Not many rival coaches are going to get teary-eyed about it, but this has been a trying season for UCLA's John Wooden. Opening at his alma mater, Purdue, he saw his defending national champion Bruins almost get upset by a so-so team having a very good night. Lew Alcindor suffered a scratched eyeball in the first game with California. and shortly afterward Houston beat UCLA in the Astrodome spectacular. Then Forward Edgar Lacey quit the team (he is now playing AAU ball for a potato-chip company). And Houston, not UCLA, finished on top of the wire-service polls. Still, there are a few things to be salvaged from this season. The Bruins have won 14 straight since their Dome defeat, and Friday night, in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament, they get another chance at the Texans.
The NCAA cast at Los Angeles is practically the same as it was at Louisville in 1967: UCLA vs. Houston and North Carolina vs. a sleeper from the state of Ohio. Last year Dayton sneaked in the back door and made it past Carolina to the finals. Now Ohio State has climbed the tournament ladder and squeezed through an upstairs window.
A couple of weeks ago the Buckeyes themselves thought they were all through. Iowa, with a half-game lead in the Big Ten race, had only to beat Michigan at home to clinch the championship and move on to the Mideast Regional. Ohio State Captain Bill Hosket bought a ticket for the regional games, fully expecting to be a spectator. But Iowa lost, and Ohio State won the subsequent playoff on a neutral court.
No matter. The regional was in Lexington, and home team Kentucky, the SEC champ, just does not lose basketball games in Lexington. Not with Adolph Rupp sitting there. Furthermore, these particular Buckeyes were certainly not reincarnations of the super Ohio State athletes of the early '60s—Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Mel Nowell et al.—who won one NCAA title and finished second twice. In fact, a scout for one of their opponents who saw them play Georgia Tech earlier in the season said, "I thought then I'd like to make my living playing them."
Now he is not so sure. Ohio State beat East Tennessee last Friday night in a so-what game while Kentucky was impressively mashing Marquette. Al McGuire, the Marquette coach, had attempted to stir up his outmanned team by jousting verbally with Rupp at a Thursday night banquet, but the guy who got stirred up was Kentucky Center Dan Issel. He beat Marquette's center badly.
Issel probably should have saved some energy for the following night. While he wilted repeatedly between rest periods on the bench, Ohio State whipped Kentucky in nearly every category, including points. The game was close all the way and the Wildcats had a one-point lead with 28 seconds left, but they erred by not fouling in order to gain possession. Ohio State would have been allowed one free throw, so Kentucky would only have risked having the game tied in exchange for a chance at the last shot. Instead, Ohio State got it. A member of State's tall, muscular front line, 6'7" Dave Sorenson, hit a five-foot fall-away jumper with three seconds left to win the game 82-81 and send himself and his teammates on an unexpected trip to the Coast.
There, in the Sports Arena, the Buckeyes will battle Carolina for the right to play the Houston-UCLA winner in the final. They threw their coach, Fred Taylor, in the shower after the Kentucky victory, but Fred likely will have a quiet, nonceremonial bath at his hotel after the Carolina game. The Tar Heels learned their lesson last year from Dayton. "Now it's us against the Cinderellas again." said Coach Dean Smith. "Cinderella Dayton took us out last year when we were looking ahead. We'll be ready this time."
Carolina is a veteran, tournament-toughened team. The Tar Heels beat Oregon State in the Far West Classic in Portland, scraped through the annual Atlantic Coast Conference playoffs, easily took undefeated St. Bonaventure and then state rival Davidson in the East Regional. The Bonnies were the flop of the tournament (a good, young Columbia team annihilated them in the consolation game), but Davidson stayed with North Carolina right to the end, even without one of its best players, sophomore Doug Cook, who was injured. "I'm not but 35 years old and I'm going to be up there someday soon," said Davidson's Lefty Driesell afterward. "I've got most of these boys back and some of them may be with me when we win this whole thing."
Right now, however, North Carolina is up there, led by All-America Larry Miller. Everyone knew Miller was a fine clutch player, but the surprise for the Tar Heels at Raleigh was Center Rusty Clark, who had 22 points and 17 rebounds against Davidson and did a good defensive job on St. Bonaventure's Bob Lanier. Carolina should get by Ohio State, most likely by using its half-court pressure defense to harass the Buckeye guards, who are not in a class with the front line of Hosket, Sorenson and Steve Howell.
North Carolina, like Ohio State, has a proud basketball tradition, and the players bitterly remember being run off the floor twice last year at Louisville, while their fans, with admirable sportsmanship but depressing effect, yelled, "We're No. 4, we're No. 4!" Miller especially embarrassed himself last year, making only five of 20 shots in each game. "I am going to have a good game the first night," he said, "and then we'll worry about UCLA or Houston. Last year we came out of the ACC tournament, played sloppily in the Easterns and felt lucky to even be in the final four. Then everybody said we didn't have a chance to beat UCLA and we just kept thinking about that. Dayton made us look terrible. This time nobody knows if UCLA is going to win against Houston. I don't know either. But the winner of that game is bound to have a letdown the second night. We may be in there to see just what happens."
