Jacksonville University's Dolphins, the highest-scoring, sharpest-shooting and showboatingest college basketball team in the country, flew into Texas late last week to play Houston and, for a little R and R, Coach Tom Wasdin figured he'd take his two 7-footers and their teammates on a tour of the Astrodome. They could watch the scoreboard do its thang or daydream about returning late in March, when the Dome will host the NCAA championships. But there was a rodeo and a Johnny Cash concert going on that day, and Wasdin had to cancel the visit.
"Maybe we'll get to see it later in the year," he said, with a small smile.
Actually, if basketball must be played in the heart of the Astrodome acreage, the Dolphins are just the sort of team to make it almost logical. They could show off their 7'2" (not including three inches of Afro) goal-rejecter (and goaltender) Artis Gilmore, who led them to the championship game last season, in which they lost to UCLA. They could exhibit the sport's finest fly pattern, wherein little Harold Fox zips upcourt the instant an opponent shoots, Gilmore or 7' Pembrook Burrows III pulls down the rebound, whirls and fires a length-of-the-court pass and Fox catches it going full speed and lays it in (most of the time). It makes the normal fast break look like a square dance at Leisure World.
Alas, it appears such spectacles might be denied us. The game last weekend, which was televised nationally, was held in Hofheinz Pavilion, where the Houston Cougars had won all the 27 games they had played. Not only that, they had lost only three home games in seven seasons. Sure enough, Jacksonville, unhappy with the referees, upset at the crowd and badly outrebounded, was beaten 83-82.
Houston's victory gave it a record of 20 and 5 and pretty much assured its eighth NCAA or NIT tournament bid in 11 years. The Dolphins (who are 21-3) had their win streak ended at 15 and, although they will fill an at-large berth in the NCAAs, there is a serious question now whether they are good enough to get through the Mideast Regional.
Then again, enduring the terrific din and the loss at Houston may have been the best experience to prepare Jacksonville for another run at the title. The Dolphins had things completely their own way after a one-point loss to Wake Forest in December. JU won those 15 straight by an average margin of 26 points. Of course, the opposition included such powerhouses as Mercer, Valdosta State and South Alabama, but there were at least three victories to be proud of—over Florida State (twice) and Bradley, which, either for comic effect or out of exasperation, had its 5'4" guard jump center against Gilmore.
Along the way JU also strengthened its image as a team of hot dogs. Substitute Wing Chip Dublin led a Harlem Globetrotters-type warmup drill before each game. Fans of little-used sub Phil Carter sat in a special section called Carter's Corner and went bughouse when he entered games in the waning minutes. The game against Manhattan was such a rout that at one point Gilmore played defense by himself while his teammates stood at the other end of the court. According to Wasdin, it took Manhattan four shots and a full minute to score.
The year's highlight was consecutive victory No. 15. which came before the Houston trip. It was a home-court farewell celebration for six seniors, with East Carolina serving as the refreshments. Three or four years ago a Dolphin home game drew about as many people as a Tupperware party, but on this night the Jacksonville Coliseum was packed with 10,000 fans. Outside, scalpers were getting as much as $15 a ticket; a few suckers even bought unused tickets from previous games and were turned away at the door. The Dolphins beat East Carolina 127-69 and Gilmore had 25 points, 28 rebounds, 13 blocked shots (and was called for goaltending several times).
"Take this team and put it on a neutral floor and it could probably beat at least three teams in the ABA," said losing Coach Tom Quinn. "I don't know of any college team around that could beat them, and I've seen UCLA, Notre Dame and the best in the Atlantic Coast Conference."
JU's seniors received standing ovations, moving Quinn to mutter, "They gave everybody one but the director of admissions." Which brings up the subject of JU's academic status. Leave us say it's not quite the Harvard of the South.