championship, so we have to play as if we were an independent," says Crum. "I've never been in favor of a tournament, but right now we've got no choice."
With mainstays Junior Bridgeman and Allen Murphy gone to the pros, the Cards will go more often to gifted 6'5" Wesley Cox, who averaged 11 points last season on only nine shots a game. As the outgoing Cox told a newsman on team-picture day, "I'm the man this year." Indeed he is, but he is not the whole show. Junior Guard Phillip Bond was the MVP in the Midwest Regional last spring and this fall was a key man on the U.S. gold medal-winning Pan-Am Games team. Sophomore Center Ricky Gallon, 6'11 ", looks stronger and more aggressive, as do Danny Brown, Rick Wilson and Billy Harmon, who are all fighting for a starting guard spot. The only freshman to make the varsity, 6'7" Larry Williams, is one of four players who will share the forward spot opposite Cox.
The first half of the season could be rough for the Cardinals; they have road games at Memphis, Cincinnati and Providence. But sooner or, more likely, later, Crum expects his no-senior team to be a good one. "I don't know whether we'll become a great team at midseason or in late season. Maybe we'll have to wait until next year," says Crum. "But we'll be plenty good. This team is potentially better than last year's, and I thought we were the best in the country then."
Founded as Queens College in 1766, Rutgers took 209 years to get its team to an NCAA tournament. Alas, the results of that long-awaited trip last March hardly inspired the campus statue of William the Silent to burst into a chorus of On the Banks of the Old Raritan. In the first round at Oral Roberts University, the Scarlet Knights drew powerful Louisville, and Coach Tom Young had only to look at the sides of the court to see the words of Oracle Oral himself: "Expect a Miracle." The Rutgers fast break rolled up a somewhat miraculous eight-point lead in the first half, but then the Cardinals" depth took over for a no-miracles-tonight 91-78 Louisville win.
The defeat was not a complete loss; the Rutgers coaches and players believe they learned a lesson from it. "Those Louisville guys kept coming off the bench and they all played the same," says Center Mike Palko. " Junior Bridgeman scored 36 points against us, and I still don't know which guy he was. If we are going to be that kind of basketball power, we are going to need as much depth."
With that in mind, Young has recruited two prize freshmen, Abdel Anderson and Jim Bailey, to augment returning starters Phil Sellers, Mike Dabney, Ed Jordan, Hollis Copeland and Palko. There may be no faster lineup anywhere.
Sellers, a temperamental senior All-America, should complete his career as the leading scorer and rebounder in Rutgers history. He averaged 22.7 points last season and has a marvelous knack for saving his most productive games for tough opponents. For example, he had 29 points against Louisville.
Like Sellers, Dabney is beginning his fourth season in the starting lineup, and he, too, is exceptional. "I get as many-pro feelers about Mike as I do about Phil," Young says.