season, the big question wasn't whether Louisville was going to have another
terrific team—that was taken for granted—but whether Forward Derek Smith could
come up with a new hand slap as good as the "high five" he had
popularized during the Cardinals' march to the 1980 NCAA title. Before the
opening game against DePaul, Smith revealed that he had a new slap almost
ready. "It's sort of a front slap, followed by a side slap," Smith
said. "We ain't got the timing on it yet."
As of last
weekend, the only slaps much in evidence around the Louisville players were the
ones being taken at them by the press, rival players and, yes, even their own
fans. A desultory 64-47 loss to Kansas State in Manhattan, Kans. last Saturday
night dropped Louisville's record all the way to 2-7, the worst start ever for
a defending NCAA champion and almost unbelievable for an outfit with four
starters and six of the top seven players back from a 33-3 team. Even Smith,
ordinarily the squad's most fun-loving player, was upset.
saddening." he said after the Kansas State loss, the Cards' second blowout
defeat of the week. "The five who start for us are as good as any five in
the nation, but we're having trouble getting up for anybody. We only get up
when we absolutely have to."
The best example
of this occurred when the Cardinals bombed a good Maryland team 78-67 in their
first home game after three straight losses on the road. The second occurred
when they destroyed poor Southern California in Los Angeles 79-50 last week in
the consolation game of the Winston Tire Classic. That also ended a three-game
losing streak, which included Louisville's first back-to-back defeats at
Freedom Hall since 1963-64, at the hands of Utah (78-59) and Minnesota (62-56),
and North Carolina (86-64) in the Winston Tire opener. The Cards were so bad in
the loss to Utah that some of their fans even booed as they left the floor.
After the Minnesota game Smith admitted that, for the first time in his career,
he had decided to start avoiding the public.
staying in my room a lot more," he said. "You get tired of seeing it
from your fans. You know, that look that people give you. And you get tired of
hearing the same questions all the time: 'What's wrong with the team?' And
'When are you guys going to get it together?' We're trying. Believe me, we're
It took the
Cardinals a while to do even that much, however, and that's part of the reason
they're in the mess they are today. Soon after preseason practice began, Coach
Denny Crum detected a certain laziness in his players that hadn't existed last
season. He responded by working them harder than usual, but the Cardinals
merely scowled and called him " Bobby Knight," or worse, behind his
Wiley Brown, the
massive 6'8" center, conceded he was "only 75%" in shape when it
came time for the opener against De-Paul, and 6'9" redshirt Scooter McCray
said that he was having trouble adapting to the guard position vacated by the
star of last season's team, Darrell Griffith, who's now playing for the Utah
Jazz. Beyond that, there really didn't seem much cause for concern. Scooter's
little brother, 6'7" Forward Rodney McCray, seemed determined to show
everyone that he had deserved more playing time on the U.S. Olympic team. The
coaches all were saying that playmaking Guard Jerry Eaves would be the most
improved player in the Metro Conference. And there seemed to be plenty of
reserve strength in last season's supersubs, Roger Burkman and Poncho Wright,
and a couple of promising freshmen from Mississippi, Forward Charles Jones and
Guard Lancaster (Flash) Gordon.
Crum knew how
hard it was to defend an NCAA championship, having helped John Wooden defend a
few as an assistant coach at UCLA, and he knew how difficult it is to replace a
player who did as much as Griffith did last year, but try as he might, he
couldn't get the message across to his players. After the loss to DePaul and
the shockers at Tulsa and Oklahoma State, the Cards began working harder, but
now they were playing catch-up ball, under pressure.
For a fleeting
moment, against Maryland, Louisville looked as if it had rediscovered the magic
and finally exorcized the ghost of Griffith. But that was only an illusion and,
in the losses since, the Cardinals have again become a confused team plagued by
lack of leadership, shooting and confidence. Whereas Griffith averaged 22.9
points a game last year, only Smith is getting as many as 16.
22-point loss to North Carolina, Crum kept his locker room closed for 42
minutes while he and his players did "a little soul-searching," as he
later characterized it. "Last season we really weren't that much better
than a lot of the teams we played," Crum said. "The only way we won was
by hustling and working hard. But then the players had six or eight months to
read their press clippings and they forgot all that. They actually began to
believe that we were better than everybody else; and with four starters back,
they thought we ought to be better again."