The vast elimination tournament which began last December—to determine the best basketball team in the nation—comes to its climax this week in Louisville when the four survivors of regular-season schedules and regional playoffs meet in two nights of showdown competition. Friday, Seattle and Kansas State play for the western title; Temple and Kentucky play for the eastern title. The two winners decide the national championship the next night.
Despite the presence of fine teams, NCAA semifinal and final rounds seldom produce topflight basketball, but at the same time the games are usually close, heart-stopping affairs. The tension—wracking for coaches and players alike—tends to level out the quality of play as everyone strives desperately to avoid the small errors which can cancel a team's justifiable bid for top ranking built painstakingly over a long season. In such a situation, it is usually the team with most experience and poise (North Carolina last year) which is able to perform closest to its potential—but in this critical category there is little to choose among this year's semifinalists. Only two sophomores have won starting positions on the four teams: Temple's Bill Kennedy and Seattle's Don Ogorek. And the other four Temple starters are seniors, while Seattle's are thoroughly experienced juniors at least.
Poise, however, is also acquired through stiffness of regular-season competition, and in this respect all three other teams appear to have the edge over Seattle. Kansas State's Big Eight and Kentucky's Southeastern schedules were singularly testing this year, and Temple's half Mid-Atlantic, half Independent opponents were nearly as tough. One final ingredient will determine a team's stability under fire: the character of the one man on the floor who leads, thinks for and sets up the plays for the four others. Here, Temple has a decided advantage in the brilliant, graceful Guy Rodgers, key player in Coach Harry Litwack's effective zone defense and director and ball handler on the fast break. There is no better strategist or feeder on campus today than Rodgers—and few in the pro ranks. The glue in the Kentucky works is Center Ed Beck, intelligent, strong defensively but lacking in the natural aggressiveness necessary for generalship. The Wildcats, however, play a highly disciplined, strictly patterned offense, preconceived (usually accurately) by Coach Adolph Rupp to take maximum advantage of an opponent's weak spots, and if they start off well, simple momentum rather than floor direction keeps them going. They screen beautifully for John Cox and Adrian Smith, and Beck hands off superbly to Vernon Hatton and John Crigler from his high post. When Kentucky and Temple meet on Friday night, Temple will be out to avenge an early-season, triple-overtime, two-point loss to Kentucky on Kentucky's home court. The pick here is Temple.
Kansas State's none-too-mobile offense is run by Guards Roy DeWitz and Don Matuszak; yet the bellwether of the team is neither of these, nor is it the high-scoring Bob Boozer—but Center Jack Parr. This extremely likable but moody young man lifts or depresses the playing morale of his team by his performances in the early minutes of a game. His blocks and rebounds on defense (magnificent, for example, against Kansas' Wilt Chamberlain earlier this year) can elate and spark K-State to heights of brilliant basketball. His unbelievably soft hooks from as far out as 20 feet confound any defense. With Boozer and Wally Frank, he helps make up a front line that stands 6 feet 8, 6 feet 9, 6 feet 8. Coach Tex Winter, who has handled Parr with the affection and concern of a father all year, must bring his center to Louisville ready for his best effort or suffer the sight of his team through an indifferent exhibition.
Seattle, too, has its bellwether in the sharpshooting Elgin Baylor, but this is strictly a free-lancing team which can be ignited by any of three or four good outside shots—Baylor, Ogorek, Jerry Frizzell and Charlie Brown. When Seattle meets K-State Friday night, their famed fast break should be stalled as often as not by State's height and tenacity under the boards, and they will have to rely on outside shooting. Since they are good at it, they should push State to the limit, but the choice must be Kansas State.
The tournament's early rounds produced a number of extremely hard-fought games and spectacular upsets, which must be taken into account in any evaluation of the semifinalists. Seattle's finely fashioned victory over San Francisco, considered by many the best in the nation, was not only important in itself. It gave the Chieftains a momentum of morale which carried them through the following night's hard test against California and will bring them to Louisville in high spirits and persuaded that they are the team to beat. It is a significant advantage.
Though Kentucky was an 11-point favorite over Notre Dame, their 89-56 romp over the Irish was still a surprise. But it cannot be overlooked that the game was played on Kentucky's home court, where the Wildcats have lost but once this year. At the same time, they have been beaten by five teams of varying ability on the road. True enough, Louisville is only 75 miles from Lexington, but the home-court edge will still be lost—and experts have calculated it as high as 10 points.
It is a tossup whether Kansas State's hard-fought overtime victory over Cincinnati sharpened them for Louisville or, coming as it did after a typically rugged Big Eight schedule, exhausted them further. The game itself, of course, was a never-to-be-forgotten thriller for the 17,000 who jammed the Lawrence, Kans. field-house. Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson had difficulty piercing State's 1-3-1 zone defense which was deliberately set to keep him away from the base line. Despite it, he demonstrated again perhaps the finest offensive sense on campus this year. But he also showed either a lack of interest or ability on defensive assignments, which is disappointing in a player with his natural talent. State won the game on the strength of superior rebounding (52 to 37)—in every other important category the teams were practically equal. Rebounding may be the key at Louisville also.
Temple had to scramble to edge well-drilled Maryland but were never in trouble against Dartmouth and are now riding a 25-game winning streak. In addition, they look forward to the rematch with Kentucky—Rodgers especially being determined to close out his All-America career in victory. Their vastly underrated Jay Norman can handle anyone on rebounds except Kansas State's big men.
If the semifinals go as predicted above, the championship round will be a contest primarily between Temple's speed and K-State's height. In such a match, speed must be somewhat downgraded because a team's speed is a minor factor if it cannot win possession on the boards, and State should dominate here. On the other hand, State has not run up against the likes of Rodgers when it comes to ball hawking.
A crystal ball would help on this one. You take your pick. We take Kansas State.
KANSAS STATE'S UMBRELLA defense is typified by Roy DeWitz, Bob Boozer and Jack Parr (from left) who surround Cincinnati's Wayne Stevens during State's 83-80 win.