The sun was sinking through the Carolina pines, killing the brisk November day in Chapel Hill. The cute coeds were walking over the golden soil, WCHL was signing off with a soft chorus of Dixie and Rusty Clark was yawning. Rusty had just finished hundreds of jump-ropes while loaded down with 25-pound weights, hundreds of jump shots from around the key, hundreds of tip-ins off the backboard, left-and right-handed hooks through an extra-small rim and passes out of the pivot. He also had jumped up and touched the backboard dozens of times and had dragged through 40 sprints up and down the court. It is tiring work learning to be a college basketball player. But Rusty is getting there quickly, and this season at North Carolina he will learn while playing, because when you are 6-11 and an uncut diamond, that is the way you have to do it. There is a question about that height. Rusty says he is 6-10½ and Coach Dean Smith insists that he is not 7 feet. But Rusty better get used to being called "the 7-footer," because that is what is going to happen. And don't think the Carolina players won't encourage it. When you have a 7-footer on your team you have the psych on your side. "Sure it's psychological," says Bobby Lewis, the All-America who scored 27 points a game last season. "He means a lot just being there. I mean, if I'm playing against a 7-footer, I'm going to think twice before I shoot the ball. He could be a nothing player, it wouldn't matter. Just that he's 7 feet and there. But this guy is going to be good."
There is no question but that the presence of Clark and of another celebrated big man—sophomore Mike Grosso at South Carolina—will give the ACC a genuine horse race for the first time in several years. Duke is not being conceded anything this year, though the Blue Devils will be strong and deep again up front, with 6-7 Mike Lewis, 6-8 Warren Chapman and 6-6 Bob Reidy all returning from the third-place NCAA team of last season. Duke also has one of the country's finest-shooting guards in Bob Verga, but whether he can take over the team leadership role shared by Steve Vacendak and Jack Marin and maintain his scoring as well is a big question. Skeptics want to be shown. They also do not believe Grosso will be allowed to play (SI, Nov. 7). South Carolina has the best backcourt in the league in Skip Harlicka and Jack Thompson, and 6-7, 245-pound Gary Gregor is back after a year-and-a-half absence, but the Gamecocks need Grosso to win. While Duke is still the favorite and South Carolina waits for a ruling, Chapel Hill eagerly anticipates the appearance of Rusty Clark and a group of other sophomores with Lewis and junior Larry Miller.
"Look," says Coach Smith, sitting in his paneled office, where the deep carpeting, chairs, pillows and telephone are all in shades of Carolina blue, "our sophomores are going to help us. But you never can tell how much or how soon. The way people talk, we're world-beaters right now. It's flattering, but it's just not true." Most of Smith's reservations concern Clark and another probable starting sophomore, 6-9, 182-pound Bill Bunting. Both are homebred and thus less experienced than many rookies who have grown up playing against far better high school competition.
There is no such worry about senior Tom Gauntlett, a fine shooter and defender who does a good job on Duke's Verga when they match up and who will battle Bunting for a starting position. Nor is the third sophomore starter likely to be jittery. He is 6-3 Dick Grubar, out of Schenectady, N.Y., who will direct the Tar Heel offense. Grubar is not exceptionally fast, but he has the quick hands and basketball sense necessary to be the kind of playmaker Carolina has not had since Larry Brown was driving defenses crazy three years ago.
Smith's other starters—Lewis and Miller—are almost an excellent basketball team by themselves. Lewis shot 52.9% last year to go with his 27-point average, while Miller shot 54.8% with 21 points a game as Carolina led the nation in field-goal percentage. Both are 6-3 and good jumpers but are as different in style as a fawn and a buffalo. Lewis, who will be playing his natural position—guard—for the first time as a collegian, is Jerry West all over again and, oddly, has better moves inside than out. Miller, 35 pounds heavier than Lewis, is so strong he broke the basket rim in a warmup drill before the Duke game last year. Smith hopes the two won't have to do so much scoring this time out, but the Tar Heels' basic 1-4 and 1-1-3 offenses are apparently aimed at working the ball from Clark into one-on-one situations for the L&M boys. As one rival coach says, "They are a terrific problem for your defense. Both are too big for quick guards to handle and too fast for big forwards. With Miller, you can tell your guys how to play him and what to look for, and he is so powerful he'll beat even the best job. With Lewis, you can try and tell somebody what to look for, but it won't help at all. Because there is just no way you know what he's going to do. No way."