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Original Issue

Who said the big men were taking over?

And what conquered defensive basketball? A sparkling season raised a host of questions

Geography determines championships," a summation generally attributed to La Salle's Dudey Moore and generally subscribed to by the nation's college coaches, emerges as one of the few long-held theories apparently to stand the test of the recent basketball season. Playing the entire NCAA tournament within its state borders—two games on its own court and two in nearby Louisville—the University of Kentucky won the national title. And proponents of the hypothesis that a team's chances decrease with the distance from home base will never agree that the tournament was a fair test.

It matters not to these gentlemen that in at least three immediately previous seasons the theory was found wanting. (Only last year, North Carolina traveled a thousand miles to beat Kansas practically in the latter's backyard in Kansas City.) In refutation, they can and undoubtedly will point out that Champion Kentucky was unable to beat SMU this year in Dallas—an SMU team, incidentally, that could not even win its own conference race. But evidence can be submitted endlessly on both sides and will figure largely in the debates over where to hold next season's playoffs. How these games can be played on neutral courts, and on courts equidistant from the various competitors, is a problem that calls for much more than mere ingenuity. It also requires a bit of clairvoyance: arrangements must be made weeks before it is known which teams will win their conference races and thereby be eligible for the tournament. (This year, for example, one high NCAA official thought it was safe to schedule playoffs in Lexington, because he was certain Kentucky did not have a chance to make the tournament.) One proposal is to ship all teams in one section of the country to playoff sites in another section—not a bad idea if you don't mind depriving local fans of a chance to see their champions in action. But after each round of play, there would have to be a reshuffling of dates and sites, repurchase of airline tickets and rearrangement of hotel accommodations.

It appears likely that the NCAA will have to stick to the current system and hope for the best as far as partisan critics are concerned. Certainly there can be no doubt that brilliantly coached Kentucky was the best team at Louisville—and would have been the best in Savannah or Walla Walla. Carefully brought along through a tough season, they were at their absolute peak—as a team. Those last three words are the important ones. This is still a team game, and a group of good individuals (Seattle) or a club with one weak link (Kansas State's Parr) or one with a single superstar (Temple's Rodgers) will not often prevail against a well-balanced crew that knows how to play together.

Speaking of superstars brings up the question of what happened to the big, big men who were supposed to dominate college basketball. All by itself, Kentucky demolished that theory; their important players were simply of average height (for basketball men, that is). And even Seattle, whose Elgin Baylor is a mere 6 feet 6, got to the finals without a dunker. Small (but rugged) Arkansas took the Southwest title over teams with 6-foot-10, 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-8 skyscrapers; Temple's really effective men were 6 feet 3 and under. There were, to be sure, an equal number of good teams with outsize performers, but the players that will be remembered from this season include Guy Rodgers, Oscar Robertson, Don Hen-non, Dom Flora, Jack Rose, Alan Seiden, Jay Norman—all of them able to fit standard suit sizes—as well as the Wilt Chamberlains and Bob Boozers. One reason for this, of course, is that mere size, without the necessary sharp reflexes and coordination, does not make a basketball player. But there is also the fact that college coaches are learning more and more about how to contain the rival's big man. Using zones and all manner of collapsing, double-teaming defenses, they bottle him up; using stalling, keep-away offensive tactics, they reduce the time he can handle the ball to a bare minimum. This is something of a mixed blessing. Only a Nebraska rooter, for example, can enjoy the spectacle of a Nebraska team playing ring-around-the-rosy with Wilt Chamberlain in the middle, or the later sight of patty-cake with a basketball to kill the clock.

What to do about all this? Abolish the zone? Put in a time limit? The overwhelming sentiment of the coaches is still against such measures. It cannot be otherwise: there will always be more have-not coaches than have coaches—when it comes to good big men.

