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If the Trans America Athletic Conference has any sense of flair, it will send CENTENARY as its representative to the NCAA tournament's field of 48. The Gents' top scorer and passer have names you'd expect to find in a history book: Cherokee (Chief) Rhone and Napoleon Byrdsong III. Rhone, a 6'9" senior center, is coming back from a knee injury that sat him down midway through last season, when he was averaging 21.7 points and 10.6 rebounds a game. Although the doctors say Rhone is fully recovered, Coach Tommy Canterbury is taking nothing for granted. "Well to me is getting 28 points against Arkansas," says Canterbury, alluding to something Chief did last year. "Well to them might be walking to English class." Byrdsong, a 145-pound sprite of a point guard who handed out 6.3 assists a game in 1980-81, puts his deft hands to good use as a pre-dentistry student. "If we stick him in the whirlpool we have to put a life preserver on him," says Canterbury. "But he's sharp as a tack, and if he can get up high enough to look into somebody's mouth, he's going to make a lot of money." Another key returnee from the 16-12 Gents of last season is Forward Willie Jackson, who averaged 17.2 points and 7.9 rebounds per game.
"We've got a beautiful schedule," says ALCORN STATE Coach Davey Whitney, whose Braves should win the Southwestern Athletic Conference. "A beautiful schedule. If people don't take us seriously, it could put us in the limelight." Missouri, Kansas and Illinois beware. Whitney has outstalked Mississippi and Mississippi State for some of the best talent in the Magnolia State, including 6'1" All-SWAC Forward Albert (Silk) Irving, who is almost completely recovered from a stress fracture in his right leg.
After losing four seniors to the NBA draft, LSU isn't likely to equal last year's 31-5 record or make the Final Four again. But the Tigers will be a factor in the post-season tournament, thanks to the return of Forward Leonard Mitchell and Swingman Howard (Hi C) Carter, whose nickname fits his jumping ability. Freshman Forward Steffond Johnson will start, along with classmate Ray Borner, an affable 6'10" Aussie Center with a knack for getting position. Sophomore Guard Johnny (Bullet) Jones will run the show, though Coach Dale Brown cautions: "Sometimes his speed is a lethal aspect for the positive and sometimes for the negative."
South Florida was limping along with a 2-4 record last season when it won 12 in a row and 14 straight at home to earn a berth in the National Invitation Tournament. Two talented transfers become eligible this season and will play alongside two-time Sun Belt Conference scoring champ Tony Grier (19.2 point average last season) and senior frontcourt men Vince Reynolds and Willie Redden. In 1980-81 Reynolds and Reddon averaged 24 points and 16 rebounds between them as South Florida improved its record from 6-21 in 1979-80 to 18-11 in its first year under Coach Lee Rose. Rose expects either Lewis Card, late of Auburn, or Dave Bastian, late of Butler, to become the point guard who'll free Grier from ballhandling chores and make him even more of a scoring threat. The 1,400 students who plant themselves in the Rose Garden of the school's year-old Sun Dome will have plenty to shout about.
The changing of the guards has occurred at PURDUE , where the Boilermakers' two starters and top reserve in the backcourt are gone. "We'll be biding our time to get some experience," says Coach Gene Keady, who was 21-11 in 1980-81, his first season at Purdue. The new guards are two seniors: Kevin Stallings, a fine passer and shooter, and converted Forward Keith (Ice) Edmonson, a San Antonio native and George Gervin disciple who has the agility and touch to play the shooting guard spot. The front court features holdovers Russell Cross, a 6'10" sophomore, and Forward Mike Scearce, a standout in last season's NIT Cross, who averaged 16.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game as a freshman, may switch from center to forward, opening up some room for either 6'10" junior Ted Benson or 7-foot sophomore Joe Gamtfer.
Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps has his work cut out for him. Gone from last season's 23-6 team are the formidable Kelly Tripucka, Orlando Woolridge and Tracy Jackson. "We're not worried about being in the Top 20," says Phelps. "We'd be satisfied to be in the next 28." Wish granted, for now, even though none of the Irish returnees averaged in double figures a year ago. Phelps calls John Paxson "the best guard in the country," but he's not about to lavish similar superlatives on silky but unproven Forward Bill Varner. The incoming class is thin, but Phelps promises, "We're going to steal 20 victories."
"We get calls from the pro people," says EVANSVILLE Coach Dick Walters. "Everybody's buzzing about him. I just hope that, with all the hype, people will be patient and not expect him to be Magic Johnson from Day One." But he is Magic Johnson, Richie (Magic) Johnson, a—sound familiar?—6'9" sophomore point guard and defensive forward. While Johnson's talent isn't suspect, his temperament is. He enrolled at Missouri last year but left the day before preseason practice, taking his funky game home to New Albany, Ind. The presence of freshman Forward David Bennett, a high-school teammate of Johnson's, should levitate Magic's spirits—and give the Aces' bench some depth. But it'll be the starters who should earn Evansville the first automatic bid awarded the 3-year-old Midwestern City Conference. Aside from Johnson, they are 6'10" sophomore Forward Kenny Perry, who had the finest first season in Evansville history despite playing every game with a broken bone in his left wrist; Theren Bullock, a finesse forward and good passer; and young Turk Emir Turam, a 7'1" center. Evansville's Ace in the hole is 6'5", 195-pound senior Guard Brad Leaf, a 17.6 point scorer on last year's 19-9 team who's stronger following some off-season weight work. He and Bullock are co-captains and members of the first class recruited after the 1977 airplane crash that wiped out the entire Evansville team.
If MISSOURI seemed like a team that self-destructed on the road last season—the Tigers were 8-10 in away games and 22-10 overall—imagine how Center Steve Stipanovich felt after almost self-destructing at home. He shot himself while cleaning a gun and then concocted a story about a pistol-wielding intruder to explain away the incident. "Naturally, he was embarrassed," says teammate Jon Sundvold. "But he has come back this fall with new purpose." Sundvold, a 13.8-points-per-game guard, and the 6'11" Stipanovich will be joined as starters by defensive ace Moon McCrary, All-Big Eight Forward Ricky Frazier and Mark Dressier, a fiery, fine-shooting forward who sat out all of last season with an injured left knee. Missouri has won the last two Big Eight championships but no school has ever won three in a row. Mizzou might change that.
In his first year on the job last season, Clem Haskins coached WESTERN KENTUCKY to a surprisingly good 21-8 record and the Ohio Valley championship. The Hilltoppers figure to be just as strong in 1981-82. The front line returns intact, led by Forward Tony Wilson and 6'10" All-OVC Center Craig McCormick, who averaged almost 30 points between them.
Two willowy transfers and a 5'9", 155-pound point guard should earn BALL STATE the Mid-American Conference's NCAA tournament berth. David Scott, 6'9" and 200, and Jon Mansbury, 6'7", 215, formerly of Arkansas and TCU, respectively, should be the forwards. The glue that holds the Cardinals, 20-10 a year ago, together is 5'9" Ray McCallum, Ball State's leading scorer two times running, including 18.4 last season.