After Houston defeated UCLA last January in the Astrodome, establishing that the Bruins were less than immortal after all, Lew Alcindor sat dejectedly in his dressing-room cubicle, slowly shaking his fist. "Never again, never again," he said. It was about the only dramatic thing he had done on a night that belonged completely to Houston's Elvin Hayes.
Since then the conjecture has been that these two teams and their rival demigods, Big Lew and Big E, would meet again in the semifinal round of the NCAA tournament at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles. The way the draw is set up (opposite) they cannot meet in the finals and, of course, they must shove and elbow their way past some fine teams even to reach the semis, but a rematch does seem inevitable. Then the Bruins will be playing in their home town and in an arena thoroughly familiar to them. UCLA practically owns the Los Angeles Classic, which is staged in the Sports Arena, and not so long ago played all its home games there. The ushers know Hail to the Hills of Westwood by heart. Easily 90% of the 10,000 tickets already sold to the public went to people in the southern California area, most of whom will do all in their lungpower to reverse that decision under the Dome.
"I don't visualize any problem with the crowd," said Houston Coach Guy Lewis. "When you're going for the national championship, you aren't going to let the crowd bother you. I'm more worried about UCLA."
He should be. The Bruins seem to be hungrier and more aggressive since the Houston loss. Alcindor, who shot poorly under the Dome because of a scratched eyeball suffered in an earlier game and was sluggish from the attendant layoff, is "devastating" again, according to California Coach Rene Herrerias. "Lew is the greatest I've ever seen, just fantastic," he said after Alcindor made 11 of 15 shots in the first half of a recent game against the Bears.
Except for Lew's return to form, UCLA's offense has not changed much, but John Wooden has made the trap zone an important part of his defense. Now when Alcindor clears the board the zone enables UCLA's wingmen to take off more quickly on Wooden's pet fast breaks. Edgar Lacey's quitting has not appeared to hurt appreciably; Mike Lynn is a better shooter, Jim Nielsen has more brawn and everybody gets to play more, boosting morale.
Houston is also missing a man. Guard George Reynolds, a slick passer and all-court hustler, is ineligible for NCAA competition because he did not have enough credits when he transferred to Houston from a California junior college. "He meant a great deal to our offense," says Lewis. "He was leading the team in assists, in fact. But I think my son Vern will be able to replace George on defense all right."
Before UCLA starts worrying about how to stop Elvin, however, it must worry about the state of New Mexico. In the West Regional this weekend in Albuquerque, the Bruins are likely to be playing New Mexico State and New Mexico on successive nights—each time before close to 15,000 cactus-country basketball fans. The UNM Arena is mostly underground; it is called "The Pit" by students, "The Snakepit" by visitors. Against Purdue and Houston in similar circumstances, UCLA did not do so well.
New Mexico State made it to the Friday night game by beating Big Sky champion Weber State last weekend 68-57, and that was the Aggies' first NCAA tournament victory in six tries. They have piled up a 22-5 record since almost upsetting Houston in last year's playoffs, but the red, white and blue "Go Aggies" bumper stickers, the Aggie press and their outstanding sophomore from Syracuse, Jimmy Collins, should not be enough to upset UCLA. State is quick, but it is also inexperienced and tends to get in foul trouble.
New Mexico, which finished first in the Western Athletic Conference after being picked to finish next to last—if it were to finish at all—has lost Greg Howard, its top rebounder and third best scorer. He is ineligible because of the same kind of JC-transfer rule that eliminated Reynolds of Houston. The Lobos still have 6'8" Center Ron Sanford, who knows all about Alcindor from their prep days in New York City, and leading scorer Ron Nelson. New Mexico has never played a single NCAA tournament game, but with the home-court advantage it should not be embarrassed.
"This is the greatest-working group of kids I've ever coached," said New Mexico's Bob King. "They have guts, poise and just great effort."
Friday night against Santa Clara, the champion of the West Coast Athletic Conference, the Lobos probably will win without Howard. Santa Clara plays deliberate, set-'em-up ball, trying to feed sophomore Center Dennis (Tree) Awtrey. Tough Forward Bud Ogden plays every game as if he were battling demons. With him around, even if the Broncos lose a game, there's still a good chance they'll win the fight that follows. Santa Clara is a good, young team, but it did not clinch its league title until the last weekend of the regular season and it seems too much to ask for the Broncos to beat New Mexico in the Lobos' own den.
