by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

(Following is a “Best of TGS” installment and encore presentation of one of our favorite feature stories from TGS Hoops of the past. This particular piece, which first ran in April of 2011, highlighted one of our favorite “All-Newcomer” teams from 1967-68 and focused on the varsity debut of one of the stars of that All-Newcomer team, Purdue G Rick Mount, and an unforgettable night that not only opened the brand-new Purdue/Mackey Arena but also welcomed back alum John Wooden and his defending national champion UCLA Bruins to West Lafayette. Within the next week will be the 48-year anniversary of that memorable game from December 2, 1967, so we thought it might be appropriate to recall. Following will be a brief update on this season’s Big Ten and the slow starts endured by several of its expected contenders.)

When it comes to “All-Newcomer” teams, one of our favorites and always rated among the best of our such-honored squads was in the 1967-68 campaign. That year was the varsity-debut season of several then-sophomores who burst upon the college hoops scene like gangbusters. In all of our years at TGS, we don’t know if any of our newcomer teams boasted the same top-to-bottom firepower, prompting us to name the first six-man “Newcomer” team after limiting it to five members in previous years. We simply couldn’t narrow the field to five that season for a team that would include Columbia’s Jim McMillian, St. Bonaventure’s Bob Lanier, North Carolina’s Charlie Scott, Niagara’s Calvin Murphy, LSU’s Pete Maravich, and Purdue’s Rick Mount. All eventually moved to the pro ranks and enjoyed productive careers; all remain icons at their respective schools, with Maravich considered in the all-time hoop legend category.

But when debut games are mentioned, we can’t recall any quite as dramatic as the one in which Rick Mount played his first varsity contest on December 2, 1967 for Purdue. In fact, after over five decades of publishing, we dare say Mount’s first varsity game is one of the greatest and most memorable hoop classics we can recall.

Making the night special almost 48 years ago was the fact that the Boilermakers would be hosting, guess who, top-ranked defending national champion UCLA, featuring none other than Lew Alcindor, then beginning his junior season for the Bruins, who were considered almost unbeatable with an even stronger and more mature team than the previous year’s 30-0 title winners. Moreover, UCLA took a 34-game win streak into the campaign, and was expected to eclipse USF’s record 60-game win streak later that season (more on how the UCLA streak eventually ended in the Astrodome vs. Houston at another time). It was also a homecoming for legendary Bruin HC John Wooden, a Purdue alum and long-ago All-American hoopster at the school who was a Hoosier state native, hailing from downstate Martinsville. Moreover, it would be the first game for the Riveters at their brand-new Purdue Arena (which would be renamed Mackey Arena five years later), a modern circular facility adjacent to old Purdue Fieldhouse, which still stands to this day as Lambert Fieldhouse.

On top of the opener also being the varsity debut for the heralded Mount, we hardly recall such a confluence of special factors in any college basketball game over the past half century!

Those of the modern sports generation who can hardly believe college hoops generated much if any national attention in the pre-ESPN era are mistaken. Although TV coverage was limited to regional syndication in those days (even the NCAA Tournament had yet to secure a major network contract, which would have to wait for the 1968-69 season with NBC), it was not alone, as many sports had limited TV coverage long ago. But print journalism was vibrant, and no publication validated the significance of sporting events of the day like Sports Illustrated. And SI made sure that its crack pair of college hoops writers, Joe Jares and Curry Kirkpatrick, were on the scene for openers that night at Purdue as well as at Niagara, where the heralded Calvin Murphy was making his varsity debut for the Purple Eagles against Long Island University.

The biggest game, however, was being held in West Lafayette, Indiana. Thirty different newspapers requested press credentials for UCLA-Purdue, which would also be covered by four radio broadcasts, live color TV to Los Angeles (with a young Dick Enberg doing the play-by-play for the Bruin TV network) and Indianapolis, countless photographers, and four extra cameramen filming for TV news shows.

They were all there to see the new arena, Wooden, Alcindor...and Rick Mount.

It’s hard to put into modern context the anticipation that would await the varsity debuts of can’t-miss stars in those days. As mentioned before, Alcindor had created quite a stir as a frosh at UCLA two years earlier, but he was by no means the only ballyhooed freshman star of that period who had to wait a year to play varsity ball. And among the great freshmen of that era, few can compare to Purdue’s Mount, a prolific 6’4 guard by way of nearby Lebanon, Indiana. For Mount was already a national celebrity while in high school, thanks mostly to SI, which in 1966 began to feature a supposed can’t-miss high school star on one of its covers each year. In February of 1966, that can’t-miss star was Rick Mount, thrice an All-Indiana selection while in high school and the state’s coveted Mr. Basketball winner that same 1966. Mount’s subsequent enrollment at Purdue was big regional news, and since he had gained a bit of a national following after his SI cover in high school, hoops fans across the nation followed his frosh team exploits for the Boilermakers. Mount didn’t disappoint, scoring 35 ppg for the Purdue frosh in 1966-67 in an era long before the three-point shot; a prolific long-range bomber, Mount’s point totals throughout his college career would probably have increased 20% or more had there been a three-point arc!

Mount’s varsity debut for the Boilermakers was part of a magical 1967 autumn in the Hoosier state when, for a while, an excellent Purdue football team featuring Leroy Keyes ascended to the number one national ranking before an upstart Indiana University squad, under HC John Pont, startled the college football world by upsetting the Boilermakers in the regular-season finale, tying for the Big Ten crown and advancing to the school’s first (and still only) Rose Bowl. But the debut of “Mount Mania” at West Lafayette took a back seat to no regional sports story that year.

UCLA’s visit, with Alcindor and Wooden in his homecoming, was the source of incredible anticipation that fall in the midwest, although reports from Purdue’s preseason workouts were ominous; Mount had suffered a broken left foot in fall practice. With his foot in a cast, “The Rocket” missed three weeks of practice, and HC George King was worried he would have to face the Bruins without his new sophomore star. Doctors suspected the injury could linger for as log as six-to-nine months, but Mount was determined to play when the cast was removed in late November. The Purdue trainer and a local orthopaedic surgeon had created a special aluminum innersole for Mount’s shoe that took away about 90% of the foot’s mobility but at least would keep the broken metatarsal bone in place. Mount was limited in movement but could at least stay on the court with the contraption inside of his left shoe; without it, the pain was so great that Mount couldn’t stay on the floor for more than a couple of minutes. How much it would affect Mount during real game conditions was unknown.

When game night arrived on that Saturday, a capacity crowd of 14,123 jammed the new arena, which had already been sold out for the entire season, partly due to Mount’s presence, which had prompted nearby Lebabon folk, many of whom had never missed one of The Rocket’s games, to buy $9000 worth of season tickets. The atmosphere was electric, with the band blaring and the cheerleaders spinning and the crowd buzzing. In Sports Illustrated, writer Joe Jares wondered if all of the racket in the new arena might cause school founder John Purdue to wake up from his grave over by University Hall.

The game did not disappoint. Boilermaker HC George King was a brilliant tactician, and devised a game plan that accounted for Mount’s temporary handicap. King simplified the offense to create outside shots for Mount and junior G Herm Gilliam, who, along with another talented junior backcourt mate, Billy Keller, would eventually go on to productive pro careers as well. Meanwhile, since Mount could not backpedal defensively due to his bad foot, King employed a zone defense, knowing that Mount could not function in a man-to-man on the stop end. King also did some extra “gimmicking” when possible in the post with Alcindor, fronting him with 7’0 C Chuck Bavis and sandwiching Big Lew from behind with 6’6 F Roger Blalock. For much of the first half, those tactics helped Purdue to effectively deny Alcindor the ball. Meanwhile, the presence of the quick-handed Gilliam and Keller allowed Purdue to employ a surprising and bothersome full-court press (borrowing a page from Wooden) to help force ten UCLA turnovers in the first half.

Wooden, who had looked forward to welcoming back frontliners Mike Lynn and Edgar Lacey (who had both missed the previous season) to the 1967-68 team, was so disappointed in their play in the early going that both were sent to the bench. Meanwhile, Mount, despite the bad foot, was getting good elevation on his jump shots and sent the home crowd into delirium when banging many of them home, while Gilliam was doing the same. The Bruins, who had rarely trailed a game in Alcindor’s previous 1966-67 sophomore season, found themselves down late in the first half by a 33-26 count, a larger deficit than they ever experienced the prior campaign. The noise was deafening in the new arena, whose roof seemed about to lift from the roaring din of the crowd!

