Fred Shabel, the energetic young coach at Connecticut, takes pride in several practice drills he has developed. In one, players drive for layups and the coach fouls them, often very aggressively, as they shoot. In another, Shabel just tosses the ball on the floor and has the players dive and scramble for it. "Both drills," he says, "get them used to game conditions." In a third exercise, the UConns strengthen leg muscles by jumping back and forth over prone teammates. "More interesting than jumping rope," explains Shabel.
Such drills have helped UConn win or tie for the Yankee Conference title in all three seasons of Shabel's tenure. "But what would happen," he was asked, "if a man were hurt diving for a loose ball or making a layup in practice, or if a tired player didn't jump quite far enough and landed on a teammate's knee?"
"That's what I mean," he said. "It's more interesting than jumping rope."
Shabel admits that his wife Betty and a few other fainthearted Connecticut fans have worried about the chance of a freak practice injury. But the 34-year-old coach, who served his apprenticeship as an assistant at Duke, does not bother to reassure the doubters too much. After all, this may be the only thing UConn fans will find to worry about all season.
The powerful, seasoned Huskies appear to have a lock on the conference title. Last year they tied for first with Rhode Island and lost the playoff 67-62, but four of Connecticut's starters in that final game are back and four of Rhode Island's starters—including the two leading scorers—are gone. "It should be a toss-up between the same two clubs this time around," Shabel says with a straight face.
"Is he kidding?" retorts Coach Ernie Calverley of Rhode Island. "Connecticut is by far the standout in our league. We have a lot of sophomores with potential, but they'd all have to come through at once to enable us to contend with Connecticut." Rhode Island's newcomers—most of them recruited from the New York City area—will have to develop very quickly if the Rams are going to survive what Calverley calls "the toughest schedule in New England." While they warm up for conference competition, they must face Fordham, Providence, Temple and St. John's among their early opponents.
This year's Rams certainly will be different from those previously turned out by Calverley in his 10 years at Rhode Island. Ernie was an early student of Frank Keaney, who developed the racehorse style of basketball, and his teams have always been fast-breaking, accurate-shooting units. (Last year the Rams were fourth in the nation in free-throw percentage, ninth in average points per game.) "We've lost our best shooters," he said, "and we won't have as much speed. But one thing will be improved—we'll get more rebounds. Two of our most promising sophomores are Dick Coleman, 6-7, and Tom Hoyle, 6-5. Of course, we'll also have to slow down our defense. We just won't have the quickness to press like we used to."
While Calverley prepares for changes in his strategy, Shabel is pleased to be able to stand pat. His offense, based more on set plays than on the fast break, is solidly built around all-conference Guard Wes Bialosuknia, who scored an even 1,000 points in his first two varsity seasons. In between the various driving, scrambling and jumping drills of a typical Connecticut practice, Bialosuknia generally finds time to net 24 of 25 free throws and a good percentage of jump shots from all over the court. As a sophomore he was the high scorer on a team that included Toby Kimball, now a Boston Celtic. Last year he became the highest-scoring junior in the school's history. "I'll be satisfied," he says, "if we can just do as well as we did in my first year." That season the UConns were undefeated in the conference and had a 23-3 overall record.
Bill Corley, a 6-7 junior, is the team's top rebounder, and Shabel thinks he could be even better if he put on some weight. "I lugged crates around a factory all summer," reported Corley, "and I ate more than I ever did before. But I guess it's no use—I only gained five pounds. Being thin means I get banged around a lot under the boards. But I guess I should be grateful I'm quick enough to stay in one piece." Corley will get help from sophomore Billy Gray, an excellent jumper. Bialosuknia will be aided in the backcourt by Tommy Penders, a small, self-made player who has become the club leader.
Elsewhere in the conference, Massachusetts is a perennial dark horse that usually disappoints, Vermont is improving rapidly, and New Hampshire had a fine freshman team last season. Again there are signs—they appear periodically—that the rest of the league will someday contend with the consistent powers, Connecticut and Rhode Island, but not this year. "Connecticut," says Calverley, "has to be rated with Boston College and Providence as one of the three best teams in all New England."