Against UCLA, the Lobos will have the same problems that frustrate every team except Houston—lack of size, skill and experience to counter all that Bruin talent. Even with a Niagara of numbing noise bouncing off the flat ceiling and crashing down to the court just 56 feet below (including the contributions of the 490 standing spectators allowed by the Albuquerque fire department), UCLA should get by.
Houston has an even scarier route to the semifinals. The zigzag trail started last Saturday in Salt Lake City, where the Cougars disposed of independent Loyola of Chicago 94-76. (The Big E scored 49 points and his career in pro basketball seems more promising every day.) The next stop is Wichita, where Friday night they have to face Louisville, winner of the Missouri Valley Conference. This might be the best game in all the regionals.
The Louisville Cardinals, this year nicknamed the Cardiac Cards because of their close games, won their last 12 in a row after a poor start. They have two fine guards, Fred Holden and Butch Beard, and Mike Grosso, a 6'9", 230-pound transfer from South Carolina, is at last eligible and reasonably healthy, although his injured knee must be drained almost daily. But the important man, the guy his teammates refer to as T.P. (Top Player), is Westley Unseld, a star of only slightly less magnitude than Hayes and Alcindor.
Louisville even has a play called T.P.—which is, essentially, to give the ball to Unseld, clear out of his way in a hurry and watch as he either turns and puts in a jump shot or improvises some tricky way to twirl around his opponent and score on a layup. He is a bulky young man (235 pounds and just below 6'7", despite school publicity that describes him as taller), and when he charges to the basket it is as if an ox had suddenly reared up on its hind legs and tried the boogaloo.
The Cardinals have adjusted to new Coach John Dromo and his multiple defenses and pattern offense, but Grosso will have to be ready to help Unseld on the boards if they are to win. Dromo is looking forward to everything but the wardrobe war. "I don't want to have to spend the money that Guy Lewis will on his dress," he said. "He can get the finest sport jackets I ever saw. Outside of competing with him on clothes, the boys and I are happy to be playing Houston. We think we have a great team. I would pay to see Unseld against Hayes."
The Houston-Louisville winner will play the survivor of the Kansas State-Texas Christian game (probably K-State) for the Midwest Regional title. K-State's strength is its zone defense, and neither Houston nor Louisville attacks a zone particularly well. As a Midwestern coach said, "Strange things can happen to a superior team up against a good zone." Still, the Cougars or the Cards should have the patience and the talent to overcome the coaching maneuvers of K-State's Tex Winter, who won the Big Eight this season when he should not have come close.
The best-balanced regional will be in Raleigh where North Carolina, after winning the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, plays undefeated St. Bonaventure and Columbia plays Davidson. Any one of these teams could make it to the final game in L.A.
The Bonnies did not play nearly as demanding a schedule as North Carolina, but their win over Boston College last weekend in Rhode Island gave them a big boost. Sophomore Center Bob Lanier is strong, fairly quick, graceful and perhaps the best rebounder east of Elvin. He promises to give Carolina's Rusty Clark a bad time.
The key to the game will be how the dexterous Bonnie guards, Jim Satalin and Billy Kalbaugh, handle Carolina's half-court pressure defense, the Tar Heels' most potent weapon. Dick Grubar, who held North Carolina State's Eddie Biedenbach to five points in the ACC title game, will be nose to nose with Kalbaugh, an old high school rival from upstate New York. The St. Bonaventure guards must get the ball inside to Lanier and sharp-shooting Forward Bill Butler, but they have not been pressured all year by a team of Carolina's caliber.
North Carolina does not shoot well outside, so the Bonnies' zone could give it trouble. Grubar will have to hit from the zone perimeter and All-America Larry Miller and Charlie Scott will have to fight their way in closer to score. If Lanier can be held somewhat in check, Carolina should move on to meet the Columbia-Davidson winner.
The Tar Heels probably hope it will be Columbia because their in-state rival, tiny Davidson, has been aching for a long time to get a shot at the big state school and would be fired up enough to tear the whole city of Raleigh apart. Davidson is uncommonly deep Coach Lefty Driesell can go to his bench and send in last year's leading scorer, 6'9" Rodney Knowles, He may start Knowles to counteract the Lions" 7-footer Dave Newmark, but he also has 6'6" Doug Cook and 6'7" Mike Maloy to play in the key. "Davidson has almost as much material as UCLA," says West Virginia's Bucky Waters.