At that point, however, UCLA finally began to take control. With Big Lew finding little room to operate, G Lucius Allen took over the show and paced a Bruin spurt to give Wooden’s team the lead at halftime. The crowd began to sense the inevitable as the second half commenced, with the Bruins showing their class and gradually extending the lead. Deep into the second half and having finally established Alcindor’s presence in the paint, UCLA was comfortably ahead by a 67-55 count, and the Boilermakers seemed finished.

Only they weren’t!

Led by Mount, who would score 28 points on the night, and Gilliam, Purdue found a second wind and made a dramatic rally. The Bruins suddenly became rattled as the big crowd came to life, roaring as the Boilermakers, astonishingly, began to chip away at the double-digit margin. Having cut the deficit to five at 71-66, it was Mount again playing Superman, drilling another long-range jumper to pull Purdue within three, and when Gilliam made a running hook shot over Alcindor shortly thereafter, the margin had incredibly been cut to one. The next time Purdue had the ball, there was less than a minute to play, the score was 71-70, and the Boilermakers could shoot for the lead...and the win!

Mount was of course the man most likely to take the shot, and was given what seemed an incredible gift with 29 seconds to play when fouled by the Bruins’ Lacey, who was so miffed at the call that his vehement gesture of protest to the referee was additionally punished with a technical foul. Mount would thus potentially have three free throws, and Purdue would also be getting possession after the technical free throw, with under 30 seconds to play. All was suddenly in place for a remarkable upset to begin the 1967-68 campaign!

The one-and-one foul shots came first, but incredibly, Mount missed the front end, denying him the second free throw. He still had the technical to shoot, however, and converted that one to level the score at 71, and Purdue would be getting the ball after the “T” with a chance at the last shot. The big crowd at the new arena was still in a state of delirium as this epic battle was coming down to a pulsating conclusion.

Again, Mount was the man with the ball, although he was being guarded closely by Bruin reserve guard Bill Sweek, known more for his physical defense than his offensive finesse. Dribbling to the right corner with the game clock winding down, Mount let loose with a jump shot that missed. The Bruins rebounded and had just enough time to get up court for a potential shot at victory, where it would be the backup Sweek, of all people, who would cast a desperation shot, straight away, from about 28 feet. Sweek, who had earned UCLA hero status the season before when bailing out the Bruins with a succession of steals against a valiant Southern Cal side at the Sports Arena in the Trojans’ first of three infamous slowdown games (out of respect to dear friend and late SC coach Bob Boyd, or son Bill, we never refer to those games as “stalls”) against Wooden, found nothing but net on his long jumper. UCLA had dodged the proverbial bullet while escaping with a 73-71 win, its win streak then at 35 games and top national ranking still intact. The magnitude of Purdue’s heroic effort was highlighted by subsequent Bruin efforts that saw UCLA win its next ten games by no fewer than 28 points!

It would not be the last time Mount would run into Alcindor and the Bruins. The teams would meet in a return match the next year at Pauley Pavilion, with UCLA prevailing 94-82, and again in that season’s NCAA title game in March of ’69 at Freedom Hall in Louisville. Mount would hit his first two shots in that game, but eventually was flustered by another unsung Bruin, Kenny Heitz, who blanketed The Rocket until the outcome was no longer in doubt as UCLA cruised to a 92-72 win in Alcindor’s final game.

But there was no more thrilling game in the Alcindor era than the 1967-68 opener at Purdue, on a night when Rick Mount became a household name, and would be honored later that season on the TGS All-Newcomer team. We don’t think we can remember a more dramatic setting for a college hoops debut. And recalling that night still gives us goosebumps to this day.

After all of these years, it’s nice to know “the kick” is still there!

                                      MEANWHILE, IN THIS SEASON’S BIG TEN...

Though the college hoops season is less than two weeks old, there are already indicators that the Big Ten is down a notch, or, two...or three. Indeed, several expected contenders have already suffered unexpected and alarming defeats. A quick rundown of some of those early-season Big Ten “stumblers” follows.

