It was 8 o'clock Sunday morning in Lubbock, Texas, the morning after Texas Western upset Kansas in double overtime to win the Midwest Regional, and Don Haskins, the winning coach, was propped up in bed in Room 410 of the Eldorado Motel reading the Lubbock Sunday Avalanche-Journal. He had eaten a hamburger after the game, it had not agreed with him and he had not slept very well. The fact that his team had won two overtime games on successive nights, Haskins allowed, might also have been a contributing factor to the insomnia. But mostly, Haskins maintained, it was just the bad burger.
It is safe to assume, time zones aside, that at about this hour, in Durham, N.C., Iowa City, Iowa and Los Angeles, three other coaches were also stirring uneasily. It had been a mighty long season, starting with the players running cross-country in the fall, and now here it was March 13 and in all the land there were only three coaches besides Don Haskins, reading the Sunday paper in the Eldorado Motel, who had teams that could still win the championship.
There was Vic Bubas, home with his wife and three girls in Durham, N.C. His Duke team had just beaten St. Joseph's and Syracuse over in Raleigh to reach the NCAA finals for the third time in four years. Bubas is from Gary, Ind., a redheaded Yankee who has built a basketball dynasty at Duke and who has himself become the father image of organization and planning in his sport.
There was Adolph Rupp in Iowa City, ready to return to Lexington, Ky., where he is truly The Baron, the most famous basketball coach in history, the only man ever to coach four national champions. Kentucky had beaten Dayton and Michigan, and now, at age 64, The Baron only needed two more victories for his fifth title.
There was Jack Gardner, The Fox, in Los Angeles. His Utah team had just whipped Pacific and Oregon State, despite the fact that Gardner had lost his first-string center with a broken leg. Utah is the only school ever to win the NCAA, the NIT and the AAU back when the last-named tournament meant something. Gardner himself has won 551 games.
It is almost always the topflight coaches like these who get their teams to the finals. And it is certain that on this Sunday morning as they awoke, their first thoughts were of the games coming up on Friday night in College Park, Md. They eagerly anticipated the return of their scouts from the other regionals, laden with the precious raw material of X's and O's. The season had gone too far, and the stakes were too high, to leave anything to chance.
The phone rang in Room 410 at the Eldorado Motel, and Haskins picked it up to talk to a sportswriter. He discussed the game played the night before and his experience with the bum hamburger. Then he was asked about Texas Western's next game. Had he seen Utah play?" "Hey look," Haskins replied. "You can help me about that. Is that the way it works? Do we play Utah next?"
There is something awfully charming about such naiveté, even if it does not paint a perfectly accurate picture. Haskins is no country-cousin innocent to the basketball wars. He traveled the land to recruit his Texas Western team that is now 26-1. And he, too, has established a dynasty out there in El Paso, putting together a 106-26 record since he arrived five years ago to build a team around Jim (Bad News) Barnes. Even compared to the efficiency experts at Duke, Kentucky and Utah, he and Texas Western have come a long way.
They remain factors to be reckoned with at College Park. The Miners, superbly coached and tough, should get to the finals, past Utah, and should have an easier time doing it than the team that survives the Duke-Kentucky game. If Duke's rebounding carries the Blue Devils past Kentucky, Texas Western must be given a chance to win it all. The Miners can neutralize the Duke board strength, and their steady style will restrict Duke's running game. Duke has done poorly when forced to settle down and set up patterns.
The edge should be with Kentucky, however, if it is a Wildcat-Miner final—and that is what appears most likely. Kentucky has the speed and shooting to break the rugged Miners. "We get our toughest games from the smaller, quick teams," Haskins admits. "We'd much rather come up against a taller team that's a little bit slower than we are."
Whatever the result, it should be a close final, as nearly all the tournament games have been thus far. Not only did Texas Western win the Midwest by a total of three points (and in three overtimes), but Kentucky had to come from behind in the second half of both its games. Duke had to do that once and hung on for the other victory by a basket.
Strangely, it was Utah, probably the weakest team at College Park, that had the easiest time in the regionals. But the way Utah's Jerry Chambers shot in L.A. (73 points in the two games) and the way the Redskins rebounded make it impossible to disregard them completely. However, without a regular center they must face Western's David Lattin, who is 6 feet 7 and the best unknown ballplayer in the country.
