Joe B. Hall would rather reveal what his middle initial stands for than admit that he felt some satisfaction when two Cats began clawing at one another—throwing punches, no less—during a recent practice. One of the pugilists was Winston Bennett, a rock-solid 6'7" freshman forward. The other looked like a doo-wop singer on whom someone had lost the vertical hold. Was it? Could it have been? Why, yes, it was 7'1" Sam Bowie (below). Teammates quickly separated the two, and Hall sat everybody down for an old-fashioned Rupp reamin'. But he must have done it with a suppressed grin. While Kentucky hasn't had this much size and maturity since its 1978 title team, it certainly hasn't had this much fight in it, either—and no coach wants to mess with that.
Of course it's not Bowie's hand speed that's of primary concern, but his left shinbone. A stubborn stress fracture there, suffered before the 1981-82 season, idled him the last two years. Kentucky won 45 of 61 games without Bowie, but was a disappointment in the postseason. It's uncertain how much of Bowie's sophomore All-America form is left after countless electrical stimulation treatments, several casts and a bone graft, but he's playing again—and that's good news for Wildcat fans.
If Bowie makes it back all the way—and he's not there yet—he would play forward on one of the most imposing front lines in college history. Kenny (Sky) Walker, a 6'8" sophomore who was MVP at the National Sports Festival, would be the other forward. And 6'11" Melvin (Dipper) Turpin, who has turned himself into an excellent offensive player, will start at center. "Now I'll have somebody new to help me rebound," Turpin says. "Last year our biggest weakness was giving teams second and third shots."
Unfortunately, Turpin looked ready to challenge Auburn's Charles Barkley and Georgia freshman Barn-Bam Rainey for SEC Doughboy of the Year when he reported to fall practice at 258 pounds, almost 20 overweight. A team manager is shadowing him 'round the clock, making sure he doesn't sneak any snacks. When a non-jock living among the varsity players in the Wildcat Lodge innocently offered Turpin a brownie, Turpin looked knives and forks at the guy and said: "Coach Hall'll tell you the rule next Lodge meeting: You don't feed the Dipper." Bowie, though, can feed Turpin anytime he likes—on the court. "Sam can take that big, long step around a defender to pass into the post man," Hall says. "He's a good and willing passer." Other likely frontcourt feeders include junior Bret Bearup and Bennett, the bellicose fellow who's Kentucky's first recruit out of Louisville in 10 years. "You have to lace your sneakers up extra tight when you're guarding him," Bowie says.
As offensively potent as the starting front could be, it may not have the mobility to play man-to-man defense. And the backcourt may not have the depth. Here's why: Senior Point Guard Dicky Beal has had his third arthroscopic incision for floating cartilage and inflammation in his right knee, and his entire game is in his legs. Beal's backup, sophomore Roger Harden, is a step slow. Freshman James Blackmon, like Bennett a high school All-America, is a defensive liability who would best be groomed as senior Jim Master's replacement at shooting guard. "He's a freshman," Hall says. "I don't want to throw him to the wolves." Accordingly, 5'5" speedball Leroy Byrd, a Lexington native who found playing time hard to come by behind Coach Jerry Tarkanian's son at UNLV, has been stashed at Somerset (Ky.) Community College. He'll play no organized ball there; in fact, Somerset doesn't even have a team. Instead, he's taking a giddyup, 19-hour course load and could be eligible to transfer and play for the Cats in January.
"With Bowie and Beal close to 100%, we can be a great team," Hall says. "Without them, we'll be a very good team, and there are plenty of those around." As the season was about to open, Bowie was perhaps 80% and Beal 70%. The Wildcats have already proven they can win consistently without Bowie. Whether they're a championship team without Beal is more problematic. Call the mood around Lexington optimistic—guardedly optimistic.