For the most part, however, USF is the same team, just a season older and a world smarter. That alone should make a big difference.
If you're the sort of movie fan who gets a thrill watching King Kong scale the World Trade Center, then you'll love the production being put together by that temperamental young director Roberto Knight on location in Bloomington, Ind. Entitled King Kent, it's about this giant redhead who goes wild and stomps on every college basketball team that gets in his way. When rehearsals began this fall, the star, Kent Benson, checked in at 6'11" and 255 pounds, up 10 pounds. He also was two inches wider around the chest. He's so big that whenever he yawns, windows rattle in places like Ann Arbor, Mich. and West Lafayette, Ind.
The critics are anxious to see if Benson likes his star billing. Previously, he had costarred with the likes of Scott May, Quinn Buckner, Bob Wilkerson and Tom Abernethy. Now they all are gone, leaving Benson with an unknown supporting cast. A couple of 6'9" bit players named Scott Eells and Jim Roberson are trying to fill the forward roles, while Jim Wisman and Wayne Radford are attempting to learn their lines at guard. But supersub Rich Valavicius may win one of those forward spots, depending on what kind of cast Knight needs for a given scene. Waiting in the wings is a talented but raw crop of freshmen, including 6'9" Glen Grunwald, 6'5" Butch Carter, 6'5" Mike Woodson, 6'11" Derek Holcomb, 6'4" Bill Cunningham and 6'8" Mike Miday. Woodson has a good, chance to grab the other corner position and the rugged Miday will be one of Knight's first replacements. However, Grunwald underwent knee surgery in September, Carter was laid up with a broken foot this fall, Cunningham injured his knee and will not be back until December and Holcomb broke his thumb early this month.
If anybody can win an Oscar with this young bunch, it is Knight. His production last winter—a 32-0 record and the national championship—was as good as anything ever done by the greatest of directors, John Wooden. Knight's secret is his never-ending quest for perfection and his intense interest in winners and what makes them tick. Over the summer, for example, Knight spent a lot of time hanging around the Cincinnati Reds clubhouse, picking the brains of Sparky Anderson and Pete Rose. Earlier this fall he went to Michigan to study Bo Schembechler's techniques.
Although King Kent is guaranteed to be boffo box office—all home games are sellouts—not even the most ardent Hoosier fan expects it to top last year's hit. Nevertheless, the show ought to be a good one. The operation on Benson's ailing left wrist was so successful that he is shooting left-handed hooks better than ever. By playing the kind of tough defense Knight demands, the supporting cast might end up being a lot better than the critics suspect.
When it became known that Tennessee was going to be on national television at least twice this season, most people assumed that it would be against UCLA on Jan. 30 in Atlanta's Omni and on March 5 against Kentucky, which could decide the Southeastern Conference championship. Well, that is the schedule, but as disturbing wire stories poured out of Knoxville the past few months, it looked as if the talent-laden Vols were also auditioning for TV Producer Norman Lear. Specifically, Tennessee has been confronted by two major problems that—sadly—are not laughing matters: All-America Bernard King has had four run-ins with the police since last season, three times for driving violations. Another charge, for possession of marijuana, was dismissed on a technicality. And, on the advice of his physician, Coach Ray Mears has not been attending practice and has put the team under the leadership of Associate Coach Stu Aberdeen. Mears is recovering from nervous exhaustion.
How badly these off-court miseries will affect a team that plays one of the nation's tougher schedules is hard to figure. King, who bypassed the NBA draft, has been suspended for at least the first three games—South Florida, UNC-Charlotte and Duke—all in Knoxville. He has averaged 25.8 points and 12.7 rebounds his first two seasons, and there is not a coach in the SEC who does not expect King to be wearing the Orange when the Vols visit Vanderbilt on Jan. 3 for the start of league play. A minor revamping of the Vol lineup for the first three games will find Olympian Ernie Grunfeld, who averaged 25.3 points last year, at the high post (King's usual position) and veteran Mike Jackson (16.7 points) and sophomore Terry Crosby at the wings. Crosby is the equal of his more publicized teammates in natural ability but doesn't always exhibit it.
Tennessee also should be improved at the other positions. Johnny Darden, the sophomore point guard, has a full season of experience running the offense and appears capable of leading the SEC in assists. The Vols needed help at the low post to relieve King of the brunt of the rebounding; Mears seems to have recruited aid in the persons of 6'9" Reggie Johnson and 6'6" Chuck Threeths.