Don't look now, but the best record among the nation's Independents belongs to Southern Utah University, which has been a university for all of 11 days now.
The T-Birds are 10-5 after clobbering Colorado College, 125-67, Friday. That followed a pair of road wins last weekend over Illinois State and Chicago State."I'm just elated with it," said SUU Coach Neil Roberts. "I'm feeling really good about things right now."
The most amazing part about the T-Birds early success is the fact that they lost their top two players, co-captains William Allen and Richard Barton, to season-ending injuries in the first four games of the year. Since then they have regrouped and won eight of 10 games
"The players are playing well together with a lot of unselfishness," said Roberts. "It seems like a different guy steps up every night."
Like last week in a win over Chicago State, Dana Achtzehn, a 6-foot-6 JC transfer averaging just 15 minutes a game, stepped up and scored 33 points and pulled down 17 rebounds.
The two most consistent players for SUU have been forward Peter Johnson, the only senior on the team and DaVor Marcelic, a sharp-shooting Yugoslavian, who has made 31 of 70 3-pointers this year.
The rest of the squad is made up mostly of local kids who were rejected by everyone else. For instance there's Wade Wyatt, a former University of Utah guard, not invited back by the present coaching staff after a mission.
Kerry Sherwood, a 6-11 center, played at Milford High and was just a backup for two years at Utah Valley Community College. But he's filled in admirably as the starting center and averages nearly 7 points and 7 rebounds per game.
Rex Brimhall prepped at Layton and also played backup for Utah Valley last year. But he has moved into a starting forward role and is the club's fourth leading scorer. The point guard duties are shared by Rod Dixon, another Layton product and Rick Roberts, a very close relative of the coach.
With everybody but Johnson back and another two years for the injured Barton, the T-Birds could be in for even bigger things next year. In the meantime, Roberts is enjoying the ride this year. "I'm sure having fun," he said.
MORE SUU: So what are the the T-Birds chances of making the NCAA tournament this year? The NCAA has always invited a couple of Independent teams, but it's usually been someone like DePaul, Notre Dame or Marquette.
Roberts feels his team needs at least 20 wins to have any chance of a first-ever NCAA berth. "If we continue to play this way, I think we do," said Roberts. But he may be dreaming.
Last year Wright State finished with a 21-7 mark, best of the Independents, but didn't get a sniff from the NCAA selection committee, or even NIT for that matter.
EVEN MORE SUU: One thing Roberts and his SUU associates know is that the school can't remain a basketball independent much longer. The number of independents has been declining steadily. Just eight years ago there were 53 Division I Independents. Now there are only 17 and that number will drop next year when the some of the Midwest Independents join the new Great Midwest Conference next year.
"It's imperative we get into a conference," said Roberts. "If we don't, it will be tough to continue on."
For one thing, there won't be anyone left to play against.
Roberts says the school is trying to find a conference affiliation. The two most likely possibilities for SUU are the Big Sky and the West Coast Conference, which includes several schools in SUU's football conference.
WATCHING FOR JOEY: Speaking of Independents, DePaul has come up with an interesting marketing promotion to get people to attend their games . . . or to ride the train more.
In the promotion, any riders who spot DePaul Coach Joey Meyer on Chicago Transit Authority trains, can get his autograph and turn it in to the school for two game tickets.
Meyer told AP he's used the train "three or four times" since December and has gotten three or four autograph requests each way, not that many.
"I'm not `Coach Ray,"' Meyer said of his famous father who coached DePaul to 724 victories before retiring in 1984. "Maybe next time I should wear a neon sign."
The promotion has a hitch in that people are approaching Meyer off the train and asking for free tickets. Meyer said he had 25 requests for autographs at one game, but he resisted.
What about someone trying a counterfeit signature? No way. Meyer carries official DePaul stationery on the train to write the autographs on.
Meyer said the promotion isn't a hassle for him and he plans to continue to ride the L train occasionally.
"No problem," he said. "It's not like I'm getting mobbed. I'm no Michael Jordan."