Another theory that appeared to surfer is the one about good defense winning championships. Not a team in the top 10 on defense last season got as far as the NCAA semifinals. Kentucky was 31st, Seattle did not make the first 50. There are several reasons for this. First, a good defensive record compiled in a conference where ball-control play is the rule is almost meaningless, and this alone could account for the presence of so many West Coast teams in the upper ranks. Second, even in fast-break territory, a team that plays deliberate ball (Oklahoma State) will come through a season with a remarkably low total of points scored against it. Finally, the best defense will still yield points—which must be made up by a reasonably good offense. The converse of this last point is, of course, also true, and the record is studded with high-scoring teams who failed to make the grade.


Unquestionably, the best guide of all is the team's average margin over opponents. Figured on this basis, the 10 best in the nation read this way:


Note that only Kansas State, of all teams that did well during the season, is not on the list—which simply proves that even this system is not foolproof.

One solidly supported theory did stand up well: the game itself is growing in participation and popularity every year. Last season 897 four-year, decree-granting institutions played basketball, and though final figures are not in yet, indications are they played before record crowds. The NCAA tournament itself surpassed all attendance marks even before moving to Louisville for the semifinal and final nights. With bumper crops of good freshman players reported from every section of the country, 1958-59 should show continued growth—and plenty of pulse-raising competition.

Among the pros, a season of sparkling play was also rewarded with record crowds (up about 7% to well over 2 million) and a new television contract with NBC that will allow more people on the nationwide network to see more regular and playoff games this year—at least 20, as opposed to last year's 15. The league's two weak spots remain, and though there is hope for one (Cincinnati) this looks to be the last year for the other (Minneapolis) unless the upcoming player draft and subsequent trades result in a team that will win enough games to inspire real local support.

No one in the sport is more familiar with the exhausting problems of assembling a winner than the St. Louis Hawks' owner, Ben Kerner, who spent 13 years putting together the team that finally won the title last season. Along the way Kerner moved his franchise from Buffalo to Tri-Cities to Milwaukee to St. Louis in the search for a proper setting, and traded off such good players as Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Willie Naulls and Mel Hutchins in welding a team with balanced ability and professional compatibility. His three standout acquisitions were Slater Martin, considered too old by other owners; Bob Pettit, passed over by others as only so-so; and Cliff Hagan, whose merits even Kerner doubted as recently as two years ago. All three contributed mightily to Kerner's first championship, but the greatest, of course, was Pettit. This shy young man, whose blue-eyed mildness off the court would charm and disarm Nikita Khrushchev, is a one-track-minded bundle of aggression with a basketball in his hands. His performance in the final playoff game against Boston, in which he scored a record 50 points and blocked a dozen Celtic shots, will never be forgotten by the capacity Keil Auditorium crowd that saw it. So much of nerve and muscle went into it that 15 minutes after the final buzzer sounded, in the champagne-popping uproar in the Hawks' dressing room, Pettit was unable to raise his head for photographers.

Though it appeared that nothing less than a brick wall would have stopped Pettit that night, it is still rather a pity that Boston's Bill Russell was hardly able to play anywhere near his best against him. Russell wore a cast on his damaged right ankle, and desperately tried to reach with his hands for positions and plays to which his legs would normally take him easily. In a cold sweat from pain all the way, Russell demonstrated a wealth of personal courage but only a small fraction of his skill.

Other achievements of note included Dolph Schayes's breaking of Bill Sharman's five-year grip on free-throw efficiency by 1.1 percent, Russell's smashing of every rebound record in the books for game and season, and George Yardley's production of more points (2,001) and more free throws (655) than any other player in history. Over-all, too, the teams averaged 106.6 points per game, seven more than the previous season, though general shooting accuracy remained about the same. What this means is that more shots were taken, which in turn is evidence of a continued speeding up of a game whose lightning action was already its strongest point of spectator appeal.

All in all, a banner year, with the promise of more of the same at tipoff time next October.


NO.1 FEMALE FAN Vonnie Mangrum screams her joy during St. Louis victory.


DEADEYE BOB PETTIT takes aim for 2 of record 50 points he scored in finale.




1. Cincinnati




2. West Va.




3. San Fran.




4. Temple




5. Seattle




6. Kentucky




7. Kansas




8. Maryland




9. Bradley




10. Notre Dame