After dribbling and shooting his way through the Big Ten for three years, Cazzie Lee Russell has retired from amateur sport, leaving three league-championship trophies at his alma mater, Michigan, and some hope at last at the other nine schools. With Caz gone and chief accomplice Oliver Darden studying law, there is a chance for a free-for-all in a conference that has been dominated for almost a decade by Ohio State (Jerry Lucas et al.) and then Michigan. No team seems ready to found another dynasty, but there is a strong feeling among Midwest coaches that the title will move just a few miles, to that colossus of college athletics on the banks of the Red Cedar River, Michigan State.
It is not that the Spartans are a top contender for the NCAA championship, but Coach John Benington made a powerful impression last season, his first at East Lansing after nine years at Drake and St. Louis U. in the tough Missouri Valley Conference. Benington took over a team that had won only five games the previous season and guided it, somehow, to a 17-7 mark and second place behind Michigan. He was runner-up in a wire-service poll for national Coach of the Year.
He is envied for having the most ballyhooed sophomore in the league—Lee Lafayette, a 6-6 forward with muscles for two. Lee was a High School All-America center in Grand Rapids and, according to his coach, almost joined Lew Alcindor at UCLA. "He was one of the better freshmen I've had since I've been coaching," said Benington. "He's good outside or inside—good quickness, good hands. He's not afraid to play a little defense. But he has to help us in scoring or I don't know where we're going to get it." (Michigan State lost its two best shooters, Bill Curtis and Stan Washington.)
At center is Matthew Aitch, of whom people are always asking, "Matthew H. what?" He is only 6-7 which will hurt when he plays giants like Michigan's 6-11 Craig Dill. Matthew was set to go to Drake before last season, but he jumped at the chance to step right in as a Big Ten starter with Benington and did fairly well, averaging 14 points and nine rebounds a game. He is an example of the league's trend toward recruiting junior college transfers. The forward opposite Lafayette probably will be Art Baylor from Washington, D.C., a nephew of the Lakers' great Elgin. If his ankle holds up—it was injured last season—his surname alone should be worth 10 points a game. Benington has three good guards: Stevel Rymal, an infielder on the baseball team; John Bailey, a fine golfer; and Shannon Reading.
Not a team, surely, to frighten rivals with overwhelming talent, but it does have one big edge: its defense, always Benington's chief preoccupation, will again be the best in the league. "The second year becomes a lot tougher," said Benington. "We snuck up on some people last year and there was a little bit of a carry-over from football. This season they're all waiting to see me."
Northwestern has not had a piece of the title since 1933 and has not even finished as high as second since 1934, but there is hope, at least, in Evanston for a contending team this year. An early home game against Kentucky (Wildcats vs. Wildcats) should tell a lot. Northwestern has the league's highest returning scorer in 6-4 Jim Burns (22-point average in conference games) and several other good veterans. Illinois will have three chances in December to establish a reputation: non-conference games at Kentucky and West Virginia and then a trip to the Coast for the LA Classic. The big gun for the Illini is 6-7 Rich Jones from Memphis who is adept at center or forward. As a sophomore last season he averaged 21 points and 11 rebounds a game. Guard Jim Dawson returns as playmaker, and 6-7 sophomore Steve Kuberski is an excellent shooter who needs a few more vitamins to become a Big Ten-style bruiser under the boards.
Elsewhere there are sob stories. Minnesota lost Lou Hudson and Archie Clark, both now pros. Iowa lost four starters and one potential replacement did not make his grades. The Hawkeyes have high hopes for Detroit product Sam Williams, a JC transter who can go at guard or forward. Purdue lost Dave Schellhase, leading scorer in the country, and Rick Mount is only a freshman. Indiana and Wisconsin have good young teams but can only be rated as dark horses.
Ohio State is crying loudest. Coach Fred Taylor had a fine sophomore corner man last season, 6-7 Wilmer (Bill) Hosket. He was to move into the pivot this fall, but he twisted his left knee in the first workout. After sitting out more than two weeks, he ran up and down the floor a few times, tried a pivot and out went the knee again. Doctors said it will be almost a month before Hosket can come back, meaning no work at all at the new position before the opener against Butler. The Buckeyes lack size even with Hosket. If his knee problem becomes chronic, Taylor might as well stay home and enjoy some old Jerry Lucas movies.