19 MISSISSIPPI ST.
Jim Hatfield was brave enough, or crazy enough, to take the coaching job at Southwestern Louisiana in 1974. This was right after the NCAA had dropped a bomb on Southwestern's program, reducing it to rubble with a megaton of penalties for recruiting violations. But Hatfield beat the bushes to flush out the kind of prospects needed to make Southwestern respectable again. His records for his three seasons were 7-19, 19-8 and 21-8, a comeback of such startling proportions that Mississippi State came after Hatfield as soon as it found out that Ron Greene, the Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year in 1977-78, was leaving for Murray Stale, his alma mater.
For Hatfield, the Mississippi State job is a homecoming of sorts. He has lived in every SEC state except Georgia, and confesses, "I'm addicted to SEC basketball." That should have been reason enough to take the Bulldog job, but there were other attractions. "I was impressed by the facilities and the commitment at Mississippi State," says Hatfield, "and I knew I never again wanted to go through a rebuilding program like I did at Southwestern."
The team he inherited is just about ready-made. The Bulldogs were 18-9 last season and came within a dribble or two of upsetting eventual NCAA champion Kentucky in Lexington. Their runner-up finish in the SEC was their best since the last of Babe McCarthy's teams won the title in 1963, one of four times Mississippi State either won or tied for the championship during McCarthy's colorful regime. "We've got some tradition and we're trying to build on it," Hatfield says. "They tasted a little success here last year, and we have the chance to be very good this year. The kids know it, and they've worked hard and made lots of sacrifices."
They have had to, because Hatfield is the third coach at State in three years. With so much to teach in so short a time, he has asked a lot in preseason practice. The Bulldogs got up early three days a week to work on their offense from 6:15 to 7:15, practiced defense in the afternoons and had skull sessions after dinner.
Under Hatfield, Mississippi State will fast-break more often than it did under Greene and will attempt to exploit more fully the myriad talents of 6'10" Rickey Brown, the best center in the league. Brown, a junior, injured his left eye in practice last fall and averaged only 13.4 points and 6.9 rebounds. Those stats were only so-so for the school's most talented player since Bailey Howell. "Rickey's strong around the hoop and he has a soft touch outside," Hatfield says, "but I've got to admit he has been inconsistent. Still, things seem to be looking up. For stretches of 15 minutes or so, he has shown as much intensity and played as hard and as well as any big man I've ever seen." Because Brown's eye no longer bothers him, how far he—and his team—can go will be determined by his enthusiasm or lack of it. Certainly he will have plenty of opportunities to show his stuff. "If we don't get the quick basket on the break, we're going to be inside-oriented, you can bet on that," says Hatfield.
Helping Brown inside will be Wiley Peck, who excels in rebounding (8.4 per game), shooting (57.3%) and defense, and John Adams, a transfer who was Tennessee Tech's No. 2 scorer a couple of years ago. The guards will be Ray White, who led the team in scoring, with a 14.5 average, "and in assists, and Greg Grim, who came off the bench to hit seven straight bombs over Kentucky's tough 1-3-1 zone last year in Starkville.
The Bulldogs will play pressure man-to-man defense most of the time, which is a dangerous tactic considering the potential foul trouble and Mississippi State's thin bench, where there isn't a single accomplished performer. But that's a minor concern to a man who has been through as much as Hatfield has. "It's a pleasure to be here," he says. "Believe me." And it is likely to get more pleasurable as the season wears on.
20 RHODE ISLAND
Sylvester (Sly) Williams, a 6'7" forward of extraordinary ability, spent his first two years at Rhode Island behaving as if he had understudied Marvin Barnes, late of nearby Providence. Often tardy for practice or a no-show, Sly seemed, as the players put it, to have an attitude on. Sometimes his play was lackluster, and he even skipped a couple of the Rams' less important games. This year, however, Sly has often come early to practice, and sometimes he has stayed late. According to Coach Jack Kraft, Williams' attitude has "completely changed for the better." Kraft also says that Sly has taken a "conscious interest" in his responsibilities.