It was Friday night in Philadelphia, smack in the middle of the second round of NCAA basketball playoffs, and high-riding Temple—winner of 24 games, conqueror of Kentucky, victor over Holy Cross—was having trouble with a team named Connecticut. The Owls called time out to talk it over, and a man in the stands sadly shook his head. "The way this whole business is going," he groaned, "I can see the four NCAA semifinalists now: Connecticut, Wayne, Seattle and Oklahoma City. What a lineup."
"You're crazy," his neighbor said. Then, after a moment's thought, he added: "But you could be right."
He could indeed. In the first round, North Carolina State, No. 2 in the nation and, despite Ron Shavlik's broken wrist, a cofavorite with either Temple or Holy Cross to reach the semifinals, lost to unheralded Canisius in four overtimes. Dartmouth beat favored West Virginia with a shot as the buzzer ended the game. Wayne upset De Paul. And SMU, pride of the Southwest, barely struggled to a one-point victory over a Texas Tech team which was playing without its two high scorers. Now the scores were coming in from second-round games and they didn't look so hot either: Wayne, for example, was leading Kentucky by two points at halftime.
It was well that Temple called time out and enabled the nation's basketball pundits—like the man in the stands at Philadelphia—to take a look around. A ridiculous situation was appraised, chaos averted and normalcy restored. At week's end the four teams with tickets to the two final rounds at Evanston, Illinois on Thursday and Friday were what they should be: San Francisco, Iowa, Temple and SMU.
March 26, 1956
San Francisco, even without K.C. Jones, still resembled nothing so much as the best college basketball team ever invented. The defending NCAA champions stretched their victory streak to 53 games by disposing first of UCLA 72-61 and then Utah 92-77. Six-foot 10-inch Bill Russell played like the super star he is, and Sophomore Gene Brown scored 41 points in the two games. Russell scored 21 against UCLA, 27 against Utah, picked off 45 rebounds and blocked over two dozen shots with his uncanny defensive moves around the basket. UCLA's Willie Naulls and Morris Taft each scored 16 points, which was below their season average, and that was the story.
Utah, after outrunning Seattle 81-72 in the other second-round game, tried the same tactic against San Francisco and did manage to score more points against the Dons than any other team all year. But there was another side to the story; San Francisco, usually content to play control basketball, proved it could run, too, and wound up with a high of its own for the season—and a date in the semifinals with SMU.
Iowa had less trouble in the midwestern regional than it had at the first of the regular season, when the Hawkeyes couldn't get going and lost five of their first eight games. High-scoring little Morehead, beaten 97-83, and Kentucky, defeated 89-77 were merely victims No. 15 and 16 in the rapidly growing streak of the Big Ten champions. Carl (Sugar) Cain, the graceful Iowa forward, was the hatchet man in both Hawkeye wins. Against More-head he scored 28 points and rebounded magnificently; against Kentucky he hit 34. Cain's brilliant display outshone even that of Kentucky's towering Bob Burrow, who finally led the Wildcats past Wayne with 33 points and then racked up 31 in a losing cause against not only Iowa's team but a vociferously booing Iowa audience as well.
Whether the boos bothered Kentucky, they certainly didn't help tough little Canisius across the country in Philadelphia's Palestra. Biggest surprise of the entire tournament, Canisius missed over half its free throws in the important quarter-final game as a heavily partisan crowd of Temple backers shook even the television cameras with their howls. But the home-town Owls weren't missing anything, including two free throws in the last two seconds of play by high-scoring Hal Lear which wrapped up the 60-58 victory. When the screams died down, even Canisius had to admit that Temple probably deserved it: to gain a shot at Iowa, the Owls beat Holy Cross 74-72 in the last six seconds, outscored Connecticut behind a 40-point outburst by Lear and then toppled Canisius on the play-making and shooting of a sophomore fireball named Guy Rodgers.
SMU must have been playing possum in its first-round scrape past Texas Tech; in the two victories at Lawrence, Kansas over Houston (89-74) and Oklahoma City (84-63), the smooth Mustangs almost blew their opponents off the court. In the first game, 6-foot-8 Jim Krebs stopped Houston's 7-foot Don Boldebuck with 11 points and scored 27 himself. Against Oklahoma City, Joel Krog and Larry Showalter shook loose for 22 and 20 points, while the Chiefs' zone defense concentrated on stopping Krebs.
As the four semifinalists got ready for Evanston, most observers of the pageant saw San Francisco over SMU (too much Russell, they said) and Iowa over Temple (too much height said Kentucky, which had lost to both teams). And in the finals, few were willing to bet that even Iowa, a truly fine team, could stop the Dons—or even make them work very hard.
NCAA PLAYOFF RESULTS
Canisius 79—N.C. State 78
Connecticut 84—Manhattan 75
Dartmouth 61—West Virginia 59
Morehead St. 107—Marshall 92
Oklahoma City 97—Memphis St. 81
Seattle 68—Idaho State 66
So. Methodist 68—Texas Tech 67
Temple 74—Holy Cross 72
Wayne 72—De Paul 63
Canisius 66—Dartmouth 58
Iowa 97—Morehead St. 83
Kentucky 84—Wayne 64
Oklahoma City 97—Kansas St. 93
San Francisco 72—UCLA 61
So. Methodist 89—Houston 74
Temple 65—Connecticut 59
Utah 81—Seattle 72
Iowa 89—Kentucky 77
San Francisco 92—Utah 77
So. Methodist 84—Oklahoma City 63
Temple 60—Canisius 58