"Duke may be No. 1 right now, but nobody used a pressing defense against the Blue Devils last year and they aren't that quick," says Sloan, whose team is. "Another thing, they love to play zone. That's going to be tough to sustain because of all the slowdowns they'll see this year. Makes sense. If you hold the ball, they have to come out and play you man-to-man. That takes Gminski away from the basket and makes them a different team. By slowing up, we beat them 74-50 in Raleigh last year. We also held the ball over in Durham and were close at halftime."
Though Duke went on to win that game 76-64, the Wolfpack does pose a significant threat to the Blue Devils' plans for a national title. Nine of State's first 10 players return from a 21-10 team that not only beat Duke, but also made it to the NIT finals.
Sloan's players lack big reputations. They led the ACC in virtually nothing—except, perhaps, teamwork. Yet the Wolfpack does not want for firepower; each of the top six players had at least one 20-point game in 1977-78. Leading scorer Hawkeye Whitney has slimmed down from 242 pounds to 218 and should be even better than last year. Clyde (The Glide) Austin is as smooth as his nickname implies. Kendal (Tiny) Pinder, Art Jones and Tony Warren are three swing-type players who can run, jump and score. Even though he is only 6'7", Pinder is capable of playing center should either of State's bigger and slower pivotmen, Craig Watts and Glenn Sudhop, inhibit the Wolfpack's accelerated style. This is not to say that State is undisciplined. Indeed, Sloan is loaded with one-on-one players, but he has won them over to an all-for-one philosophy. Only Guard Kenny Matthews is likely to turn it loose from 22 feet.
To get the drop on the Blue Devils, Sloan is flying his team to Anchorage, Alaska this week for an early-season tournament. Then in the Big Four tournament on Dec. 1, State meets Duke in a game that will mean nothing in the ACC standings and everything in determining Sloan's eventual strategy. "We'll play them power against power this first time," he says. "No slowdowns. We want to see who really has the most talent."
Thus, the game to watch, in terms of finding out how good Sloan thinks Duke is, will be State's nationally televised confrontation with the Blue Devils in January. Every coach in the country will tune in to see how Sloan plays it—fast or slow. One thing more, the game will not occur on Jan. 20, as was previously announced. It has been rescheduled for Jan. 21 so it can serve as a lead-in to the Super Bowl. It might be the best game of the day.
"Realistically speaking," says Iona College Forward Dave Brown, "we're going to go all the way." All the way to where, Dave? The ECAC playoffs? The NCAA East Regional? "ALLLLL the way!" says Brown, who is a psychology major and, obviously, a devout believer in the power of positive thinking. But just because you have never heard of Brown—or, perhaps, even his school—don't think that he is all the way out of his head. He and the rest of the Gaels have reason for optimism, though Brown's claim that Iona will win the NCAA title is a bit much.
With eight players returning from a team that had a 17-10 record—the most wins for the Gaels since 1958—and three good recruits, the obscure Christian Brothers institution located in New Rochelle, N.Y. should out-duel Syracuse for supremacy in the East. The most impressive of the holdovers is 6'9" Center Jeff Ruland, likely the nation's top freshman last season. Ruland, a 240-pound bruiser who is almost impossible to stop inside, led first-year players in scoring (22.3 points a game), rebounding (12.8 a game) and field-goal percentage (.594). But despite Ruland's statistics, his backup, 6'10" Kevin Vesey, another sophomore, may have more natural talent. Vesey, who was recruited to play the pivot (Ruland was slotted for a forward spot) blocked a team-high 42 shots last season while playing only 10 minutes a game. His flair for the dramatic had the fans at John A. Mulcahy Campus Center chanting "Ve-sey! Ve-sey!" almost before he removed his warmup jacket, but frequently that was the high point of his performance. "When Kevin finally figures out why he is running around in short pants, he's going to be a hell of a player," says Coach Jim Valvano. If Vesey sees the light, Brown's vision of a national title might not be all that outlandish.
More probably, Brown will have to content himself with fulfilling a personal goal, which is to replace Richie Guerin as Iona's second-leading career scorer. Teaming at forward with Brown will be senior Lester George, while a pair of transfer students—Mike Palma, a deadly shooter who made the ACC all-freshman team at Wake Forest two seasons ago, and massive Alex Middleton, a 6'6", 215-pound junior college All-America from Deer Park, N.Y.—give Valvano unusual depth.
Iona suffered six of its 10 defeats in 1977-78 by a total of 14 points, and its most glaring weakness, the lack of a steady play-making guard, was evident in most of them. Tony Iati, a 5'9" freshman from York, Pa. who is a careful ball handler and crisp passer, could free Glenn Vickers, the Gaels' second-leading scorer, with a 17.4 average, to concentrate on firing his jumper and filling a lane on fast breaks. If Iati matures rapidly, Kevin Hamilton, a member of the starting lineup in 1977-78, would then bring his hot shot off the bench.