The National Championship trophy hasn't rested in a Valley Conference showcase since 1946, but Ed Jucker's CINCINNATI team has it now and may be strong enough to keep it for another season. There isn't a forecourt in the nation that can match the Bearcats' for height and strength. Huge (6 feet 9 and 235 pounds) Paul Hogue is back and still improving at center, with Dale Heidotting (6 feet 8) at one forward and George Wilson (also 6 feet 8), a standout sophomore, at the other. Wilson's arrival may involve moving Tom Thacker, only 6 feet 2 but a catlike jumper, back to guard, where he joins that fine ball handler and defensive leader of this defense-conscious team, Tony Yates. The sixth man is another sophomore who could start on almost any squad. 6-foot-5 Ron Bonham. He averaged 26.8 a game as a freshman and is considered the best Cincinnati shot since Oscar Robertson. But, being a forward, he can't help the Bearcats with their lone weakness, lack of good outside shooting. This, combined with the team's deliberate offense, means some close, low-scoring games. Jucker's boys may even lose one or two in the MVC, but they'll take the title while four other well-balanced challengers destroy each other.
Bradley has only one full-time starter back, but he is a dandy, All-America Chet (the Jet) Walker. His .562 shooting average helped Bradley to its third-place ranking in field-goal accuracy and his 327 rebounds made the Braves the best board team in the country. A big sophomore, 6-foot-9 Joe Strawder, may develop enough at center to help with the rebounding, freeing Walker for the wide-open action he likes. Another sophomore, accurate Rich Williams, may start at guard with two lettermen, Ed Wodka and Lee Edwards, filling out the first team. Says Coach Chuck Orsborn: "Probably weaker." But maybe not.
John Benington never has a bad team at ST. LOUIS, but by mid-December he may have a shell-shocked one. The Billikens consecutively face Kansas, Kansas State, Kentucky, Iowa and Ohio State. By the time conference play begins, the team will be thoroughly, if perhaps bitterly, tested. Husky Bill Nordmann (6 feet 7), Tom Kieffer and Donnell Reid return, but graduations have hurt the defense on a team that dotes on ball hawking. Consequently Benington may speed up the St. Louis offense and make extensive use of a large, coltish and exciting sophomore, 6-foot-8 Gary Garrison. "He'll make us hard to scout," says Benington. "We can't be sure what we'll be doing when he is playing, but the opposition won't know either." The rebounding will be good, the shooting fair, but the Billiken backcourt is considerably slower than the others in this fast league.
Like long shots? Then pick DRAKE to finish second behind Cincinnati in the MVC. "We have more speed, more depth and better shooting than in many seasons," says Coach Maurice John, whose team was 19-7 last year, its best record ever. Billy Hahn is at guard again, but two other starters are being tried out at new positions; Marv Torrence shifting from center to forward and Jerry Foster from guard to forward. In at guard will go Jerry's brother Billy, a sophomore with a good outside shot, while another sophomore, Larry Prins (6 feet 10), and junior-college transfer Ray Quinn (6 feet 8) contend for the center spot with senior Fred Kuhne, a substitute last season.
Wichita, which was 18-8 last season but only 6-6 in the demanding MVC, is as good this year, but so is the competition. Two experienced guards, Lanny Van Eman and quick Ernie Moore, make up a solid backcourt, with Leonard Kelly, a junior-college transfer, likely to step in at midseason when Van Eman is no longer eligible. Senior Gene Wiley, who is 6 feet 10, will give the Shockers good post play at center. But the forwards are a problem, since two relatively untried lettermen, Jerry Kittiko and Wayne Durham, must develop quickly to provide a balanced scoring threat.
"Weaknesses?" says TULSA'S pessimistic Coach Joe Swank. "Height, rebounding, depth and defense." Since Swank has one 6-foot-6 sophomore, Neil Tebbenkamp, and nobody else over 6 feet 4, his assessment looks sound. James King and Gary Hevelone are a smooth pair of guards, but that's hardly sufficient to win against this kind of competition.
What battles Tulsa should have with NORTH TEXAS STATE, however! The Eagles average a win a year in the MVC and could double that rate this season. They have four returning regulars, the best being Forward Art Dixon and Guard Les Pollock, plus a sophomore with unusual potential in 6-foot-5 John Savage. This too is a short team, but experience will help.
THE BIG TROPHY behind him, Cincy coach Ed Jucker can afford to look happily ahead.