Theoretically, there is a good, simple formula for determining the best college basketball team in the U.S. After three and a half months of competition in the provinces, the best teams of the lot are herded under one roof and, if you like, the door is locked. When the hoops stop rattling, out marches the survivor—champion of the year.
It is an appealing theory but, unfortunately for mankind's pursuit of categorical certainties, the United States is a land of three million square miles and almost as many basketball teams—a surprisingly large number of which are surprisingly good; good enough at any rate, as they have been demonstrating all season, to surprise each other on odd weekends and further confuse the postseason picture. As a result, for a number of years there has been room for not one but two major tournaments, the National Collegiate Athletic Association playoffs and the National Invitation Tournament. Each has its own claim to superiority, each its dedicated following among the fans.
Into Madison Square Garden this weekend, for the 19th consecutive year, come the teams that have been the backbone of the NIT, independents (nonconference schools) such as Dayton and Louisville, St. Joseph's and Duquesne, and a few such as St. Louis and Oklahoma A & M who were strong runners-up in open-minded conferences which belong to the NCAA but still permit members to play in the rival tournament. The doors will close and a week later, in an afternoon contest to be played before a national television audience of millions, the champion will emerge. At least the survivor will be the NIT champion and almost certainly the best independent team in the country.
But while the NIT conforms to one part of the formula, the NCAA is much better equipped to handle another—deciding which one of the thousands which started the season is really the best college basketball team in the land. This year the NIT landed only two members of the Associated Press's Top Ten (see box)—Dayton (No. 3) and Louisville (No. 6)—while the NCAA was capturing a total of six and 11 out of the top 20. Lined up on the side of the NCAA are all the major conferences with their regional followings, and into the playoffs will pour Iowa of the Big Ten, UCLA of the Pacific Coast Conference, Kentucky of the Southeastern, North Carolina State of the Atlantic Coast, SMU of the Southwest, Houston of the Missouri Valley, Kansas State of the Big Seven and a handful of others. There will also be a smattering of independents willing to take a long shot at glory through the greater prestige of the NCAA. And, of course, there will be San Francisco.
Theoretically again, the two best teams, after climbing over the recumbent forms of early-round challengers, should meet in the finals for the championship. But the NCAA playoffs are so sprawling that no such guarantee is possible. In fact, basketball men are beginning to believe that the best game of this year's tournament will take place not in the finals at Evanston, Ill. on March 23 or in the semifinals the night before or even in the quarter-finals at one of four different locations across the country on March 17, but in a second-round game Friday, March 16, in Corvallis, Oregon. It is then that San Francisco runs into UCLA.
The chief riddle that has confronted college basketball for nearly two years is when—and how—is someone going to stop San Francisco? Over a stretch of 51 games, 25 of them this season, the defending NCAA champions have gone undefeated. Bill Russell, a 6-foot 10-inch rebounding and defensive genius, has been almost unanimously accepted as a super star. His teammate K. C. Jones, meanwhile, has bewildered opponents with leechlike guarding and sparkling leadership and earned an All-America rating in his own right. The Dons have height and speed, great depth and a reputation as the finest defensive team in the country.
"Better than the Kentucky team of Groza, Beard and Jones," Duquesne's Dudey Moore once called them.
"I believe San Francisco could enter the pre league," says basketball's touring ambassador, Chuck Taylor, "and hold its own with all but the top teams."
"You can't stop Russell," says the UCLA coach, Johnny Wooden. "The best you can hope to do is contain him. And you can't even contain him on defense—he contains you."
Why then do a surprising number of those who should know better think UCLA has a chance to stop San Francisco? Well, there are several reasons. One is that while UCLA was the last team to beat the Dons (Dec. 11, 1954), San Francisco was also the last team to beat UCLA—in the finals of the Holiday Festival, Dec. 30, 1955—and that is a loss the Bruins want to avenge. The other three reasons are named Willie Naulls, Morris Taft and K. C. Jones. Naulls and Taft, the latter handicapped by an injured back when the two teams met before, have since combined their talents to run up a 17-game victory streak and become the first Pacific Coast Conference team since 1929 to complete the league schedule unbeaten. Naulls, leading scorer and rebounder in the conference, was recently singled out by a professional scout as the No. 2 player in the nation, and only a matter of quantity—not quality—prevented him from becoming No. 1. "Naulls can do everything better than Russell," the man said, "but he's five inches shorter." Taft, a catlike jump-shot specialist, ranked third in scoring on the coast behind his big teammate.