North Carolina's opponent should be UCLA, seeking its fourth NCAA championship in five years on what used to be its home floor. The Bruins won the West Regional at Albuquerque, but they looked flat in a 58-49 victory over slow-it-up New Mexico State and didn't have much competition from Santa Clara, leading by 17 points at half time and winning by 21. UCLA was no doubt looking forward to Houston.
There will be no drastic style changes by Wooden (after all, UCLA lost by only two points and shot badly in the Dome game), although he mischievously brought up the possibility of a Bruin stall. "I prefer to run," he said, smiling, "but let's not rule it out. Let's give Houston something to think about anyway."
Without leg irons or an anchor, UCLA probably is not going to be able to hold down Elvin Hayes. One team did limit him to 12 points, but that was with a slowdown game. However, Houston's best passer, George Reynolds, is ineligible for the tournament, and his replacement, Vern Lewis, the coach's son, does not penetrate defenses nearly as well, nor will he be able to get the ball to Hayes as often. And considering the way Center Ken Spain shot against Louisville (four for 15), Alcindor should be able to drop off him and help against Elvin or the Cougars' other jump shooter, Theodis Lee.
Next to keeping Elvin's point total below his 41-a-game average so far in the tournament, UCLA's biggest defensive worry is screening Houston off the boards, not allowing the second, third and fourth shots often managed by Hayes, Spain and Lee. But there is no reason to think the Bruins will be less effective at this than they were in the Dome, when they limited Spain and Lee to one field goal apiece.
Houston, of course, has a few defensive headaches, too—mainly, how to stop a healthy Alcindor, who made 15 of 21 shots from the floor against New Mexico State and Santa Clara. If the Cougars again collapse on Lew, it is unlikely that Forward Lynn Shackelford will be as cold as he was in Houston. And Mike Warren and Lucius Allen have proved their ability to hit from outside against a Houston-style zone defense.
Still, Wooden believes that no team wins by outside shooting alone. Alcindor will be maneuvering for the close-in shots that he seldom misses (since his eye trouble cleared up, anyway). Once he puts in a few little hooks and short jumpers, the other four will start cutting through the zone, as it sags, for layups and quick pops. Allen is superb at this.
Critics of Houston, perhaps dismayed at the idea of a Texas team winning the NCAA title for the second time in three years (Texas at El Paso won in 1966), make snide remarks about the quality of the Cougars" opposition. It is true that in squashing such teams as Sacramento State, Lamar Tech and-Centenary (twice), Houston played a schedule that did not rate among the hundred toughest in the country. But few good teams were willing to play the independent Cougars, and those that dared—Marshall, Brigham Young, Marquette—were beaten just like the Lamar Techs, although not quite as easily.
The latest quality victim, Missouri Valley champion Louisville, was taken apart 91-75 last Friday night in the Midwest Regional at Wichita. The Cardinals had won their last 12 games and had good height and shooting and All-America Westley Unseld. Fans who came from the bourbon and horse country, accustomed to photo finishes, brought along Cardiac Cardinals Survival Kits full of candy pills ("for game-time jitters"). Aspirin would have been more practical. The Cards were held scoreless for more than six minutes of the first half and the Cougars dominated the backboards—and the game.
"I've never seen a team hit the offensive boards the way they do," said Louisville Coach John Dromo, "and I never want to see another one unless it's my own."
The Cougars played a 1-3-1 zone, with Elvin underneath to block shots and pull down practically every defensive rebound and 6'5" Guard Don Chaney at the top of the key, using his sideline-to-sideline wingspread to force at least 13 Louisville turnovers. He has a knack of reaching around opponents and knocking the ball away with arms that belong on a seven-footer. The zone kept the middle too clogged up for Unseld to operate efficiently, but against UCLA it may not work; because of his height, Alcindor has another dimension available to him. As for Chaney, it is doubtful that he will cause UCLA's Warren and Allen as much grief as he caused Louisville's guards.
Hayes had a marvelous night against Louisville, scoring 35 points and taking 24 rebounds (two more than Unseld). The next night, against TCU, he had 39 points and 25 rebounds, prompting Coach Johnny Swaim to say, "Of all the players I have ever seen, he ranks at the top. He is a panther." Though he probably can, Elvin does not make tricky-moves to the basket. He does not have to. He is 6'8"-plus and a deadly shooter, so he just gets good position, takes a pass, turns, and flips a fallaway jumper. Only a perfectly timed leap by somebody like Alcindor will block his shot.
"I am a more settled player than I was last year at Louisville, when Alcindor forced me out of my normal game," said Hayes. "I won't be forced out of it this time even though I know Alcindor will be much stronger physically than he was at Houston."
As interesting as the Hayes-Alcindor duel promises to be, hearing what Elvin has to say afterward will be almost as entertaining. He has a cocky, refreshing and sometimes shocking way of blurting out whatever observations happen to fast-break through his mind. At the NCAA tournament last year he said his teammates had choked. Last week he predicted that if Houston and UCLA reached the semis again, he and his friends would win by a bigger margin than in the Astrodome.
One morning recently the Wheaties people were entertaining a group of basketball All-Americas at a breakfast in Minneapolis. Sitting with Hayes were Unseld of Louisville, Pete Maravich of LSU and a company official sporting a Wheaties emblem on his blazer. A waitress came around to take orders.
"Kellogg's Corn Flakes," said Elvin.
Everyone laughed. Somebody will laugh at his UCLA game prediction, too—afterward.