It is one of those magical datelines: Lexington, Ky. For anyone who cares deeply about college basketball, it is something of a shrine. As serious golfers need to visit The Augusta National, as a baseball life is not quite complete without poking around Yankee Stadium and as football fanatics must explore Packer Country, more than four very good basketball teams are drawn to the University of Kentucky this weekend.
The fascination with Kentucky basketball is excess. Good and bad. No team in Division I history has won as many games (1,469 in 86 years) or amassed a higher winning percentage (75). From 1943 through 1955, or 129 games, the Wildcats did not lose at home. The five starters who helped win the 1948 NCAA championship also participated, as a unit, in the London Olympics and averaged more points themselves than all but one opponent scored in any game against the United States.
On the sour side, listed in the all-time records section along with so much glory, between a team that went 29-3 and another that was unbeaten in 25 games, is this:
“1952-53 -- No Schedule
"(Under suspension by NCAA)”
During the early part of the point-shaving scandal about 40 years ago, oach Adolph Rupp boasted that gamblers couldn’t get within “a 10-foot pole” of his players. Some did. Rupp may have run off better players than many coaches ever attract but was sinfully slow in recruiting blacks.
Whispers among NCAA insiders the last 15 or so years were that Kentucky escaped probation not by being clean but because its methods of cheating were so sophisticated. Nobody will ever nail Kentucky, Jerry Tarkanian once cried. It’s too big. Too sacred.
As Virginia and Oklahoma, North Carolina and Michigan were arriving for the Southeast regional, Kentucky was reacting to the resignations earlier in the week of Coach Eddie Sutton and an assistant, Dwane Casey. And waiting to see how that impacts on NCAA enforcement of 18 charges against Wildcat basketball.
Ironically, each of the schools involved in that regional has reason to examine Kentucky and learn something from it. Many Virginia fans, for instance, dream of the chance for an NCAA title more often than when a wonderchild (Ralph Sampson) happens to grow up at its doorstep. The bitterness and embarrassment evident in Lexington should cause renewed respect for Virginia’s gentleman coach, Terry Holland.
Michigan basketball is getting too much sympathy these days. The timing on Bill Frieder’s jumping to Arizona State was terrible, but perhaps could not be avoided. Arizona State, after all, had a football coach snatched away by Ohio State a year ago at an inopportune time. And what of the mood at Michigan that caused Frieder to leave?
Let’s say Frieder did the morally proper thing, told Arizona State he could not disrupt his team at this critical moment. Let’s say Arizona State, already jilted by Purdue’s Gene Keady and recalling the football experience, simply wished Frieder well and grabbed somebody else. Frieder is left to endure all those can’t-win-the-big-one taunts that would eventually erode his program.
Better coaches than Frieder couldn’t get past Dean Smith.
Carolina slipped by Michigan in the NCAAs the last two seasons. Getting to the round of 16 last weekend enabled Smith to tie John Wooden for total career victories (667) and move within about eight seasons of Rupp’s all-time mark of 875. Smith’s staggering success over 27 years allowed Carolina three seasons ago to match 23,000-seat Rupp Arena as a college showpiece.
Smith has had Final Four teams in the ‘60s, the ‘70s and the ‘80s, having overcome an under-.500 record his first season and being just 35-27 after three years. He may well be the most cautious coach in all of college sport, but does leave clues about his success now and then.
During the on-court celebration after Carolina won its 10th Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title under Smith, two weeks ago, the coach was given a long and affectionate ovation. As he walked back toward the bench, Smith suddenly affected a gunslinger in suit and tie, pointing a finger of each hand toward his players and mouthing: “Thank you. Thank you.”
Smith has the final word about everything but does allow his seniors considerable say in team policy. A former senior, Mitch Kupchak, said seldom-seen David May and the Tar Heel manager undoubtedly have as much input this season as stars Jeff Lebo and Steve Bucknall.
“No one knows how he’s stayed so competitive for so long, or how much longer he’ll stay on,” Kupchak said of Smith. “It might be one or two years; it might be five or 10.”
The fourth team in Lexington, Oklahoma, the one picked to leave victorious, also leans the most toward Kentucky-like excess. Coach Billy Tubbs dreams of the Sooners scoring 200 points in a game and refuses to lower his head an inch after keeping his starters on the court during 45-point victories. If Oklahomans ever grip basketball half as enthusiastically as they do football, some sort of Tubbs Tub will be built.
No matter how exciting the games, thoughts this week in Lexington and elsewhere about college basketball ought to include a once-gifted player and the man who, 20 years ago, inherited him his first season as a head coach.
The player was Cyril Baptiste, whose talent and drug-related sadness were enormous. Those near him, including the young coach, suspected Baptiste played his sophomore and junior seasons at Creighton on drugs.
“When I was shooting heroin,” Baptiste later said, “that’s all I thought about. ... The school carried me through on some grades, especially when I got strung out.”
“I probably will never get another ballplayer with that much ability,” said the young and ambitious Creighton coach, Eddie Sutton.