A sign in the Eastern Kentucky student section read, DIE, YOU GRAVY-SUCKING PIGS, but early in the second half the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, out of Bowling Green, looked very much alive. Thanks mainly to Guard Billy Bryant, a transfer from Maryland, Western had a 56-55 lead last Saturday over its bitter rival from Richmond, across the state. The 6'5" Bryant was scoring, passing and rebounding as if he were Oscar Robertson. Obviously he had to be stopped, so during a time-out Eastern Coach Ed Byhre looked at James (Turk) Tillman and said, "O.K., from now on you guard him."
The switch of assignments caused a ripple of surprise in Eastern's Alumni Coliseum because the 6'4" Tillman is known for his scoring, not his defense. He had been the nation's leading scorer until a mild slump caused his average to drop to a mere 30.3, only third best in the country. He was on his way to a 31-point effort against Western, but Byhre also knew that his star could do more than connect on jumpers from the tuba section of the pep band.
When Bryant saw who was guarding him, he knew he might be in trouble. He and Tillman both come from Washington, D.C., and they were teammates on the University of Maryland's 1976-77 team. "We worked against each other in practice a lot," Bryant says, "and Turk's a very good defensive player." In the remaining 13 minutes Bryant scored only four, and that, as much as anything, is why Eastern came away with an 84-82 victory which boosted its hopes of winning the Ohio Valley Conference.
After the game was over, Tillman couldn't help but gloat a bit. "We're both from D.C., so I knew what to expect," he said. Over in the Western locker room Bryant said, "I feel O.K. about the way I played, but I would feel better if we had won the game." Bryant finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds, both team highs.
It should come as no surprise to knowledgeable followers of college basketball that a couple of ex-Maryland players from Washington, D.C. would end up playing against each other in the OVC. The OVC is a league for vagabond lovers. Perhaps no conference in the country has a greater percentage of transfers than this vest-pocket league, which has teams in such towns as Murray, Ky. and Clarksville, Tenn. To find the conference's other six members you need an NCAA guide and a road map, unless you're a disenchanted star looking for a new home and a new start. Then, amazingly, all roads lead to places like Morehead and Murfreesboro and Murray.
The OVC's 41 transfers come from the Southeastern, the Big Ten, the Atlantic Coast and, of course, the jucos. Murray State leads the league with eight transfers, including its best player, Gary Hooker, a transfer from Mississippi State. Morehead State's best inside men came by way of Oral Roberts and a junior college. Besides Bryant, Western's starters include Trey Trumbo, a transfer from Arkansas, and Jack Washington, a transfer from Gardner-Webb. And besides Tillman, Eastern's starters include Tommy Baker, one of three players kicked off Indiana University's team last season for allegedly smoking marijuana.
Tillman was recruited by Eastern Kentucky when he was a senior at Eastern High in Washington's inner city. However, after considering his many offers he decided to stay home and play for Lefty Driesell at Maryland.
His jumping and shooting ability were legendary on the D.C. playgrounds, but, inexplicably, Tillman didn't play much at Maryland. In two years he started only two games and averaged 5.5 points, not a lot for a player who was recruited by Notre Dame, Southern Cal and Kentucky. One theory was that Driesell had so much talent he didn't know what to do with it all. At any rate, Tillman left after two years, starting a mass migration that has seen JoJo Hunter go to Colorado, Brian Magid to George Washington and Bryant to Western Kentucky.
"All I've got is four years of eligibility, so I wanted to go someplace where I could start all over, begin a second life," Tillman says. "Aw, I don't want to talk about Maryland. That was two years ago. All I care about is now."
How much a petty larceny charge, which resulted in Tillman's lawyer asking for a "probation before verdict" ruling by the court, hastened his departure from Maryland is anybody's guess. Whatever, he picked Eastern Kentucky because he remembered Byhre from recruiting days and because the Eastern coach is a good friend of his high school coach, A. B. Williamson. The fact that Eastern also had three of his teammates from the 1975 Washington city champion Eastern team (Lovell Joiner, Mike Oliver and Tyrone Jones) didn't hurt. After sitting out the 1977-78 season Tillman came back with a vengeance last year. He was fourth in the NCAA's Division I with a 26.9 average.