Wherever it is that old basketball coaches go when they die, Adolph Rupp is there now, wearing his brown suit, sipping his smooth bourbon and cussing his cruel fate. Here he is, five seasons retired and a month removed from this earth; and there they are, the Kentucky Wildcats, a superb team but not his team at all. As Kentucky turned back Notre Dame 73-68 in "neutral" Louisville last week, you could almost hear The Baron grumbling above the din made by 16,400 pompon-shaking fanatics. "Well," he must have said to colleagues Naismith and Allen, "I'm here if they need me."
The tradition and fervor so evident in Freedom Hall was a testament to Rupp's eons on the job, but everything else about this Kentucky team belongs to Joe Hall. The former Rupp player and assistant coach has guided the Wildcats through a torturous first-month schedule and brought them out of it unbeaten, top-ranked and favored to win the NCAA championship in March. The big prize is about the only one that has eluded Hall. Since succeeding Rupp, he has won the SEC championship twice and the NIT once and has reached the NCAA finals. But he has not won a national title, and there are those in Kentucky who feel it is about time he did. Rupp, after all, won four in only 41 seasons of trying.
"Being in the shadow of Coach Rupp hasn't been easy," Hall said before the Notre Dame game last week. "It will only get easier as I have more success. When I first took over the team, I was struggling. Now I feel that we've begun to turn the corner."
Hall's progress suffered a setback last year even before Kentucky's loss to North Carolina in the finals of the East Region. The NCAA found the Wildcats guilty of 14 recruiting infractions and imposed a two-year limitation on the number of scholarships they could award. Hall says that the infractions were minor ones, such as giving free T shirts to high-schoolers, but there are those who feel that the penalty was imposed not only on the basis of violations that the NCAA could firmly prove but also on the basis of uncorroborated testimony. For example, one player now attending another school told investigators that a Kentucky horse breeder had offered to buy and maintain a thoroughbred for him after graduation, if the player went to Kentucky. Because the player received no horse and no breeder has admitted to offering him one, the NCAA could not include this alleged violation on the list of Wildcat infractions. Nonetheless, some Kentuckians believe their team is actually being penalized for just such unsupported allegations.
As if the eyes of Rupp and the hand of the NCAA were not problems enough. Hall believes his job this year was made even more difficult when several preseason polls ranked the Wildcats No. 1. "It's very seldom that a team starts out on top and goes all the way," he says. "I think we deserved it, but it would have been more beneficial if we had been rated sixth or seventh. At times we've played as if we'd already achieved what we wanted. Last year I felt we had a great team, as good as any I've seen since the Walton era at UCLA, but so far this season we haven't been that good yet."
Lest anyone have undue sympathy for Hall, consider the feelings of the seven opponents the Wildcats had thrashed by an average of 22.7 points before last Saturday. Among them were Indiana and Kansas, which could well become the champions of the Big Ten and Big Eight Conferences, respectively. But it was not until after the finals of the Kentucky Invitational three weeks ago, in which the Wildcats walloped St. John's 102-72, that Hall would admit, "The team is out of the doghouse now." And it is clear that the coach feels Rover can still learn some new tricks—and improve on the old ones.
Although the nucleus of last season's 26-4 team has returned, Kentucky has made some significant adjustments. Seniors Rick Robey, Mike Phillips and Jack Givens still form the imposing frontcourt, but the guards are new. Because of injuries. Jay Shidler has lost his guard position to junior Truman Claytor, and Kyle Macy, a transfer from Purdue, has succeeded Larry Johnson, who graduated, at the point. Meanwhile, Hall is using his bench more than Rupp ever dared. Against Notre Dame, 6'10" freshman Center Chuck Aleksinas had more points, rebounds and playing time than four-year starter Phillips. As for team balance, four different players have led the Wildcats in scoring, five are averaging in double figures, and Hall is pleased to note, "We've been inconsistent in the way we win." In other words, Kentucky has overcome every device the opposition could concoct.
The Wildcats had reason to fear Notre Dame, not only because of its No. 4 ranking and 7-1 record but also because of its reputation for staging major upsets. Already this season the Irish had pulled a biggie by winning at UCLA. But their flair for the dramatic has rarely extended to Louisville, where Notre Dame and Kentucky have been meeting annually since 1960, splitting the sizable gate receipts. Former Notre Dame Coach Johnny Dee once called the game "the Rose Bowl of college basketball," but for the Irish it has been more a bed of thorns. Kentucky has now won all but three of those 18 games, and Hall's record against Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps is 5-1.
Even before last week, Phelps said he had had enough. When the current contract expires, after the 1980 game, he would like to continue the series on a home-and-home basis. "If we were playing in South Bend, they'd really be sweating it," he said. "Down here they have everything in their favor."
As the crow flies and the heart beats, Louisville is a lot closer to Lexington, Ky. than it is to South Bend, Ind. When the two teams held a public workout at Freedom Hall last Friday, approximately 8,000 people showed up to ogle and cheer their beloved 'Cats; only about 80 stayed to pass silent judgment on Notre Dame. Not liking the odds, Phelps arranged to have a six-piece band brought in for the game the next afternoon. "They only need to know how to play one song," he said. As it turned out, the combo knew The Notre Dame Victory March, but its rendition was less than inspired—or inspiring.