Lew Alcindor's reign over college basketball ended last March with UCLA's third straight NCAA championship—and a big sigh of relief from everybody else. The man who had inspired the no-dunk rule, packed the Astrodome, boycotted the Olympics, demoralized every opponent and topped it off by knocking his own school finally was gone. Now there was going to be some fun, some healthy, eye-gouging, elbow-swinging fun. Maybe even a tumbleweed of a team from El Paso could win the whole laugh-in, as in 1966.
The hilarity, measured in terms of poked eyes and bruised knees—not to mention bruised egos—began last week. Some favorites lost their poise and flopped, some underdogs got injections of vitamin JC and won and suddenly there were 16 teams left with still plenty of running before any of them claimed the title. The whittling process the NCAA calls its regional tournaments—this year they are at Columbia, S.C., Columbus, Ohio, Lawrence, Kans. and Seattle—will have reduced the field to four by Saturday night. The finals are scheduled for next week in College Park, Md., and the hope of Jimmy Collins of New Mexico State, John Vallely of UCLA, Dan Issel of Kentucky or Bob Lanier of St. Bonaventure (see cover), to mention just a few, is that he and his teammates will be up there looking down at all the rest, the way Alcindor used to at the end of NCAA finals. The probability is that Vallely will be the lucky man. UCLA should win—for the sixth time in seven years.
It is now clear that Alcindor's era was only an era within an era, John Wooden's. Coach Wooden remains supreme, quoting homilies and tongue-lashing a player or two when the need arises. His teams won two NCAA championships before Alcindor enrolled, and this season, as usual, the Bruins are champions of the Pacific Eight. They have experience, quickness, discipline, a powerful and high-scoring front line and perhaps the most accurate-shooting pair of guards in the college game.
They have, however, better opposition than UCLA clubs of the past, and winning the NCAA this year will be no stroll through the park. Oregon and USC in UCLA's own league have proved the Bruins can be beaten, and the big man in the middle, the guy who can score 30 or 40 points, swat away shots and control the backboards, is on the other side this time—an Issel or a Lanier or an Artis Gilmore of Jacksonville.
Almost every year in the NCAA one underdog (Utah in 1966, Ohio State in '68, Drake last year) slips through a regional and into the final four. This time the field is so wide open that four or five, and maybe seven or eight, teams have legitimate shots at winning it all, and this is excluding perhaps the finest team in the East, South Carolina, a victim of the Atlantic Coast Conference's lucrative but thoroughly unnecessary three-day tournament to pick an NCAA representative. The No. 3-ranked Gamecocks, having beaten each of the other ACC teams twice in regular-season play, almost made it through this gauntlet of despised rivals—but not quite.
South Carolina survived a slowdown Thursday afternoon and beat Clemson 34-33. Afterward, the Gamecocks' superb guard, John Roche, was correct when he said, "We're the best team. If someone else wins, it's a fluke." In the second round South Carolina outfought Wake Forest 79-63, but with 10:55 to go the fluke occurred. Roche landed on an opponent's foot and sprained his ankle. He was hampered in the slowdown finale the next night, and South Carolina lost in double overtime to North Carolina State, a team it had beaten the week before by 16 points. Thus, N.C. State moved into the regional against St. Bonaventure.
Poor South Carolina should have proceeded forthwith to the National Invitational Tournament, right? No, suh! Since it is the host school for the East Regional, it will not be allowed by the NCAA to compete in any rival event. The Gamecocks will stay home and sniff camellias.
St. Bonaventure, then, is the choice in the East. The Bonnies (23-1) beat Davidson 85-72 in a rugged first-round game Saturday. Lanier, likely to be the pros' first draft choice, was intimidating on defense, took 15 rebounds and scored 28 points. Davidson's excellent rebounding power was at least partially offset by the Bonnies' three black forecourt men, Lanier, Matt Gantt and Gregg Gary, all of whom could take up soaring—without gliders. They are known as the Soul Patrol.
Patrol Captain Lanier, at 6'11" and 265 pounds, is as big as a house, but his legs are springy, his left-handed jump shot is soft and delicate and his disposition pleasant. His roommate, little Guard Billy Kalbaugh, enjoys telling stories about Buffalo Bob's put-ons and legendary big feet. Such as the time an airline stewardess said to Lanier:
"You must be a famous basketball player. Are you?"
"No, miss," said Lanier, "not basketball."
"Well, football," said the stewardess, "or fighting."
"You'd never guess," said Lanier. Then he stuck his size-19 shoes into the aisle and said, "I'm a soccer player."