Columbia was most impressive in beating Princeton in the Ivy playoff and manhandling La Salle 83-69 last weekend. Newmark's injured ankle still is not completely healed, but his mere presence in the lineup seems to help. And the Lions have two of the finest sophomores in the nation, Forward Jim McMillian and Guard Heyward Dotson, plus Roger Walaszek, a fine driver and the leading scorer last year. Columbia's lack of speed probably won't matter because Davidson is such a deliberate team. The edge probably should go to the Wildcats because of their deeper bench, overall height advantage and the fact that they will be playing in their home state.
North Carolina can be beaten at Raleigh by any of the other three teams, but if the Tar Heels maintain the defense that has carried them all season and continue to camouflage their shooting deficiencies, they will make it into the semifinals for the second straight year.
SEC champion Kentucky will have a nice advantage in the Mideast Regional. The games will be played right there in Lexington where Adolph Rupp has been winning and winning almost since the sport was invented. This season the Wildcats, starting three exceptional sophomores, won 12 games at home without a loss. Besides, Kentucky appears to have the best team of the four, a typical smooth-functioning Rupp machine.
Friday night Kentucky plays Marquette, which barely sneaked past Bowling Green to reach Lexington. Despite an impressive early-season win at St. John's, Marquette lost two of its last three regular-season games and does not have much height, although 6'2" George Thompson can leap with practically anybody up to 6'8". The fact that Coach Al McGuire wants to quit and move to the new NBA franchise in Milwaukee (the school is refusing to let him go) might well affect the team.
In the other Mideast game the Ohio Valley's East Tennessee plays the winner of this week's Big Ten playoff, Iowa or Ohio State Ohio State has a big, strong front line, Iowa has superb Sam Williams and East Tennessee has Harley Swift, but none of the three seems capable of stopping Kentucky.
No matter which teams battle their way out of the regionals in Raleigh and Lexington, the game everyone eagerly awaits at Los Angeles is Houston-UCLA, and the Cougars are blissfully confident they can win again. "We've improved I don't know how much since the UCLA game," says Elvin Hayes, seldom bashful about speaking his mind. "They couldn't play us as close now as they did then. If we played 'em again, we'd beat 'em worse, and it couldn't matter if it. was on their own floor."
As for the Bruins, they say they are grimly determined but not vengeful. "Revenge is something I don't harbor," says Wooden. "I believe if I don't harbor it, my boys don't harbor it.
Just the same, UCLA should avenge its defeat by beating Houston this time and going on to win its fourth collegiate championship in five years.
The cry in the Sports Arena will be: "Remember the Astrodome!"
1968 NCAA Title Draw
ST. BONAVENTURE March 9 Kingston, R.I. BOSTON COLLEGE
LA SALLE March 9 College Park, Md. COLUMBIA
DAVIDSON March 9 College Park, Md. ST. JOHN'S
NORTH CAROLINA March 15 Raleigh, N.C. ST. BONAVENTURE
COLUMBIA March 15 Raleigh, N.C. DAVIDSON
March 16 Raleigh. N.C
BOWLING GREEN March 9 Kent, Ohio MARQUETTE
EAST TENNESSEE March 9 Kent, Ohio FLORIDA STATE
KENTUCKY March 15 Lexington, Ky. MARQUETTE
EAST TENNESSEE March 15 Lexington, Ky. BIG TEN CHAMPION
March 16 Lexington, Ky.
HOUSTON March 9 Salt Lake City LOYOLA OF CHICAGO
LOUISVILLE March 15 Wichita, Kans. HOUSTON
TCU March 15 Wichita, Kans. KANSAS STATE
March 16 Wichita, Kans
WEBER STATE March 9 Salt Lake City NEW MEXICO STATE
UCLA March 15 Albuquerque NEW MEXICO STATE
NEW MEXICO March 15 Albuquerque SANTA CLARA
March 16 Albuquerque
SEMIFINALS March 22 Los Angeles
SEMIFINALS March 22 Los Angeles
FINALS March 23 Los Angeles