WISCONSIN...We never want to count out a Bo Ryan-coached team, but the Badgers look like they might be hard-pressed to get back to the Big Dance. A dropoff was expected after key contributors Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker moved to the NBA, but an opening loss in Madison to the unheralded Western Illinois Leathernecks (8-20 last season!) out of the Summit League was a bright red flag, and the Badgers were subsequently outclassed by Georgetown a week later at Madison Square Garden before barely surviving vs. a reconfigured VCU. Badger shooting percentages (43.7% from floor, 34.1% beyond the arc, and 72.7% from the FT line) are considerably down across the board from a year ago, and replacing the combined 33 ppg from unique threats Kaminsky and Dekker looks to be a tall order, even for Ryan, who has few shot creators (and no matchup headaches as were Kaminsky and Dekker the past few years) on the current roster. Guard Bronson Koening and F Nigel Hayes, complementary players the past few years, are now being asked to become the go-to scorers. And while they look able to handle much of that burden, it’s the new support cast that needs sorts like F Vitto Brown and RS F Ethan Happ to somewhat reprise the Kaminsky and Decker roles. Ryan’s bench has also been a spotty contributor in the early going, with no dagger throwers having yet emerged to bomb away from the perimeter as we are used to seeing from past Bo teams. And we have yet to see some of the defense that has long been a trademark of Ryan’s Wisconsin.

ILLINOIS...The Fighting Illini have injuries to partly blame for their slow start, as key senior PG Tracy Abrams was lost for the season with a ruptured left Achilles tendon suffered in the summer. If not for bad luck, Abrams would have no luck at all, as he missed all of last season with a torn ACL. Not only is HC John Groce minus Abrams, but key returnee G Kendrick Nunn (11.1 ppg LY) is out with a thumb injury that could sideline him into January, and junior PG Jaylon Tate, expected to run the point after Abrams’ summer injury, is out indefinitely with a finger injury. All of this along with juco F Darius Powell (who had played at Champaign-Urbana earlier in his career) being kicked off of the team in summer. Groce is thus leaning heavily upon returning leading scorer G Malcolm Hill (17 ppg), who is rarely getting a breather, and 6-11 Charlotte transfer Mike Thorne, Jr., who has provided a post threat with 15 ppg and 9 rpg in the early going. Illinois has already lost to North Florida and Chattanooga in the first two weeks of the season while barely surviving a scare vs. Chicago State. If there is some good news, it’s that the Fighting Illini soon return to their scallop-roofed home arena now renamed the State Farm Center, whose refurbishment forced early home games 85 miles away at state capital Springfield.

OHIO STATE...Coach Thad Matta lost 55% of the scoring, 68% of the rebounding, and 88% of the assists from last year’s 24-win, Big Dance qualifier, with exciting G D’Angelo Russell bailing out to the NBA after a one-and-done college career. So, there figured to be an adjustment period in Columbus. But “adjustment period” is just a nicer name for what looks more like a significant downgrade at Value City Arena after recent home losses to UT-Arlington (OSU’s first setback at Columbus vs. a Sun Belt team since 1980, when losing to then-Belt Member South Alabama!) and La Tech. Touted 6-5 frosh G JaQuan Lyle, mentioned in D’Angelo Russell-like terms by Matta, has made only a modest impact (9.7 ppg first four), though certainly could become a force by the time conference play begins. Another ballyhooed frosh, 6-10 Oak Hill Academy product Daniel Giddens, has hinted at a potential impact later in the season. By February, the Buckeyes might be able to make a run if the frosh end up as good as advertised. But at the moment OSU appears a borderline first-division Big Ten entry, and a return to the Big Dance hardly appears certain.

Elsewhere, there have been other alarming Big Ten losses, with Michigan (Gs Caris LeVert & Derrick Walton, Jr. now healthy after an injury-plagued 2014-15) outclassed at Ann Arbor by Big East Xavier, Penn State routed at the NHL Penguins arena in Pittsburgh by resurgent Duquense, Minnesota losing to Temple and not close vs. Texas Tech, and Indiana stunned by double-digit underdog Wake Forest in the opening round of the Maui Classic. Even highly-regarded Maryland has not impressed in its early 4-0 break from the gate.

There has been a bit of good news, with Purdue rolling to a 5-0 start, Iowa also unbeaten thru Nov. 24 and registering a thumping win at Milwaukee over Marquette, and Tom Izzo’s Michigan State, which looks like a national contender once more and had produced the Big Ten’s best win of the young season with the 79-73 triumph over Kansas at Chicago on November 17.

But for a league that prides itself upon hoops dominance, there is not a dominating look about the Big Ten...at least not yet.

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