Louisville Coach Denny Crum visited Humana Hospital last week. In an upset, it wasn’t to see one of his own, but Murray Haydon, the newest artificial heart recipient.
Every other time Crum has gone this season, it was to visit his backcourt. If Humana could provide an artificial guard, Crum would be doing better than 14-12, the Cardinals’ record going into today’s noon game with UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. Medical science, however, is still taking it one organ at a time.
For Crum, it only hurts when he laughs. Or thinks about his streak of 20-victory seasons. Or what this team might have been like if it had stayed healthy.
The Cardinals opened with a win at Indiana, before Bob Knight began starting his freshmen (although Knight did go down the stretch of that game with Delray Brooks, etc.). Then they beat Virginia Commonwealth, which is still a top 20 team.
Then Milt Wagner broke a bone in his right foot.
Then freshman Kevin Walls, who had averaged 44 points a game at Camden, N.J., High School, underwent knee surgery. Before Christmas, Crum had lost two potential all-Americans at one position. His momma must have told him there would be years like this.
“It was early,” said Crum. “You go ahead with your season. You’re optimistic. You just figure you’ll work harder. You think you’ll change this, that and the other thing and overcome the loss some other way. But it wasn’t Milt. Seven or eight other guys got injured. Losing Milt was just the start.
“Kevin Walls had the knee operation. Jeff Hall dislocated a tibia in his knee joint. Mark McSwain had a stress fracture. Barry Sumpter had shin splints. Manual Forrest had an Achilles tendon problem.
“I’ve never even been close to something like this. We’ve got four guys out for the year, Milt, Kevin, Danny Mitchell and Robbie Valentine. I never lost that many total in the 13 years I’ve been here. I only lost two-three kids in 13 years. The one year, Scooter McCray got hurt in the third game. Rodney took his place and we won the national championship.”
They tried this, that and the other thing. Several reserves were auditioned at point guard. Jeff Hall, the off-guard went to point guard. Billy Thompson, the power forward, went to off-guard. Results were mixed, and included an average of 18 turnovers a game.
Crum, of course, has 13 20-victory seasons in 13 in the 13 years since leaving John Wooden’s UCLA staff. He has only four more regular-season games.
But then, there is the Metro Conference tournament. And who knows beyond that?
“We can get to the NCAA through the Metro tournament,” Crum says, “and it’ll be played at Freedom Hall (the Cardinals’ home court). Anybody who’s played our schedule can get in with 17 or 18 victories.
“There isn’t a tougher schedule in the country. We’ve beaten North Carolina State, Virginia Tech, Kentucky, DePaul. We lost to Memphis by three at our place and we were down one and shooting two foul shots with six seconds to go. We had a freshman on the line.”
The freshman missed.
There is some potential for a happier ending. Wagner has announced he’ll stay out of the NBA draft and return next season. Crum will bring back four starters, plus Walls. Someone else will get to do the hurting.
For UCLA, this is the last chance at a nationally televised win, barring an NCAA bid. Aside from that, the game means less to the Bruins than it does to Louisville. In their last non-conference outing, the Bruins poured a lot, physically and emotionally, into a loss to Notre Dame, then came up flat at Washington State four days later and found themselves in a four-game losing streak before they knew what had hit them . . . A look at the replay of the Reggie Miller-Jeff Thilgen incident Thursday at Cal suggests that Walt Hazzard behaved reasonably, erring only in breaking the code that says a coach will not talk to an opposing player. Cal Coach Dick Kuchen blew the affair up by flying off his bench, followed by all his players . . . Louisville is led by Billy Thompson, the 6-7 forward from Camden, rated the No. 1 prospect of his high school class and a disappointment in his first two college seasons. He leads the Cardinals in scoring, rebounding and assists and is shooting 53% from the floor. Barry Sumpter, a 6-11 sophomore center, ties Ricky Gallon as the tallest player Denny Crum has ever had at Louisville. Sumpter has had an OK season, but was recently held to two points and two rebounds by SMU’s Jon Koncak.