All year long the tedious refrain had echoed across the country, spoken over and over by a thousand basketball coaches—each time with an air of discovery. "Lew Alcindor puts his pants on one leg at a time." Now there were only 15 speakers: the optimists directing the remaining teams in the NCAA basketball tournament, all of them silly enough to think they can beat Lew Alcindor and UCLA. Imagine beating UCLA! Why, you have to go all the way crosstown in Los Angeles to find people who can do things like that.
Actually, crosstown came to UCLA last Saturday night in the guise of the University of Southern California, a school that is always good in everything but basketball. The meek (15-11) Trojans, who just the night before had lost in double overtime to the Bruins, froze the pants off UCLA and Alcindor—both legs at once—and beat them in the final Pacific Eight game of the year. The upset ended a home-court winning streak at 85 and was only the fourth defeat for an Alcindor team in eight years of high school and college. UCLA and its agile 7'1½" center are still favorites to win their third straight championship—something no school has ever done—but never underestimate the power of a cliché. Lew Alcindor's britches may have shrunk a little. If they have, the 1969 tournament will become one of the most exciting since the whole thing started back in 1939.
Right now college basketball could use a spate of hard, clean competition, if for no other reason than to blow away the nasty odors from the regular college season, which was enriched by such events as All-America Spencer Haywood hitting a referee, Texas A & M fans working over a Baylor player while he was lying on the floor and the president of Morehead State University stalking onto the court to berate an official. Brave partisans in Philadelphia's Palestra have thrown cans of beer and a whiskey bottle, bananas have been thrown in Colorado State's arena, turkey eggs at Texas Tech and ice cubes at Mississippi State. Most of the fighting, of course, has been among the players, but the Cal and Stanford pep bands had a free-for-all, and even two mascots, students costumed as St. Joseph's Hawk and Villanova's Wildcat, went at it, Mr. Wildcat using his tail as a whip.
The NCAA semifinals and finals will be March 20 and 22 in Louisville, the same town where a spectator known as Big Cigar joined in a January player brawl and was justly rewarded with broken glasses and a bruised nose. Hopefully, all concerned will keep their fists and tails to themselves this time and Alcindor can play his last games as a collegian in relative peace before being offered the commissionership, his own franchise and keys to the vault by one or the other of the pro leagues.
The tournament format has been changed slightly. This week's regional games (see chart, right) will be held Thursday night and Saturday afternoon to accommodate television and the coaches, who wanted a day off to prepare their squads. The schedule next week in Louisville's Freedom Hall will be the same.
The championship game most likely will be between UCLA and North Carolina for the second straight year, although the tall Tar Heels must fight (and we do not mean that literally) their way through the toughest of the four regional (Duquesne, Davidson and St. John's) and then beat the Mideast champion, probably Purdue but maybe Kentucky. UCLA must get by New Mexico State and once-beaten Santa Clara, no cinch, but the West Regional is in the Bruins' own Pauley Pavilion, which, now that the pressure of a 41-game winning streak is off the team, should again become the redoubt it has always been.
If Kentucky gets into the final game against UCLA the Bruins will face an additional hazard, because the folks in Louisville love Baron Adolph Rupp and will be screaming their pickled-in-bourbon tonsils out for his Wildcats. There is further drama in a Kentucky-UCLA pairing: both UCLA Coach John Wooden and Rupp are aiming for a record fifth national championship.
"I'll be very honest about it," says Rupp. "I don't think we have the bench to go all the way in the NCAA. Our bench is practically all sophomore and we'll just have to go into the tournament with our five starters and two reserves, and in a national tournament that just isn't enough bench."
Yet in 1958 a lightly regarded Kentucky team made it to Louisville, and in the finals faced a hero almost as devastating as Alcindor, Elgin Baylor of Seattle. Baylor got in foul trouble early and Rupp's Fiddlin' Five won.
The Wildcats have to ease by Marquette and Purdue at Madison to get back to the bluegrass. Marquette, which trounced Murray State by 20 points to earn the shot at Kentucky, has the advantage of playing in its home state (although Coach Al McGuire's best players are from New York City). The Warriors have no starter taller than 6'5", but they are such great leapers that Kentucky Center Dan Issel will have a battle on the boards anyway. He should win, as he has been doing all year, perhaps because he is so scary to look at without his front teeth. Running around the gym as an eighth-grader, he tripped over his own big feet and fell flat on his face. He does not trip anymore, and Guard Mike Casey, who was the team hotshot when they were both freshmen and sophomores, unselfishly feeds Issel and still gets plenty of points himself.
Purdue, the Big Ten champion, will be more difficult than Marquette. The Boilermakers were invited to the tournament 29 years ago and turned it down, only to see runner-up Indiana win. Now, with perhaps the nation's best shooter in Rick Mount and a strong supporting cast, they intend to make up for almost three decades of self-deprivation. Purdue does not play particularly good defense—Kentucky plays less—but it has quickness and can press effectively, especially when Herm Gilliam is after the man with the ball. Gilliam is the best all-round player on the team and has had a chance to rest his injured ankle the last three games.
Purdue is very deep. In the run-and-gun battle that is sure to develop if it beats Miami of Ohio and goes up against Kentucky, Coach George King will be able to send in four centers in waves against Issel. None of them figures to stop Ol' Toothless, but Kentucky probably will not be able to stop Mount, either, so the score could end up 200-195. If you believe that stuff about Rupp's bench, Purdue should have the edge.
North Carolina, in its third straight NCAA tourney, plays in a strong conference and must be immune to nervousness by now, no matter what team it meets. Many people think the Tar Heels have the best chance against UCLA because they have height to surround Alcindor and can play a stalling game, which in politer circles is known as a "four-corner offense." But they have to reach Louisville first. A serious problem could be the left knee, swollen to grapefruit size, of expert defensive Guard Dick Grubar. Coach Dean Smith has some quick little guards to replace him on defense but no backcourt man who scores as well.
Olympian Charlie Scott, a 6'5" junior, is no problem. Supporting the Black Students Movement at Chapel Hill, despite a lot of critical mail, has not distracted him from his court duties: scoring and using his quick hands to good advantage in Carolina's switching, trapping, pressuring man-for-man defense. Just as effective has been the tall and talented front line: 6'10" Rusty Clark, 6'8" Bill Bunting and 6'10" Lee Dedmon, a sophomore substitute. North Carolina should beat its Thursday opponent, Duquesne, which is tall and muscular, with three 6'9" starters, but no match for the Tar Heels in speed and tournament experience.
Davidson or St. John's, whichever survives their Thursday meeting, will be a different matter. