Everything we do," says Michigan Basketball Coach Dave Strack (above), "is keyed on Cazzie Russell." And what Michigan has managed to do so far this season is win 22, lose four and get to the semifinal round of the NCAA tournament in Kansas City. There it will meet Duke, and everything it does in that game depends on the doubtful state of Cazzie Russell's ankle (opposite).
The coach of the Duke team, Vic Bubas, is a man who allows himself no doubts at all. He is a vigorously positive thinker who will not touch uncomplimentary mail with a 10-foot letter opener. Occasionally, however, a subversive note gets through his guard, like the recent series of postcards from a room-and-board man at a nearby state mental institution. The man pointed out to Vic the blunders he was making with the Duke team, the team Bubas says—without a doubt—is of championship quality. Last week, before the NCAA regional at Raleigh, the man closed his serial essay with a final postcard, saying, "O.K., Bubas, I've got you this far. Now you're on your own."
On his own and doing fine, thank you, Bubas and his Blue Devils swept through the tournament at Raleigh without missing a step. Hack Tison, the 6-foot-10 forward and highest stepper of all, leaped two rows into the stands on the final exhilarating night—Duke 101, Connecticut 54—to wrest the game ball from an opportunistic fan and later declared he was playing with "a great team, man, a great team." Duke Captain Jeff Mullins was endorsed as a player who could do no wrong, and could do right like no other player. "Going to Kansas City," No. 1 tune on the Duke locker-room hit parade for some time, twirled redundantly on the phonograph. It was suddenly quite clear that it is not postcard insanity to believe that the Blue Devils are of national-championship quality.
In the way of proving it, they are going to Kansas City this weekend along with the two best teams in the nation by popular vote: UCLA, still undefeated after 28 games and several miracle escapes, and Michigan, still the toughest bully on any block. The fourth qualifier after regional eliminations is the only one that did not figure: Kansas State.
None of the four has ever won a national championship, and only Duke made it this far last year. UCLA appeared as a semifinalist in 1962, Kansas State in 1958 and Michigan would rather not discuss it. (Michigan basketball was formerly underprivileged.) The Wolverines, nevertheless, have unequivocal credits this year: they knocked off defending champion Loyola 84-80 in the regionals at Minneapolis last week, and Duke will remember them from December when they crushed the Blue Devils 83-67 at Ann Arbor. Should Michigan repeat over Duke in Friday night's first game and UCLA repeat its 78-75 December triumph over Kansas State, form will have been served and UCLA will play Michigan for the championship on Saturday. UCLA can then do away with any doubts about its 18-point victory over Michigan in December and satisfy the wish of Coach Strack, who says he has just been dying for a rematch.
But man cannot live on form charts alone, else he lose his shirt and get heartburn when the Loyolas of the world rise up and beat the favored Cincinnatis, as they did at Louisville last year. Duke is not the same medium-soft touch it was in December. Bubas has long quit experimenting with his lineup, and Mullins, smoother of execution than a man has a right to be and still be mostly gristle, looks now like the best college player in the country, all abilities considered.
Normally this would make Duke just that much more appetizing for Michigan's carnivores, except for the factor of jazzy Cazzie Russell's damaged right ankle and heel. Jammed in February when he collided with teammate Bob Cantrell, Russell's ankle is swollen and aching (there are bone chips and torn ligaments) and has responded to ice packs and to Cazzie's "few prayers" only reluctantly. He plays at two-thirds capacity. Cazzie Russell at two-thirds capacity is still better than most (he has only been averaging 25 points a game since the accident), but he cannot cut nearly as sharply and he is not rebounding as well.
In the dressing room after Michigan's 69-57 victory over Ohio in the regional final at Minneapolis, Russell sat studying the tape on his injured member. "Man, I wanted to jump," he said, "and I wanted to run, but I couldn't. I couldn't even get tired. I can usually lose my man—you know, throw a fake, then disappear. But now I throw a fake and my man is still hounding me. And on defense. Oh, man, it's embarrassing. You know, I'm not the best defensive player when I'm healthy, but now...."
Michigan power is still a big, bold item, however, and it was in ample evidence at Minneapolis, where the Mideast Regional had a glittering field, including Loyola and Kentucky—and inexplicably attracted fewer people than the state high school tournament in the same arena three days before.
Michigan Center Bill Buntin terrorized defending champion Loyola. At one point Loyola's Ron Miller drove for a shot and Buntin slammed it down his throat. Loyola's Les Hunter got the rebound, put it up and Buntin slammed it down his throat. Miller got it again and Larry Tregoning slammed it away.
Michigan muscled up on the backboards like a mob on a fire escape and thus stymied the Loyola fast break. Guard Bob Cantrell, born to be a mustard plaster, went everywhere with Loyola playmaker Jack Egan except to the men's room, and though Russell, subdued in the low post, scored only four points, Michigan led 43-36 at half time. When Loyola threatened in the second half, Coach Strack switched to a zone defense and Michigan held on—barely.
Ohio, meanwhile, caught Kentucky looking toward Kansas City, and routed Adolph Rupp's team 85-69. Rupp's 1-3-1 zone was shattered in the first half by excellent Ohio ball handling, and All-America Cotton Nash was embarrassingly boxed out for the entire game.
Russell came back to score 25 as Michigan beat Ohio in the final but, ominously, strongman Buntin was held to 15 by 6-foot-4 Don Hilt, and Tregoning and Oliver Darden got only nine points between them. Strack fidgeted so much on the Michigan bench that he arrived in the dressing room with a huge hole in his pants. He was unabashed. "There is no limit to the number of pants I am willing to sacrifice to get the championship," he said.
Duke's only real competition at Raleigh was Villanova, and the magnificent Mullins took care of Villanova in 20 minutes. "Pressure!" called Villanova Coach Jack Kraft to his Wildcats, for that is their game, but it was Mullins who answered back. He made 18 of Duke's first 30 points. He stole the ball six times for easy layups ("I didn't believe anybody could do that to us," said Kraft), held Villanova high scorer Richie Moore to eight points, wound up with 43 points himself and Duke won 87-73. Mullins made baskets from everywhere but the mezzanine, and as a concession to a dream of every sandlotter in the place, banked in a two-hander from midcourt at the half-time buzzer.
For Duke the next night it was Connecticut, a team coached by Bubas' assistant from last year, Fred Shabel. Shabel is a great admirer of Bubas. Bubas is a great admirer of going to Kansas City. "There is just one team in our way," he told the Blue Devils. "It doesn't matter who's the coach." So Mullins scored 30 and Duke won by 47.
Duke will start a taller front line than Michigan in Kansas City. Tison, in fact, was touted as a 7-footer as a freshman, "but developed a 7-footer's complex," says a Duke man, "and went around slumping. So we measured him down to 6 feet 10." But neither the ebullient Tison nor Buckley has the raw power of the Michigan front line. Mullins, at 6 feet 4, is Duke's best rebounder.
Duke is more experienced and is familiar with the pressure it will find waiting in Kansas City, and these things will matter. Duke also handles the ball better and its guards arc better outside shooters. This will not matter if Russell is 100% Cazzie.
Bubas admits to a tactical error the first time Duke played Michigan. He ordered a slowdown. Michigan tore down the slowdown. "We ran and hid," says Bubas. "But not this time. This time we come out swinging."
Everybody has been swinging at UCLA for some time now, but the fate of those who do is predictable because UCLA always swings back. In the Far West Regional at Corvallis, the Bruins of Coach John Wooden pressed from the opening buzzer and won over Seattle 95-90. It was hardly one-sided, but it was typical UCLA—a lot of hands, hustle and Walt Hazzard, who scored 26 points.
UCLA had more trouble the next night against San Francisco, which was riding a 19-game winning streak. The Dons slowed the tempo, controlled the ball and as UCLA's shots trickled off the rim San Francisco twice pushed to 13-point leads. The Dons have 6-foot-8 Ollie Johnson, and helpers at 6 feet 6, 6 feet 7 and 6 feet 8, and in their deep shadows men grow pale when they are men of UCLA's size (the Bruins' largest is Fred Slaughter, 6 feet 5). Wooden was undisturbed. "We'll be all right as soon as our shots start dropping," he said.
Sure enough, UCLA got all right. Hazzard scored 14 points in the last 14 minutes and UCLA won 76-72. "They're the best," said San Francisco Coach Pete Peletta.
At Wichita, Texas Western Coach Don Haskins had no trouble saying an unkind word in Kansas State's behalf. "Wichita," said Haskins after his team lost to State 64-60, "will cut Kansas State to shreds. Murrell will never be able to keep up with Stallworth."
That is the kind of talk the 10,815 fans in the huge circular arena were waiting to hear. Already they had heard Wichita Coach Ralph Miller say how Kansas State had been ducking his team all these years and State's Tex Winter say how the Missouri Valley Conference is "overrated" and vice versa.
But Wichita did not tear Kansas State to shreds. Not even a little. Winter, expectedly, used his 1-3-1 zone and forced Wichita to shoot from outside. Offensively, he countered the Wichita press with an unexpected and blazing fast break. Twice Willie Murrell drove by Dave Stallworth for easy layups, and, presto, Kansas State was ahead 46-33 at half time. Thereafter it was give and take, and State took, 94-86.
The 1-3-1 zone that choked off Wichita will not bother UCLA because Hazzard and Gail Goodrich can ruin it from outside. Too, Winter will admit his team lacks the playmaking and ball-handling abilities of UCLA. The Bruins will end Winter's winning streak at 13 straight and Tex can send his lucky brown suit to the cleaners.
A UCLA-Duke final, like a UCLA-Michigan final, would be tough little guys against big guys. Wooden was asked not long ago if he thought his team could go through undefeated. He said, "No," emphatically. Since then he has not been asked the question. But he says even now if they lost he would still be immensely proud. Duke should see to it that they do lose. Providing Cazzie Russell's prayers and ice packs do not first see to Duke.