The Soul Patrol will not be very popular when it meets N. C. State at Columbia, but the Bonnies should win. The last time N. C. State upset the regular-season ACC champ (1965), it was embarrassed in the East Regional by Princeton and Bill Bradley. The Wolfpack does have a big man, 6'9" sophomore Paul Coder, but he appeared to be nervous in the ACC tourney and scored only eight points. Wait until he sees Lanier.
N. C. State has a fine player in 6'6" Vann Williford, the only non-New Yorker on the all-ACC team and MVP in the tournament. Maybe the combination of "Moving Vann" and a slowdown could win against Lanier. More likely, the Bonnies will move into the regional finals against Villanova, the only team to beat them this year. Villanova (21-6) runs a crackling fast break, a radical departure from past Wildcat teams, but has retained Coach Jack Kraft's aggravating "ball defense" (a complicated zone). Howard Porter, a 6'8" junior from Florida who has amazing agility for a big man and a nice jump shot, is the star, but all five starters run well and any one of them can score 20 or 25 points.
Before getting to St. Bonaventure, Villanova must play Niagara (21-5) and its little demon, Calvin Murphy. The Purple Eagles shocked everybody, including themselves, by upsetting Ivy champion Penn 79-69. Villanova has beaten Murphy-led teams four times in a row and should make it a fifth, but the Eagles did not expect to get this far anyway. Said Coach Frank Layden: "Before the season I'd have figured I was going to the NCAA to watch."
A Villanova-St. Bonaventure final would be almost a toss-up. The Wildcats won by just two points the last time, but the Bonnies, a team that lost only that game, should win.
Kentucky, champion of the Southeastern Conference for the 25th time and beaten just once, faces the roughest regional heat in the Mideast. UK probably will not make it. This is a different sort of Kentucky team. Normally, crusty Adolph Rupp subjugates his stars to his system, allowing them about as much autonomy as the Herefords on his Lexington farm. But this season he has let 6'8½" Center Issel dominate the scene, and Issel, described by an Iowa scout as "the best post man I've seen this year," has become the most prolific scorer in the school's history. He shoots, rebounds, blocks shots and he has the aid of a strong, poised forward, Mike Pratt.
UK is matched against Notre Dame (21-6), a team it beat at Louisville 102-100 earlier in the season. The Irish have improved since then, mastering their double-stack offense that clogs up the middle and creates numerous shooting opportunities for junior Austin Carr. Carr either was given opportunities or created them himself in a qualifying game against Ohio U. Saturday. He scored 61 points, breaking Bradley's tournament record, and Notre Dame dumped the Mid-American champions 112-82.
Carr's record was the most noteworthy achievement of the busy weekend, a touch better than Wake Forest Coach Jack McCloskey's feat in the ACC tournament: he kicked a hole in the scorer's table without drawing a technical foul.
The UK-ND survivor must play the winner of the Jacksonville-Iowa game, probably Jacksonville (24-1), the tallest team in the country. The Dolphins made their very first NCAA tournament game an impressive one Saturday, murdering Western Kentucky 109-96. JU's 7'2" Artis Gilmore, who is known as Batman, but with his beard looks more like Satan, scored 30 points, grabbed 19 rebounds and blocked nine shots. Western Kentucky's own 7-footer, Jim McDaniels, scored 29 points before fouling out when the game was long gone.
Jacksonville has much more than Gilmore. Wingman Rex Morgan, Robin to Artis' Batman, draws a lot of fouls with his twisty drives and feeds Gilmore well. Vaughn Wedeking, a 5'10" outside shooter, makes it difficult to press the Dolphins because he handles the ball so well. And there is an excellent bench. "They can throw wave after wave of muscle and speed at you," said one awed observer of Western's massacre.
Iowa, only the third undefeated titleholder in recent Big Ten history, has no such bench or height, but it does have Coach Ralph Miller's pressure defense and a quick, clever passing game. The Hawkeyes' senior forward, John Johnson, has a jump shot with as much arc as a straight right cross, yet it goes in more often than not. Iowa has won 16 straight games, but the streak should end against JU, especially if one believes Dolphin Coach Joe Williams, decked out in a white double-breasted sport coat and a blood-red shirt.
"A lot of people tend to underrate us, then get a rude awakening when they find out we're really that tough," he said. If it does not get too cocky, the Jacksonville team will win the Mideast and face St. Bonaventure—Gilmore versus Lanier—in the semis at College Park. Awake, all you nonbelievers.
The choice in the Midwest is New Mexico State, which has size and strength inside with 6'10" Sam Lacey and 6'8" Jeff Smith, and three hot-shooting, flashy guards, Collins, Charley Criss and Milton (Roadrunner) Home. Home comes in off the bench and throws nifty passes, some of which land in the pep band's tuba. The Aggies' biggest asset, though, is the fact that, for the first time in three years, they do not have to play UCLA in the West Regional.
