Assuming the pony express has reached all zip code areas by now, the news has spread that the Western Athletic Conference is up to its old tricks.
New Mexico has been dismembered by broken bones and broken laws. During the course of an otherwise excellent 18-4 season, UTEP has scored eight points in a half and caused Coach Don Haskins to contemplate sticking a fork in his navel. Utah has put the (Ticky) Burden on everybody. And even Wyoming has won a couple of games. But above all the wackiness in the WAC, there has been the spectacle of an exciting Arizona State team leading the league and nobody in Tempe caring.
Granted, ASU's cactus-and-palm campus is hard by Phoenix, where the sun shines 365 days a week and everybody is satisfied to sit imitating prunes and waiting for Johnny Miller to come back and shoot 50. And basketball is played indoors. Still, is an average attendance of 7,000 any way to treat a team with a 20-3 record that plays in a new 14,000-seat arena?
The absentees are missing out on quite a show. ASU runs all night, presses baseline to baseline, platoons 38 different lineups and has one dude who screams on the break, "Trailer right, trailer right. Aw, hell, do whatever turns you on." Arizona State has a coach who throws furniture, a center who raises kittens, a swing man who gorges on pancakes and a team that last week edged closer to the conference title—on the road.
After combining a 76-69 victory at New Mexico with a 75-70 loss at UTEP, the Sun Devils held a one-game lead over the Miners, had only home games remaining and would like it known that their No. 8 ranking is too low and their chances in postseason play are high.
ASU claims all this and heaven, too, heaven being where Lionel Hollins, the left-handed Train, sends pro scouts. The stylish 6'3" Hollins is probably the best senior backcourt man in the land. His is an all-round game of shooting (16.7 points per game), leadership, defense and court cool. "Better than that, he's All-America in attitude," says Coach Ned Wulk. That is no small achievement in a league fraught with malcontents.
Through a season in which his team has been a better-kept secret than the wedding of Merle Oberon, Hollins has exploded for 30 points against Oregon's Ron Lee, outshot that seraph of shooters, Utah's Burden, and sparked ASU's helter-skelter press. Hollins also has stumbled his way to a two-point game—and there's the rub. At least one Sun Devil messes up in every game.
Fortunately, there is always somebody to take a firm grip on the situation. Four men have led ASU in rebounding in at least one game, and six have led in scoring. Skinny 6'8" Jack Schrader arrived from Olds, Iowa (pop. 206) to lead the team in deception. He is called "Stormy the Colt." Bulky 6'10" Scott Lloyd, the pivot man with the pussycats, is a local kid who misses layups, but outhustles the opposition. Those are the ASU rebounders? They don't get too many.
The heart of the Sun Devils' success is their backcourt. Wulk employs three guards at the same time: Hollins, Mike Moon and 6'2" Rudy White, whose hands are the size of the platters on which are stacked his beloved pancakes. White's passion has gotten in the way of his pride. After scoring 12 points in the first half against Colorado State, White went scoreless in the final period as ASU suffered its first conference loss 91-80. It turned out that the Sun Devils' motel in Fort Collins, Colo. was just across the street from a pancake house.
Arizona State's fine run has been accorded yawns in other parts of the country, partly, says Wulk, "because early on the dummy writers were too lazy to write State after Arizona on their AP poll ballots." A veteran of 23 seasons in the big time and 17 at ASU, Wulk agonized through lean years in the late '60s and was rumored to be on the way out in 1971. It is said the experience of almost losing his job shook the coach up so badly that he began to work harder. In rebuttal, Wulk claims he brought in better players and started screaming at them again.
Wulk also hired Jim Carey from Ellsworth (Iowa) Junior College as an assistant to shore up the defense. Carey brought along Stormy the Colt, flashed a terrific rapport with black recruits and drummed a press into the Sun Devils. Having worked wonders with a team that formerly guarded opponents as if they had chicken pox, Carey surely is on the threshold of a head coaching job. While biding his time in Tempe, he says, "Sometimes we look awesome."
Dick Harter, whose Oregon team defeated ASU 80-76 in December, also has been impressed. "On a neutral court I would not bet against Arizona State beating any team in the Pac-8," he says.
If the Sun Devils win the WAC, they are scheduled to play their first-round game in the NCAA tournament at home. They are likely to win that and go on to the West Regional in Portland, Ore., where they have already played three times this year. That is important psychological stuff.
"I can't wait to get to the finals at San Diego," says White. If he can hold down on the pancakes and his teammates can batter enough bodies with their press, Arizona State may make it.