Lattin anchors a team that is the nation's roughest. Forward Nevil (Shadow) Shed got booted out of the Cincinnati game for busting a beautiful right jab on Don Rolfes's chin. Opponents do not drive on Texas Western. They have to red dog. The Miners do not pick. They pick and shovel. And the mere presence of Lattin would be enough to intimidate most teams. He has the stark, forbidding scowl of the vintage Liston, plus smooth, agile movements that belie his size. "He is the only man," Haskins says plainly enough, "who ever made Jim Barnes cower...yes, cower."
Over the regular season Big Daddy D, as they call Lattin, averaged only 13.2 points and 8.2 rebounds, but the three tournament games so far have spurred him to much stronger performances. Last Monday, in the preliminary round against Oklahoma City, Lattin came up against James (Weasel) Ware, a center who had attracted some pro scouts to the game. Big Daddy D outscored Ware 20-10 and outrebounded him 15-12. He played poorly on defense against Cincinnati but made 29 points. Then, against Kansas, he outrebounded All-America Walt Wesley 17-15. Wesley had 24 points to Lattin's 15, but Wesley was a poor 9-for-23 from the floor in the face of Lattin's (and sometimes Shed's) aggressive guarding.
Willie Cager, playing for the banished Shed, was mainly responsible for the overtime victory over Cincinnati, and then got the final go-ahead basket in the second extra session against Kansas. But it is 5-foot-9 Bobby Joe Hill who is the star of an otherwise undistinguished Miner attack. Hill, shy personally but downright cocky as a player, is virtually impossible to stop on a drive.
All seven of the Texas Western regulars are Negroes, hardly a startling fact nowadays but one that becomes noteworthy because of the likely meeting with Kentucky or Duke. Both those teams are all-white. It is unfortunate—but it is a fact—that some Ethniks, both white and Negro, already are, referring to the prospective national final as not just a game but a contest for racial honors. More than anything else, however, all four finalists demonstrate that their players are brothers under their recruited skins. Except for Lattin, who is from Houston, the Texas Westerners are from Gary, Ind., Detroit and New York. The Duke Southerners are from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Montana. Kentucky does have two homebreds, but the rest of the starting five is from Indiana and New York. Utah's gunners were found in San Diego, Denver and Savannah, and high-scorer Chambers will be playing before the home-town folks, since he comes from Washington, D.C.
All four contenders are also distinguished by average overall size, with Duke the tallest at 6 feet 4, Kentucky the smallest at a bit over 6 feet 3. The figures are somewhat misleading, however, as the Wildcats have a much shorter front line than the others and, if they are eliminated, it is likely that this will be the reason. Kentucky is still the smoothest and most precise of the finalists; it has had to be to offset weakness on the boards. The Wildcats managed to win the Mideast though outrebounded by both Dayton and Michigan.
To help counter this disadvantage, Kentucky had to work out of a zone defense, first to try to stop 6-foot-11 Henry Finkel of Dayton and then for the Michigan game—the one that ended Cazzie Russell's magnificent college career. Now this zone, a 1-3-1, is not, of course, a zone at all, according to Adolph Rupp. He prefers to say "trap defense," in conversation—until he forgets himself.
Kentucky will need the zone-trap this weekend, particularly if 6-foot-5 sophomore Center Thad Jaracz has trouble containing Mike Lewis of Duke or Big Daddy D, as he did with Finkel. Essentially, it is a matter of Rupp figuring out how to keep those two big boys in check. How well he figures will decide whether or not he gets his fifth title.
It will not be an easy task. The little Wildcats were banged about pretty hard this past weekend. Larry Conley, the skinny 6-foot-3 forward, struggled out of the shower long after the Michigan game ended. There were cuts and bruises all over him. Rupp came in to ask why he was taking so long. "Coach," Conley said, "you'll be lucky to even get me back to Kentucky." But Rupp got him back there, and he'll have him in College Park. Somehow the old man has gotten the Wildcats this far, and every other time he has gotten them this far Kentucky has won.