Those constant rumors pervading the tine old picket-fence atmosphere of Lexington, Ky. these days are unsettling enough to cause a man to wonder if Santa Claus really is coming to town.
Adolph Rupp, some say, is deathly ill with diabetes and only hanging on so that Gabriel will call him from the bench rather than the bed; Rupp is not much sick at all, say others, but is cunningly gathering his rosebuds and some sentiment, too, that will allow him to continue coaching forever. Mike Casey, Kentucky's broken-legged shooting star, will miraculously return to the starting lineup any day now; Casey will not play this or any other year in Lexington but will sign a large contract with the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA. Harry Lancaster, Rupp's longtime assistant, is going around with knives for assorted backs now that he is athletic director and boss and can lord it all over his onetime mentor. Finally, the new coach, if there ever is one, will be Frank Ramsey or Cliff Hagan or Colonel Sanders or Daniel Boone or anyone else except the best and only man for the job, Rupp's bright and articulate assistant, Joe Hall, who has been promised the position.
The truth is far simpler than the gusts of speculation. The Kentucky Wildcats themselves ignore the talk; instead, they are busy proving that once again they are the finest college basketball team in America. While dozens of other good teams have been struggling along these first weeks—many of them winning against opposition that could best be represented by cartoon strips—Kentucky has looked staggeringly impressive in defeating by an average margin of 18 points four schools that should be powers in their own regions later on.
"I know how good Kentucky can be," said North Carolina Coach Dean Smith after losing to the Wildcats 94-87 in Charlotte. "And tonight they were bad. If a team can't beat them on an off night, when are you going to beat them?" Smith has a point. Neither North Carolina nor Kentucky's other three victims, West Virginia, Kansas and Indiana, have much cause for embarrassment. As old Adolph himself grumbled the other day, in a slightly condescending manner intended to let everyone, including himself, off the hook: "Awwgghh, there have been periods when every bounce has gone our way and we've been, awwgghh, perfect. Awwgghh, hell, we're not out to humiliate anybody."
Be that as it may, last Saturday night, in something less than a "perfect" exhibition, Kentucky bolted to a 74-43 lead against the Hoosiers before succumbing to prosperity and a medium-tough zone, and winning by the relatively humane count of 109-92. This and the other victories were produced by a team whose best backcourt does not even suit up. One of the absentee guards is Casey, an All-Southeastern choice for two years who ran his car into a telephone pole last summer and who now sits there at practice every day looking like a little kid with his nose pressed against the bakery window. The other is Greg Starrick, a shooting and passing wizard who is biding his time at Southern Illinois after transferring in the middle of last season because of friction between himself and Athletic Director Lancaster.
In place of these men, Rupp has gone with two junior redshirts, shooter Terry Mills and passer Jim Dinwiddie, and he has been held up for questioning because of it. Some observers think that the two sophomore guards, Kent Hollenbeck and Stan Key—the latter a redhead with an alarming facial resemblance to Howdy Doody—are a combination with unlimited potential and should start. Others insist that Bob McCowan, a fiery hustler with more confidence and zest, has to be in the lineup. Veteran Wildcat followers lament the fact that none of them is yet in a class with the Kentucky guards of old: together they have shot only 35 of 89 from the field. So, of course, with his five guards, Adolph Rupp keeps struggling along...his team No. 1 in this statistic, No. 1 in that and, naturally, No. 1 in all the polls.
More to the point, Kentucky's strength is up front where skinny, sleepy-eyed Larry Steele has turned into the Wildcats' best defender in years, where Mike Pratt has emerged from the shadows of illustrious teammates to a deserving place in the All-America picture and where 6'8�" Dan Issel is having little trouble maintaining his reputation as the highest-scoring center around. In Kentucky's opening 106-87 rout of West Virginia, the three combined for 83 points; against North Carolina, Issel and Pratt scored 68 while Steele was busy holding Charles Scott to 14 until the last five minutes of the game.
But it is taking all of the skills Pratt and Steele can muster to keep a job for themselves. Two more sophomores, 6'6" Tom Parker and 6'7" Randy Noll, would be starting for most other teams, and the 6'8" reserve Center Mark Soderberg, another rookie, is good enough to cause Issel to say, "I don't have to worry about pacing myself anymore. It's good to look over and sec Mark and the others on the bench and know there won't be trouble if we come out."
Knowledgeable basketball people had been talking about Kentucky's depth for months before the season opened while nodding their heads and vowing something like "Ole Adolph, he sure does have 'em, all right. But he'll never use 'em. Never has, never will." While it is true that over the years Rupp has held that a team is better off sticking with five men, he has continued to insist that this season will be different.
To date the coach's words have been borne out only partially by his actions. In his single close game, against North Carolina, Rupp substituted only one time that was not forced on him by men fouling out. This development came two days after the Kansas game where his five sophomores, operating as a unit, hit nine of their first 10 shots and expanded the varsity's lead by five to a crushing 115-85 victory.