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Without a defending champion, an unbeaten team or a solid favorite in sight, the big boys of college basketball begin their annual two-week rumble to determine the national championship

The mischievous spirits that laugh at the hopes of mortal men completed their work for the basketball season last week. All the unbeaten teams in the land—all three of them—were conquered on the same day. Tennessee beat Kentucky and Seattle beat Texas Western, and the spell was just as potent among the small colleges as Cheyney (Pa.) State fell to Long Island University.

Only for Cheyney, however, was the blow fatal. It ended Cheyney's season. For the Wildcats and the Miners there is now the new season, the NCAA tournament, which this time appears to be as wide open as any in recent years. Considering what looms ahead for college basketball—three seasons of Lew Alcindor at UCLA—it is safe to say that this is also going to be the most wide-open for years to come. For losers this time, tomorrow is four years away. This is the Tournament of the Last Chance.

Despite the loss to Tennessee, Kentucky's overall performance makes the Wildcats a slight favorite. The team reached a peak when it clobbered Vanderbilt a month ago, and the letdown that followed is perfectly natural. Kentucky is at its best when it can move, open up the court and thereby bring opponents down to its size. Since none of the teams that Kentucky will play in the Mideast uses anything approximating the methodical Tennessee game, it should seem like Springtime in the Bluegrass when the Wildcats get a chance to frisk again.

The most significant aspect of the Tennessee-Kentucky game was not the score but the rebounding figures. Tennessee carried the boards 43-31. There is hardly a team in the NCAA field that is not a good-shooting outfit. Since everyone, therefore, is more or less neutralized in this department, the tournament should be won by the team that can also control the rebounds and handle the ball against pressure defenses. Duke, for instance, won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament last Saturday from North Carolina State on the strength of its rebounding. "We'll take it inside to win this tournament," said Chuck Daly, the Duke assistant, before the game.

But the Blue Devils were woefully limp-fingered against State's press, and they cannot expect to win against a team like St. Joseph's unless they move the ball better against such a defense. Similarly, small teams like St. Joe's, Kentucky and Loyola of Chicago will have to put together good board games to match their speed and ball handling or they will not last the round.

In a field so balanced, individual match-ups will take on an importance that is usually found only on the pro level. Michigan, for example, should be less of a problem for Kentucky than for Loyola. The Wildcats have a big, strong defensive guard, Tommy Kron, to square off against Cazzie Russell, but Loyola does not.

The most interesting duels should develop in the pivot, either among the few teams that have outstanding centers, or when a team without one has to contain a good, big man. If their teams qualify to meet each other, these three battles underneath should be most entertaining and possibly the conclusive element in each game: Mike Lewis, Duke vs. Cliff Anderson, St. Joe's; Walt Wesley, Kansas vs. Jim Ware, Oklahoma City; Elvin Hayes, Houston vs. Keith Swagerty, Pacific.

Three teams have the significant advantage of being blessed with quality centers in reserve. This makes these clubs much less vulnerable to a rebounding or defensive collapse because of foul trouble. Duke has Warren Chapman be hind Lewis, Kentucky has Cliff Berger behind Thad Jaracz, and Kansas has a sophomore who may be the best alternate in the whole tourney field—Rod Bohnenstiehl, who can relieve either Wesley or one of the forwards. Conversely, teams like Providence, St. Joe's, Davidson, Western Kentucky, Oklahoma City, Pacific and Oregon State may be eliminated chiefly because they have such weak benches.

Four teams also possess the single, extraordinary individual who has the potential to dominate both his team and the tournament the way Bill Bradley did last year. Russell, of course, is in a class by himself, and despite the tough draw in the Mideast, it would be no surprise if he singlehandedly took Michigan to the finals in College Park next week. In the East, Jim Walker of Providence, Dave Bing of Syracuse and Dick Snyder of Davidson also could carry off such a coup. Walker's job would be the most difficult, because three top-10 teams—Providence, St. Joe's and Duke—are all in the same half of the draw.

Following is a closer look at each of the Regionals and the teams that have the best chance to move on to College Park:

THE MIDWEST. Kansas is the best bet to make it to College Park. The Jay-hawks could be upset by Oklahoma City's shooting, by Texas Western's defense or by the better-rounded game of Cincinnati, but these prospects are unlikely. Kansas has not lost since January 18 and since Guard Jo-Jo White became eligible on February 12 it has outscored the opposition by a cool 30 points a game.

Kansas: White, a strong, sure backcourt man, has made over the team. "A team can play to an offense or out of it," Coach Ted Owens says, meaning within the limits of set plays or with many options. "With Jo-Jo, we play out of it." Del Lewis, who is also a dangerous outside shooter, gives Kansas another nimble ball handler. The team was routed by UCLA's press in December, but it is doubtful any press could accomplish that now. White's presence has allowed Al Lopes to move to forward, and now Kansas has speed to go with muscle up front. Rod Franz is a good shot out of the other corner, and in the middle is All-America Walt Wesley. Wesley has been rebounding aggressively recently, and is more relaxed since some of the burden of scoring has been lifted from his shoulders. Kansas has fallen into periods of listless play, often at the start of a game, and the caliber of its opposition has not been the highest. Jayhawk opponents have won only 48% of their games, while Cincinnati's opponents, for example, have won 57%. But Kansas has had enough tough games to be ready for anything at Lubbock.

