A famous hill crowns the campus of Western Kentucky and is responsible for its teams being known as the Hilltoppers. But no landmark, no tradition, no other sport is so closely woven into the spirit and history of the school as basketball. Western opened in 1906 in Bowling Green as a teachers' college. It became a university only this year. In 1914, in an old, barnlike building that accommodated about 250, the Hilltoppers started playing basketball. E.A. Diddle came to coach in 1922, and in 1930, despite the Depression a new gymnasium that held all of 4;500 people was built. It was an architectural folly, many believed—"They'll never fill all those fancy seats." In 1963, Diddle's last as coach, they dedicated the E.A. Diddle Arena. It can seat up to 13,000. After 42 years and 759 victories, Diddle retired and was succeeded by Johnny Oldham, one of the best of the many good players he had coached. They made over the old gym into the school library. Until the day they start turning old libraries into gyms, basketball is going to be very big at Western.
This year should be its biggest. There is no team in the Ohio Valley that can even contend with Western, and the Hilltoppers have such a generally weak non-conference schedule that they have a better chance of going through the regular season unbeaten than UCLA. Oldham has four all-conference starters back from last year's 25-3 team that was eliminated 80-79 by Michigan in the Mideast Regionals. Western led 79-78 with only seconds to go, but after a missed free throw a jump ball was called between Greg Smith, a sophomore, and Cazzie Russell. At the jump Smith was whistled for pushing Russell, and Cazzie promptly sank the two free throws. Had Western won, the Hilltoppers finally would have gotten to play their Bluegrass cousins, the Wildcats of Kentucky, after a quarter of a century of trying to arrange such a game.
Instead, the next night, after swamping Dayton in the meaningless consolation, Oldham and his assistants sat up nearly until dawn, running the film of that jump ball over and over. They could not stop punishing themselves with the sight of that numbing moment. But Oldham is lucky. He has the material with which to exact revenge upon the fates. Joining the four holdovers is junior Norman Weaver, a rugged 6-5 and 210, who looks as if he will fit in fine at center. Weaver comes from Allen County High, and his presence gives the Hilltoppers an all-Kentucky starting cast. The players are alike in other ways, too. The All-America candidate, Clem (The Gem) Haskins, who averaged 20 points a game, is 6-3, but the other four starters are all within half an inch of each other, around 6-5. All are quick and virtually interchangeable. Haskins, in fact, is a forward. Wayne Chapman, the tallest man on the team and a fine driver, is a guard. Then there are the 6-5 Smith brothers—Greg, the rebounder and defensive sharpie who will be at forward, and Dwight, who has a classy fallaway jumper and will start at guard. Dwight and Haskins were the first Negroes to play for Western, as freshmen in 1963.
The team's talent is so well distributed that concentrating on one man—Haskins, say—will only open the gates for someone else. The Hilltoppers do not have a really big man, but they learned how to live with that problem last year. A thin bench is more likely to prove troublesome. Otherwise, Oldham has the speed, rebounding, experience and team-play talents that coaches dream about. Western is a good bet to finish second in the wire-service polls. This would be more than "Uncle Ed" Diddle ever accomplished, but it would not bother him. He is still the Hilltoppers' biggest rooter, wringing his familiar red towel in despair and exhilaration as he watches from his own special red-carpeted box. Western officials probably felt he needed something of his own, since his old office, in the library, became the Rare Books Room.
MID TENN. STATE