"We've got a better chance of getting up momentum now," said Collins. They started gathering it Saturday by blitzing Rice 101-77. Of course, little of this was accomplished with local talent. The basketball courts are not very fertile around Las Cruces. Coach Lou Henson has, in his first 12, six players from New York and another from Camden, N.J.—echoes of the University of Texas at El Paso team four years ago.
The Aggies move on to meet Kansas State, surprise of the Big Eight. State has gone far afield for talent, too—notably to Virginia for Jerry Venable and to Georgia for David Hall. The bench is good, but seldom has the team put 40 minutes of solid basketball together. Its biggest man is 6'7" Bob Zender, and that is not big enough.
Drake, which meets Houston in the other Midwest bracket, is aided again by junior-college transfers, three of them new, and the tough defense taught by Coach Maury John. The team sometimes forgets to work together and there was a suspicion at the end of the Missouri Valley season that Cincinnati was the best club, but the other teams in the regional remember the Bulldogs' surprises last year and worry. Drake has good shooting, rebounding and depth.
Houston, which has no Elvin Hayes, earned the slot opposite Drake with a 71-64 victory Saturday over Dayton. The Cougars have a slick ball handler in Poo Welch and surprisingly play 6'2" Ollie Taylor, another New Yorker, in the low post. ("He's been battling 6'7"s and 6'9"s all year and still averages 25 points a game," says Coach Guy Lewis.) Neither Houston nor Drake should be able to stop New Mexico State.
In Seattle everybody will be worried about the outside shooting of UCLA's Henry Bibby and Vallely, but the scoring and board power of the Bruin front line is even more frightening. Scariest individual is Forward Sidney (never Sid) Wicks, who has the meanest glare since Sonny Liston. He is a quick junior who, says Wooden, "has as much physical ability as any man I've ever seen at his position."
He is the team comic and mimic, the fastest runner and the leading scorer and rebounder. "The best forward in college basketball," USC Coach Bob Boyd called him after Wicks led UCLA to a 91-78 win over the Trojans Saturday night. The night before USC had upset the Bruins 87-86 and it looked as though they were going to do it again until Wooden sat Wicks down beside him and proceeded to give him holy heck (Wooden never swears) for almost four minutes.
"It was a rather lengthy talk," said Wooden, "and when he went back out there he played a fantastic game." UCLA opens with Cal State Long Beach (23-3), which smashed Weber State on Saturday 92-73, using its customary fine shooting and stingy zone. Like Jacksonville, the 49ers are an excellent team playing in the NCAA for the first time. They have won 19 games in a row and that is where the fun should end against the vastly more experienced Bruins.
High-scoring, high-leaping Utah State, which beat UTEP to reach the Seattle regional, has two fine players in Marvin Roberts and Nate Williams. It must beat the West Coast Athletic Conference champ, either Pacific or Santa Clara, to get a crack at the UCLA-Long Beach winner. A Utah State-UCLA final would seem in order, and the Bruins have traditionally dominated the teams from over the mountains—all the way across, in fact.
Weber State's early defeat eliminated one of the more amusing possibilities in the tournament. Connoisseurs of collegiate nicknames were hoping that Weber, Kansas State, Kentucky and either Villanova or Davidson would be the four semifinalists, thus bringing to College Park the Wildcats, the Wildcats, the Wildcats and the Wildcats.
Oh, well, it should be wild enough for anybody's taste with Sidney Wicks glaring at the Soul Patrol in the finals, or maybe Batman and Robin trying to chase down elusive Roadrunner Home. And South Carolina watching on television.
NC State's Vann Williford (14) triumphantly cut strings and team's wolf ate a gamecock after Ed Leftwich (30) stole final ACC game.
A local boy on New Mexico State's team of New Yorkers, John Burgess pops over Rice.
Littlest big man in tourney, Niagara's Calvin Murphy maneuvers around Penn's Jim Wolf.
Biggest man on biggest team, Jacksonville's Artis Gilmore stops for some sideline repair.
Sidney Wicks, UCLA's most intimidating defender, tries Liston-like stare on USC man.
Houston's Poo Welch, who had much to do with Cougars' unexpected success this year, glides down court during win over Dayton.
NCAA BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
N. C. STATE
Columbia, S. C.
Columbia, S. C.
Columbia, S. C.
College Park, Md.
N. MEX. STATE
CAL. ST. L. BEACH
College Park, Md.
College Park, Md.