THE EAST. If St. Joe's can get by Providence, the Hawks will meet Duke on Friday night in the game that should determine the Regional winner, Bing and Snyder notwithstanding. Both Duke and St. Joe's are playing comeback after midseason slumps. Duke has an advantage in that the Regionals are in Raleigh (just down the road from Durham), where the Blue Devils won the ACC tournament last week.

Duke: Seventh in the country in shooting, third in rebounding, the Blue Devils are the only team to make the top 10 in both categories. Lewis, the tough sophomore center, gives Duke the muscle that it lacked last season. Vic Bubas has done a fine job of molding this team in the face of personality conflicts, particularly the one involving the two All-Americas, Forward Jack Marin and Guard Bob Verga. Verga returned from a two-game suspension for curfew violations recently, and he and Marin are now patting each other on the back during games for the first time. Both are outstanding, dedicated players. Verga is accused of shooting too much and he does put them up from way out—but they go in 48% of the time and he never shoots when a teammate is open. Steve Vacendak, the other guard, is the team leader, a tenacious defender and a superb performer under pressure. Bob Riedy, a dependable fifth man, had a good ACC tournament, and the subs are pretty reliable.

St. Joseph's: The Hawks have no height, and only one man (Chuck McKenna) on the bench, but the team is going again now that Matt Guokas has recovered from a lingering virus that knocked 15 pounds off his skin and bones and finally put him in the hospital. Guokas is still the best passer in college. The team runs into cold shooting nights on the road, but sometimes the touch comes back when the pressing, switching defenses start paying off at the other end.

THE MIDEAST. Three of the nation's top 10 are here, too, and this Regional has the best nicknames of all: the Flyers, Ramblers and Hilltoppers, all awfully sporty. Still, the smallish Wildcats appear the best, although Kentucky might come up with a complex if it faces Loyola in the finals. Loyola is one team that is smaller than Kentucky. Doug Ward-law, for example, played forward most of the year, and he's 5 feet 11. Both little teams are big scorers, and so is Michigan, a team that has closed very well after a rocky start. Dayton is capable of an upset, and so is Western Kentucky, which is rated the best team to come out of the Ohio Valley Conference in years.

Kentucky: Lack of size remains the only discernible weakness on a smooth, quick team of outstanding shooters. All along, however, there has been speculation about what a loss would do to the team's morale. Dayton, with 6-foot-11 Henry Finkel and 6-foot-4 sophomore Don May, will probably have the chance to provide a good answer this Friday night.

Loyola: Coach George Ireland gives this team a 3-to-1 edge over his 1963 champs. "It's faster, we have a better bench and they're better shooters. But it can't muscle like the other team," Ireland says. Billy Smith, tallest at 6 feet 5, is a strong pivot with good inside moves and a textbook hook shot. Frank Perez is an inch smaller, but jumps center. He is only recently back in the starting lineup, much improved defensively but he still shoots a bit too much. The other forward is Corky Bell, 6 feet 2, an excellent all-round player who seems as relaxed as a pro. Wardlaw teams with Jim Coleman, a service veteran, in the backcourt. Coleman directs the team and though not as good a shot as some of the others he has the hands and body control for deceptive drives. Though Loyola is outrebounded in an astonishing number of games, nobody is too worried. The Ramblers make enough steals to offset what they lose on the boards.

FAR WEST. This Regional is so weak that a ringer has the best chance. The University of Houston is 1,500 miles from Los Angeles, farther than any other team from its regional site. In addition, the NCAA selection committee—lacking, perhaps, a 1.6 in geography—sent the Cougars to L.A. by way of Wichita, where first they had to meet Colorado State. But Houston's toughest test should come Friday night against Oregon State, in a match between the most completely contrasting styles this side of Wall Street. The Cougars, strictly bullish, average 100 points, up 1½ over the previous high. Oregon State, bearish all year, has limited opponents to 54 points a game, the best defensive record in the country. The winner of this semifinal probably will face Utah, though the Redskins lost any real chance for national honors when 6-foot-7 George Fisher broke his leg in a recent game. He will be missed especially on defense, because he would have drawn Pacific's horse, 6-foot-7, 235-pound Keith Swagerty, in the opening game, and Houston's superb sophomore, Elvin Hayes, in a Houston-Utah final.

Houston: Hayes, 6 feet 8, strong and quick, is the big threat. He is fifth in the country in rebounds (Pacific's Swagerty is third) and seventh in scoring. He appears to sulk a bit when he does not get the ball, and that is always a possibility, since senior Guard Joe Hamood guns when the mood hits him. Often it does. The Cougars play shoot-'em-up, but do not have a very strong team defense. If they get cold, their whole game tends to collapse.

Oregon State: The Beavers have little height—Center Ed Fredenburg is the tallest at 6 feet 6—little depth and, really, no abundance of talent. But they are patient enough to drive any opponent into errors. And if they get ahead—everybody go home. The Beavers pass and pass and pass and pass until exactly the shot they want materializes. They don't rattle. "You can't coach for the fan in the 20th row or for your wife," Coach Paul Valenti says in defense of his system. As gritty as Oregon State is, however, it would not have won the AAWU if UCLA had not been decimated by injuries. And it is just everybody's bad luck in the West that this year the NCAA decided to ship in some young hotshots from L.B.J. land.

In this year before Alcindor, everyone eligible is perfectly delighted to be in the tournament because of the well-balanced field. Certainly, no one is taking any of the opposition lightly. That lesson was learned last year in the Eastern Regional when Providence won Friday night and, figuring it had a soft touch the next evening, proceeded to cut down the nets as a token of the victory. Providence lost the next night 109-69.