A veritable bacchanal of basketball—40-odd tournaments engaging the talents of hundreds of teams and thousands of young men—swept the country last week as colleges everywhere celebrated Christmas-New Year vacations with festival round robins.
In the process, in many areas early-season team estimates were hopelessly scrambled. For the unique feature of most of these tournaments is that they bring together teams whose regular schedules normally keep them thousands of miles apart; thus, intraconference styles of play are tested, as well as individuals, with interesting results. For example:
•Brigham Young University of Provo, Utah brought a so-so, 4-4 record all the way to Madison Square Garden in New York and, in their first game, wrecked the national ranking of strong St. John's 89-75.
•Pittsburgh, undistinguished except for fiery, 5-foot-9 Don Hennon and already the victim of a dreadful 100-69 loss to
Ohio State, found Miami's sunshine a strong tonic, walloped Seton Hall, a former top-20 team, 76-60 in the Orange Bowl.
January 7, 1957
•Unheralded Virginia Tech, making up in drive what it lacked in finesse, was within six seconds of beating mighty Kentucky, one of the country's three best, before losing 56-55 in the Sugar Bowl.
In all this fury of split-second footwork and split-cord handwork which provides the sport's compelling charm, no better basketball was played before more appreciative audiences than at Raleigh, North Carolina, home of the Dixie Classic. The Classic's four host teams—North Carolina State, North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest—have for years been among the best anywhere. Indeed, if they did not spend most of the regular season knocking each other off, all four would undoubtedly enjoy consistently higher national rankings. The quality of play is further enhanced by the selection of the guests. This year—a typical field—they included: Iowa, defending champion of the Big Ten; Utah, the Skyline champion; West Virginia, the Southern Conference champion; De Paul, a perennial power among the independents.
This kind of competition draws overflow crowds to State's spacious (12,400-seat) Reynolds Coliseum, where the games are played. For seven consecutive years, the Coliseum has led all campus arenas in basketball attendance (last year's total: 283,000). This year, each Classic session played to capacity audiences, highly partisan to the host teams, who were never at a loss for victories to celebrate. For despite the presence among them of three conference champions, all four visiting squads were soundly beaten in the very first round of action: West Virginia by Duke, Utah by North Carolina, Iowa by State, De Paul by Wake Forest. This was a powerful affirmation of the excellence of Carolina basketball, the only real surprise being the relatively poor showing of previously undefeated (8-0) West Virginia, whose All-America, Rod Hundley, was at considerably less than his usual brilliant form. Mountaineer Coach Fred Schaus forlornly explained it this way: "In our first eight games, we didn't have a really bad half. Here we played maybe three minutes of good ball through the whole tournament. Hundley looked like any other player."
The Classic then settled down to intrastate warfare among Carolina teams, and two things seemed apparent: State, though it had won six of seven earlier tournaments, did not deserve consideration as favorite, and North Carolina's Len Rosenbluth was the player to watch. Both estimates were quickly proved sound. In the second round, Wake Forest overwhelmed State, and Rosenbluth contributed 32 points to Carolina's victory over Duke.
The final pairing—N. Carolina vs. Wake Forest—could have led to a psychological letdown for Carolina. As their coach, Frank McGuire, puts it: "Beating NC State is the first rule around here, although some of the alumni like to beat Duke even better." Deprived of either opportunity, the Tarheels were nevertheless eager and determined, possibly because McGuire and practically all his players are New York City area products and do not share completely in local Carolina feelings about natural rivalry. ("I myself," McGuire adds, "like to beat anybody.") His boys showed the same disinterest in the identity of their victims. Playing very carefully, and bucking a tight Wake Forest zone defense plus a double-teaming effort directed at Rosenbluth, they were the better team by more than the 63-55 score indicated. Rosenbluth was the high scorer with 18 and was voted the Classic's outstanding player. But his value as a decoy while Joe Quigg and Bill Hathaway controlled the backboards and Tommy Kearns set up Carolina plays was the really critical difference.
Elsewhere, two performances—several hundred miles apart—continued the intriguing buildup toward a forthcoming duel (next March) during the NCAA tournament between two of the best big men in college ball today—Jim Krebs of SMU and Wilt Chamberlain of Kansas. The less publicized Krebs, injured earlier and playing with his left thigh tightly taped in SMU's final game against Arkansas, was nevertheless voted top man in the Southwest Conference tournament at Houston. Awkward and overweight last year, Krebs has brought his 6-foot-6 frame down to a mere 225 pounds, with a consequent increase in mobility. But that's only part of the story. "Jim's greatest attribute," says his coach, Doc Hayes, "is the way he works at improving himself. He has skipped rope a good thousand miles to quicken his movements. A lot of big boys are just too lazy to do that." Krebs was second highest scorer with 78, as SMU won the tournament for the third time. And he demonstrated a Chamberlainlike ability to commit himself at the precise instant, go way up and block opposing shots in midair. His boardwork plus the accurate long-range sniping of Larry Showalter and Ned Duncan were simply too much for a surprisingly tenacious Arkansas. When the bright-robed SMU squad marched to center court to receive their trophy watches, Announcer Morris Frank saluted them as "the greatest Methodists since John Wesley and Doak Walker"—which appeared to cover the situation from all conceivable angles.
Due north in Kansas City, the role played by the towering (7 feet) Chamberlain could hardly have been better contrived, dramatically speaking, by a team of Pulitzer playwrights. His first act was slow but studded with just enough interest to compel his audience to return for the second to see what would happen next. (He scored only 12 points while Kansas squeaked by Iowa State 58-57.) In the second act, he opened the stops a bit further but carefully avoided satiating the appetites of spectators. He was still a bit better than good enough, with 36 points, as Kansas beat Oklahoma 74-56. Then, for a climactic, roll-'em-in-the-aisles last act performance, he lived up to every line of the advance publicity which had drawn basketball experts and just plain fans from all over the country. He smashed all tournament scoring records—his 45 points were the most for a single game; his total of 93 was the highest for all three games. All during the tournament, he swept both offensive and defensive boards, refusing to be blocked out, consistently outpositioning his guards. Repeatedly, he would establish himself under his own board and encourage teammates to shoot, arrogantly sure of his ability to get the ball again if it didn't go in. Kansas, of course, won the title.
There remains to be recorded one final footnote to this stimulating, colorful and best-attended of all holiday season basketball festivals. In Evansville, Indiana, Mississippi State was scheduled to meet Evansville College in the final game of Evansville's invitational tournament. As tip-off time approached, Don Ping, Evansville's athletic director, read a statement to the assembled spectators. It explained that Mississippi State's representatives had been called home by their school administration, would not play because there were Negro players on their opponents' squads.
MAJOR TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONS
North Carolina 63
Wake Forest 55
FAR WEST CLASSIC
Oregon State 71
South Carolina 62
Notre Dame 79
MOTOR CITY CLASSIC
NAIA TIP OFF
Texas Southern 79
St. Francis 67
Oklahoma City 69
Penn State 59
Southern Methodist 64