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Among the 571 basketball-playing colleges and universities recognized by the NCAA, there is an Upper Iowa, a Central Michigan, an Eastern New Mexico, a Western Maryland and a Northern Illinois, so there is no reason in the world why there should not be a Southern Illinois. There it is, on page 123 of the Official Collegiate Basketball Guide, right after Southern Connecticut State College. Southern Illinois University, no less, located in Carbondale, Ill. (wherever that is), coached by Jack Hartman (whoever he is) and nicknamed the Salukis (whatever they are).
This is the outfit that beat St. Louis University by 10 at St. Louis, knocked off defending national champion Texas Western at El Paso, forced Louisville into two overtimes at Louisville before losing and then beat the No. 2-ranked Cardinals in a rematch at Carbondale. It is the same team that ran away from a good Missouri Valley club, Wichita State, 77-55 last Saturday for its third victory in four games against MVC competition. Such triumphs would be sweet for any team, but they were especially gratifying for Southern Illinois, which is not in the top 10, or the top 20 either, and in fact is not even officially considered a "major" school. The Salukis are stuck in the College Division—the NCAA's version of the Three I League.
Newness has not kept SIU (as the campus sweat shirts have it) out of the University Division, for the school is almost 100 years old. Nor is size a barrier, although SIU was long called Southern Illinois Normal University and as late as 1947 had fewer than 2,500 students. Today its enrollment is more than 25,000 and the campus has grown from two square blocks to 11,400 acres. Entrance requirements are not stiff (an Illinoisan must be in the upper 50% of his high school class; an out-of-stater in the upper 40%), but the faculty boasts such high-quality people as R. Buckminster Fuller, the geodesic-dome designer. What has kept SIU basketball in the minors is an NCAA rule that a school must play more than half its games against major teams in order to be major itself. That rule was recently amended, however; soon a school will have another way to get out of the minors. If it participates in a major tournament in any sport, it will be major in all sports. The SIU administration is deciding which of the two paths to follow. But College Division, University Division, NBA or whatever in the future, Coach Hartman and his team found it scary enough in the minors last week when they barely beat the Kentucky Wesleyan Panthers of Owensboro, Ky. in the small-college game of the year.
Since Hartman arrived from Coffeyville (Kans.) Junior College in 1962, Southern Illinois has made frequent forays against major basketball powers but also has continued traditional wars with teams in its own division, teams like Kentucky Wesleyan. The buildup for their meeting in Owensboro was perfect. Wesleyan was undefeated in nine games and ranked first in one of the wire-service small-college polls, with SIU a close second. SIU was 9-2, had those heady upsets over Texas Western and Louisville and ranked first in the other wire-service poll, with Wesleyan a close second. Wesleyan had a 16-game winning streak. Four pro scouts were among the capacity crowd of 7,000.
There was even a revenge motif. Last season SIU's Walt Frazier, a fine all-round player from Atlanta who had been a second-team Little All-America as a sophomore, was scholastically ineligible, but despite this the Salukis made it to the finals of the NCAA small-college tournament. The last roadblock was Kentucky Wesleyan, which Southern Illinois had beaten twice in the regular season, once by 20 points. In the finals the Salukis played it too cautiously and lost the game by three. It was the second straight year they had tripped in the finals.
"It was a real disappointment," said Hartman. "These kids had done such a great job and had so much courage, confidence and aggressiveness, but they couldn't employ those characteristics when they wanted to most." Sitting in the stands, Walt Frazier couldn't employ anything but his voice.
Now Frazier was back in uniform and he and his teammates could not help but notice the NCAA championship patch on each Panther's warm-up jacket. SIU Center Ralph Johnson kept his mind on a newspaper article he had read. It had said Wesleyan's All-America candidate, Sam Smith, was surely going to get his customary 20 points and 16 rebounds.
Johnson was a big, gawky kid in glasses when Hartman first saw him play at a small-town Illinois high school. Another SIU official who was there said Johnson ran down the floor the first time, fell down, broke his glasses and cut his head. When he came back in, somewhat repaired, not more than a minute passed before he ran into the stands and injured himself again. Hartman took him anyway, because of his desire, and persuaded him to wear contact lenses. Johnson is a fine clutch player, but he still is far from being fluid motion personified. In one home game he made four straight goofs and the crowd started to boo. Hartman jumped up in a rage and shook his fist at the stands. He stuck with Ralph through every bobble and boo.
For the SIU-Wesleyan game Hartman did not use the zone defense that had helped wreck Texas Western. Rather, he used a Hank Iba-inspired man-to-man (he played under Iba at Oklahoma State), against which the opposition cannot get inside for a crip shot without burglar tools. Hartman has an excellent defensive specialist in Clarence Smith, who came to Southern Illinois on a baseball scholarship but could not hit the curve. Wesleyan's defense was just one point weaker, and SIU had a 23-22 half-time lead, the low score reflecting not slowdown tactics but two teams with pride in tenacious defense.
Johnson and his teammates continued to do a job on Sam Smith in the second half (he finished with 13 points and seven rebounds), but the game remained close—45-45 and then 47-47. Wesleyan blocked two SIU shots and put in two free throws to lead by two points with less than three minutes remaining and the Panthers in possession of the ball. Then Referee John Overby blew his whistle and called for a jump ball—Wesleyan Guard Roger Cordell, while covered by SIU's Ed Zastrow, had broken a rule by holding the ball for more than five seconds. In the melee after the tip-off, the Salukis got the ball out of bounds, and Walt Frazier made up for his lost year. He tied the game on a long jump shot, then stole the ball at midcourt and barreled in for a layup. He also leaped out of his shoes for a last-minute rebound, fell as he landed and came up dribbling like a Harlem Globetrotter. Southern Illinois won 52-51.