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The zealots who follow University of Toledo basketball are never at a loss when it comes to helping Coach Bobby Nichols overcome the Rockets' shortcomings. Be bolder in the last two minutes, one says; get some quicker forwards, adds another; etc., etc., ad infinitum. Well, folks, Nichols appreciates your offers, but thanks, no thanks, the Rockets are doing just fine on their own—66-20 over the past three seasons and 244-115 during Nichols' 14 years as coach, to be exact.
This season could be the best of all. Seven of the top nine players are back from last year's 22-8 Mid-American Conference champion, which defeated Iowa and gave Notre Dame a big scare in the Mideast Regionals before finally losing 79-71. Heading the list of returnees is Forward Dick Miller, an alternate on last summer's Pan-Am team. Miller has been a starter since the first game of his freshman season, averaging in double figures every year. Also on hand are starters Center/Forward Jim Swaney, last season's on hand are starters Center/Forward Jim Swaney, last season's leading scorer with a 15.9 average; Guard Jay Lehman and the Rockets' Mr. Excitement, Forward Harvey Knuckles, who when he isn't turning the ball over to the opposition—he had three consecutive traveling calls versus Iowa—puts it through the hoop with a dazzling variety of jump shots and dunks. Knuckles has supposedly been cured of his case of hapless feet, but if not, look for Ken Montague to see plenty of action.
Although Toledo hopes to run more than in the past, the scores of Rocket games should continue to be low because Toledo has one of the nation's stingiest defenses. Last season it allowed 62.4 points a game. That tough D helps to compensate for the Rockets' lack of height—the tallest starter is 6'8"—and poor team speed. A dominant center and a quick backcourt are possibly all that stand between Toledo and the NCAA finals, but what could get them there anyway is the coaching ability of Nichols, who, says his Notre Dame counterpart, Digger Phelps, "is in a class by himself."
And he very nearly is. Toledo is one of only five schools with 20 or more consecutive winning seasons. The explanation for the Rockets' success is Nichols' ability as a teacher. "Raw talent is the easiest thing in the world to find," he says. "The thing I've done best is pick the right type of player, the one that fits into our way of doing things."
His way starts with intensity—"A lot of teams just can't match us in that area," Nichols says—and includes rigorous discipline. The Rockets rarely go beyond the framework of their capabilities; instead, they just execute the basics better than their opponents.
"We may lose control of parts of a game but never the whole thing," Nichols says. "We just hang around and around, at the end of the game we'll be there." Indeed, the Rockets have lost only two games by 10 or more points in the last 10 years.
Indiana may be the sole team on Toledo's schedule capable of handing the Rockets that kind of loss this season. But if things should get unexpectedly rough for Nichols and his players, they know they can always get a little help from their friends.
At a cocktail party in Little Rock the other day, Arkansas Coach Eddie Sutton was discussing the stars from the team's glorious recent past. "You know about Ron Brewer," he told the 23 sponsors of the Razorback television broadcasts. "He's already a true NBA star in Portland. Sidney Moncrief would be doing as well in Milwaukee, but the Bucks have an established team and they're winning, and he's a rookie. Steve Schall, Marvin Delph and Jimmy Counce are all regulars with Athletes in Action and they've won their first seven games." These players formed the nucleus of Arkansas teams that had the finest record (102-20) in NCAA basketball the last four seasons and the best five-year league record (63-15) in Southwest Conference history.
This success began with Sutton's arrival in 1974. In the last three seasons alone, the Razorbacks have won or shared three league titles and earned three NCAA tournament berths, finishing third in 1978. "I don't see how we can keep this thing going," Sutton said. "But that's what I told you last year." Texas Coach Abe Lemons, for one, figures Sutton not only can keep it up, but will. "I'm picking Arkansas," he says, "and you know that's not sentiment or wishful thinking. That's realism." Too true. The Razor-backs have three starters back from an outstanding 25-5 team that lost a heartstopper to Indiana State in the Midwest Regional finals. In fact, from top to bottom the Razorbacks may be as strong as ever. And that's without anybody named Moncrief, Brewer or Delph.