A Merry Polka to Lead the Big Ten Dance - Sports Illustrated Vault | SI.com
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A Merry Polka to Lead the Big Ten Dance

With or without music, Michigan State deserves a high national ranking

Christmas tree lights still circle the two evergreens that stand in front of Forddy Anderson's home just off Michigan State's handsome campus at East Lansing. Forddy has been busy lately—too busy to think about anything but basketball—and the same holds for all the other Big Ten coaches engaged in this year's typically close race, in which every team has had a death clutch on its rivals' throats almost all the way.

It has been so tight that even the coaches cannot agree on whether all teams are on a fairly equal level of mediocrity or excellence. To a disinterested observer, the latter appears easily the truth, and only one example should prove the case. Last year, Michigan State went to the NCAA semifinals at Kansas City, where they lost in three overtimes to undefeated North Carolina. Carolina, of course, became National Champions the next night, after a well-earned victory over Kansas. But it cannot be doubted that against Michigan State the Tar Heels were very lucky indeed; on at least three occasions, State had the game won. This year's Spartans are practically the same crew, much better as a team after another season of playing together. And what has happened? Wisconsin, which has been occupying last place, has beaten them by 14 points; in-and-out Ohio State has also beaten them by 14, and contending Indiana by three.

With this kind of mutual bloodletting going on all season, it is no wonder that voters in the national wire service polls, who seldom see a tiny fraction of the teams they rate with great assurance but little reason each week, have recently refused to put a Big Ten team in the top 10 and only one—presently—in the top 20. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED would rate the Spartans, at least, in fifth place, behind Kansas State, San Francisco, Cincinnati and Temple.

As the Big Ten race came to the top of the stretch last weekend, the statistics themselves told an unusual story. Last Saturday night not a single one of the four teams that had a good chance to win the title led in any of four key departments: scoring, defense, shooting accuracy or rebounds. Northwestern (with only a mathematical chance to win) led in scoring with a 78.7 average. Wisconsin (no chance) was first in defense, yielding 70.1 per game. Northwestern was ahead in shooting with a .413 percentage, and Michigan (no chance) led in rebounds at 54 per game. Michigan State, in first place, was, however, also first in another all-important category: they had outscored opponents by an average of 4½ points per game—a slim enough margin.

Last weekend, hot on the scent of another NCAA bid, Forddy and his men faced the Wisconsin team that had humiliated them 66-52 a month before at Madison. This game was played at East Lansing and Forddy had his team ready. He also had his hi-fi set ready. That's right—hi-fi.

Forddy Anderson, a shrewd, youthful 39-year-old, comes from a large Gary, Ind. family of music lovers. During his school days he played the tuba, and his wife, a pianist, matches his fondness for music of all kinds. His first experience with sports was also involved with music. "I was in the fifth grade," he relates, "when our physical education teacher took us to the gym for instruction in basketball. There weren't any basketballs there. Instead, he had us listen to music and move around the floor to the rhythm. He always maintained there was a close relationship between sports and music, between playing a game and moving to the rhythm of a band." As a coach, Anderson does not use music in quite the same way as that teacher, but his purpose is also different. One of the biggest problems that all coaches face is in preparing their men emotionally for a game. Sometimes a team will be too tight, sometimes too loose, and getting them in just the proper mood at the tip-off is the difficult task. Anderson has always been known for the odd methods he uses to accomplish this. Before last year's NCAA tournament game with Kentucky, for example, he took his team 30 miles out of town and spent the day with them on a lake—fishing. But now he believes he has the perfect solution—in music. An hour before game time, the team gathers in the dressing room, and while they shed their clothes, get taped and put on uniforms, Forddy's hi-fi set pours out music. He selects the records himself, and with care. The program starts with slow, "mood" melody—mostly strings—and gradually builds in tempo through Dixieland to a climax of jump tunes. Lately, the Spartans lave shown a preference for polkas is the send-off, and Forddy lets them have it. He doesn't pretend that the music is a cure-all, but one thing he's sure it does: "Sometimes you walk into the dressing room and your kids are sitting around, putting on their sneakers and stuff—and nobody is saying a word. They're all so tensed up they can't even talk. Somehow, music gets them to talking. They start jabbering and then ridding each other and pretty soon they're loose and ready to go."

Michigan State went out on the court to play Wisconsin with Frankie Yankovic's Polka Party still ringing in their ears—and they proceeded to two-step, shag and waltz their way through the Badger defense with the greatest of ease. For most of the second half the second team took over, but State still won 93-59. Forddy Anderson also teaches sound, rugged basketball. His sliding man-for-man defense, never better than it was against Wisconsin, jams the lanes and picks off all but the most accurate passes to trigger a fast-breaking attack and ferocious rebounding. On normal offense, the Spartans seldom fool around outside or take the long shot. Relentlessly they force the middle, cutting and driving in for layups, with Jack Quiggle, a superb feinter and passer, setting up the plays, and the 6-foot-5 John Green outrebounding opponents a half foot taller. With these two are Forwards Bob Anderegg and Larry Hedden, both seasoned, steady ball handlers and shooters, and either Tom Rand or Lance Olson at guard. State's only apparent weakness is the fact that after these six there is a great falling off in talent.

Wisconsin is a team that has to win from outside, and on a hot-shooting night (as in the first Michigan State game) they can give anyone trouble—especially from their Walter Holt, whose 52% from the floor has been the league's best.

As usual, Big Ten teams this year have been winning at home and losing on the road; in the first 42 games only 10 were won by visitors. But last week saw a sharp reversal of form by two title contenders. Ohio State came to Indiana and beat the Hoosiers, and five days later Indiana went to Columbus and beat the Buckeyes. Indiana, paced by the league's leading scorer, Archie Dees, but without an adequate backcourt general, is still in contention, but Ohio State appears to be finished. Floyd Stahl, the best-liked coach in the conference, had a promising bunch at Columbus, but it is possible that the team strongman, Frank Howard, has been thinking more about pro baseball bonus offers than college basketball.


The real surprise team of the conference is Purdue, with a great backcourt combination in Harvey Austin and Willie Merriweather and three fine jumpers up front in Wilson Eison, Bill Greve and Bob Fehrman. Every one of these can and does score well. Their great victory over Michigan State Monday night gives them the best chance of taking the title away from the Spartans.

Inexperience has held back Iowa's predominantly sophomore team but their over-.500 record promises a strong '59 outfit. Don Ohl and Roger Taylor have given Illinois possibly the league's best backcourt, but good speed and sharp shooting have not been able to overcome a woeful lack of height. Minnesota has been largely a two-man team—George Kline and Ron Johnson—and opponents have, understandably, concentrated effectively on them. Sophomore Willie Jones has injected spark and speed into a comparatively slow Northwestern squad and the result has been a reasonable improvement over last year's dismal last-place showing. Michigan, tops in rebounding, has been worst in team shooting over the season—which is a combination that has kept them out of the cellar but can't bring them much higher.