But K. C. Jones may be an even bigger factor by his absence; after serving as captain of the Dons through the season, Jones will be lost for the playoffs because of the NCAA four-year rule. It is true there is a good replacement named Gene Brown (classified by Duquesne's Moore as "the best substitute in the country—he'd be a star on any other team"), and what this sophomore will cost San Francisco in defensive ability he can almost make up in superior shooting. But Jones was still Jones—and the Dons will be meeting perhaps their strongest opponent in their first game without him.
"UCLA," says Washington Coach Tippy Dye flatly, "can whip San Francisco without Jones on the floor."
"We have improved a great deal," admits Wooden, "and perhaps the loss of K. C. Jones will hurt them some. However, they've still got Russell and he's the ball club."
Should UCLA fail to halt the Dons, there are still a few less-than-tender traps on the path to a second championship. In the eastern half of the bracket are such teams as North Carolina State, Iowa, Kentucky and the survivor of a featured first-rounder between Holy Cross and Temple; each is a potential finalist. At first it was feared that Ron Shavlik's broken wrist, suffered in the final regular-season game, might sideline the North Carolina State All-America for the playoffs and perhaps even keep the Wolfpack from ever getting past their own conference tournament. But, protecting leather brace and all, Shavlik played, rebounded as magnificently as ever, and State had the balance to take up the scoring slack. Vic Molodet, a dashing guard who has been scoring at a 20-point clip, simply raised his sights a notch and began to score in the 30s. So Shavlik and Molodet and Co. remain one of the big ones to beat.
Iowa, which humbled mighty Illinois in the Big Ten, is another—a superbly conditioned team with remarkable poise and balance. The leading scorer is 6-foot-7 Bill Logan, but the other starters—Carl Cain, Bill Seaberg, Bill Schoof and Sharm Scheuerman—are considered to be just as good. Kentucky, which won the tough Southeastern Conference berth by default when Alabama won the championship using five four-year men, is not the Kentucky of old, but the Wildcats have two big scorers in Bob Burrow and Jerry Bird and they still have canny Coach Adolph Rupp. Big Tom Heinsohn and little Hal Lear are the respective keys which could unlock the playoff doors for Holy Cross or Temple. There are also others: West Virginia lost three players to the four-year rule but still has Hot Rod Hundley; Wayne played a less taxing schedule but can still point with pride to only one defeat; little Morehead State is the nation's highest-scoring team.
And, of more immediate concern to San Francisco, in the West there lurk Utah, an erratic but sometimes brilliant team built around Art Bunte and 6-foot-8 Gary Bergen; SMU, a beautifully balanced club which lost only two games, one of those to Iowa; Houston and its 7-foot Don Boldebuck; and a pair of long shots which may have the shots to come through—Oklahoma City and Kansas State.
In the NIT, they are saying that, after three previous trips to the finals and not one blue ribbon to show for all the trouble, this is Dayton's year. Certainly the Flyers have been impressive: 23 victories in 26 games, two all-star selections in 7-foot Bill Uhl and Jimmy Paxson and a strong supporting cast. But others point to Louisville, which is also 23-3, owns two victories over Dayton (although the Cardinals twice lost to teams Dayton beat easily) and has apparently found the antidote for Uhl: a 6-foot-8 center named Charley (Moose) Tyra, who is second in the nation in rebounds and outscored the Dayton giant in both their duels.
The NIT, however, is full of teams which have been beating each other over the head all season, a fact which convinces the backer of each entry that he can mount a number of good arguments in favor of his favorite. Take Duquesne. The Dukes are defending champs; the Dukes started slow but now they are really rolling; the Dukes lost once to Dayton but beat them once, too; the Dukes have Si Green. Or take St. Joseph's, which, along with Dayton, Louisville and Niagara, occupies one of four seeded positions: they have a 21-5 record and victories over four other tournament teams—St. Francis and Lafayette from the NIT, Temple and Manhattan from the NCAA.
Marquette has 6-foot-9 Terry Rand, who led the Warriors through a rugged Midwestern schedule; St. Louis, which won this tournament back in 1948, and Seton Hall, which won it in '53, are old NIT veterans; so is Oklahoma A&M with its slowdown style of play, which could cause all kinds of trouble before the shooting is over.
BASKETBALL'S TOP TEN
1—San Francisco (66)
2—North Carolina State (9)
7—Southern Methodist (3)
RUNNERS-UP: 11, Oklahoma City (8) 168; 12, Vanderbilt 165; 13, North Carolina 143; 14, Holy Cross (1) 121; 15, Temple 87; 16, Wake Forest 77; Duke 56; 18, Utah 54; 19, Oklahoma A&M (1) 47; 20, West Virginia (1) 45.