With the postseason tournaments only two weeks off, college basketball's annual jigsaw puzzle was rapidly falling into place. Last week six major conference championships were decided, at least five more were all but settled. Only six remained in doubt.
The champions: Ohio State (Big Ten), West Virginia (Southern), California (Big Five), Auburn (Southeastern), Idaho State (Rocky Mountain), Ohio U. (Mid-American). The near champions: Texas (Southwest), Cincinnati (Missouri Valley), Utah (Skyline), Western Kentucky (Ohio Valley), New Mexico State (Border). Conference races still in doubt: Big Eight—Kansas State, Kansas and/or Oklahoma (last two played each other Tuesday) tied for lead; Atlantic Coast—North Carolina and Wake Forest, co-favorites in championship tournament starting Thursday; West Coast—Loyola and Pepperdine in first-place tie, closely followed by St. Mary's and Santa Clara; Ivy—Princeton leading, but Dartmouth and Cornell have a chance; Mid-Atlantic—St. Joseph's and LaSalle deadlocked, with St. Joe's the likely winner; Yankee—Connecticut on top, but the Uconns can be caught by Maine, Rhode Island or Massachusetts.
The Southern Conference was bubbling over with hope when the championship tournament began at Richmond. For the first time in six years, West Virginia had finished second (to Virginia Tech) during the regular season, and there was a good chance that the result would be the same in the tournament. But the Mountaineers were in no mood to give up their title and an NCAA invitation. With magnificent Jerry West, his broken nose encased in a flesh-colored metal mask, flipping in baskets, picking off rebounds and generally behaving like the All-America he is, West Virginia squeaked by VMI 90-83, then ran William & Mary breathless to win 117-83. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech's bulky, 6-foot 6-inch Chris Smith jammed in 59 points to help the Gobblers wallop Richmond 78-59, George Washington 88-52. In the final, Virginia Tech seemed on the verge of victory when West, after being held to four field goals by tenacious Bucky Keller, fouled out with 12:31 to play and his team barely leading 49-48. However, Senior Guard Jim Warren picked up the Westless Mountaineers, scored 13 points in a dozen minutes and West Virginia won 82-72.
Georgia Tech, teetering precariously the last two weeks, stumbled out of the Southeastern Conference lead on the last night of the season, lost to sixth-place Vanderbilt 62-57, while Auburn's persevering Tigers climaxed a steady rise to the title with a thrilling 63-61 overtime victory (on Ray Groover's last-second field goal) over Alabama. But there was some solace for the Yellow Jackets. Auburn, on probation for football recruiting irregularities, is ineligible for the NCAA tournament, and Georgia Tech will represent the SEC. There was no such reward for Kentucky, beaten by Tennessee 65-63 for the first time in 10 years. For their season's work the Wildcats earned only a disdainful glare from Coach Adolph Rupp and a glum pronouncement: "This team simply couldn't realize that it is a Kentucky team."
North Carolina, despite the disquieting news that the NCAA was investigating its recruiting practices, stuck to the business at hand, prepared for Thursday's Atlantic Coast Conference championships at Raleigh by rolling over Maryland 81-64, Virginia 97-58 and Duke 75-70 to tie Wake Forest for first place. The Deacons, too, were busy and tuned up by beating Villanova 89-70, St. Francis (Pa.) 94-60.
Western Kentucky disposed of tough Tennessee Tech 85-81, Middle Tennessee 109-80 to lay one firm hand on the Ohio Valley championship. The top three:
1. WEST VIRGINIA (24-4)
2. AUBURN (19-3)
3. GEORGIA TECH (21-5)
It was like dish night in a local movie house as 7,000 jampacked the Utah State fieldhouse at Logan (see p. 40), only this time the durable Aggies weren't dishing it out. They were taking it—from Utah's fast-moving Redskins, who parlayed lanky Billy McGill's artful shot-blocking and shot-making, Joe Morton's pair of clutch foul shots, into a 77-75 victory and a virtual lock on the Skyline title.
California, preparing to defend its NCAA championship, warmed up by beating Washington 54-47 and Oregon State 62-47. USC, still hopeful of an at-large bid, defeated Stanford 59-53, Santa Clara 77-70.
Just about everybody was still in contention in the jumbled West Coast AC, where Loyola and Pepperdine shook up stumbling St. Mary's 60-59 and 70-55 respectively, and Santa Clara beat COP 81-52. Idaho State clobbered Colorado Mines 88-52, 83-39 for its eighth straight Rocky Mountain crown, ran the nation's longest major-college winning streak to 17. The top three:
1. CALIFORNIA (22-1)
2. UTAH (22-2)
3. UTAH STATE (20-4)
It was all over in the Big Ten. Ohio State's frolicking Buckeyes, bumbling ever so little against Wisconsin's zone defense, got perfect marksmanship from the field (eight for eight) from Sophomore Center Jerry Lucas, overwhelmed the Badgers 93-68 for their first Big Ten title since 1950. But Indiana's streaking Hoosiers, who jolted Illinois 92-78 and Minnesota 78-74 for their ninth in a row, couldn't help wondering what might have been if they hadn't lost their first three conference games.
All good things must come to an end, and so it was with Bradley's 15-game winning streak. The Braves met their match at Houston, where hot-handed Gary Phillips scored 30 points, led the Cougars to a 63-58 victory. Cincinnati, left alone at the top of the Missouri Valley, romped over North Texas State 85-54 and Wichita 97-76 as Oscar Robertson raised his career field-goal total to 969, breaking Elgin Baylor's major-college record.
The Big Eight was still searching for a leader. Kansas State made motions in the right direction, thumping Kansas 68-57, but along came Oklahoma's ball-controlling Sooners, who held the Wildcats to 11 field goals and trounced them 58-35. Kansas came back to whip Missouri 85-72, forcing a temporary three-way tie for the lead. Colorado turned ice cold, lost to Missouri 82-73 and, after five overtime periods, to Iowa State 83-80.
With 12,688 home-town fans cheering them on, little Evansville got caught up in the excitement, upset NCAA-bound Notre Dame 92-87. At week's end, the Irish had recovered sufficiently to beat fading Louisville 65-54. The top three:
1. CINCINNATI (22-1)
2. OHIO STATE (20-2)
3. BRADLEY (22-2)
"We're ripe for plucking," wryly predicted St. John's Coach Joe Lapchick after watching his Redmen beat Manhattan 80-63 and NYU hold off Temple 76-70 in New York's Madison Square Garden. Two nights later, Temple and its swift little backcourt star, Bill (Pickles) Kennedy established the veteran coach as a prophet, upset St. John's 68-63 in overtime while NYU, which meets the Redmen Thursday night, coasted past Fordham 80-60.
Navy was tapped by the NCAA after putting down Delaware 80-52, Army 69-57. Providence's Jim Hadnot filled the baskets with 29 points, helped the Friars outscore Holy Cross 80-68 for the first time in 19 years. St. Bonaventure's Tom Stith scored 69 points as the Bonnies beat Duquesne 76-70, Niagara 89-80.
Princeton, lightly regarded a month ago, was sitting proudly, if tentatively, in the driver's seat in the Ivy League. The Tigers got there by beating Harvard 76-67 and Dartmouth 77-67, pushing the Indians into second place with Cornell, which eliminated Brown 73-62 and drubbed Yale 76-59. The top three:
1. ST. JOHN'S (17-6)
2. NYU (17-3)
3. ST. BONAVENTURE (17-3)
Firmly entrenched in the Southwest Conference cellar a year ago, Texas has now emerged as the team to beat for the title. And there isn't much chance that the galloping Longhorns will be corralled. While the tall, quick boys from Austin, led by Albert Almanza, were polishing off Baylor 68-62, SMU threw Texas A&M into a panic with a smothering full-court press, beat the Aggies 81-53. Then, both SMU and Texas A&M stumbled badly. Baylor's slowdown upset the Mustangs 68-61; Texas Tech, with Del Ray Mounts scoring 33 points, downed A&M 68-61. Meanwhile, Texas shoved aside Arkansas 71-57 to lead by a full game. The top three:
1. TEXAS (17-5)
2. SMU (16-6)
3. TEXAS A&M (17-5)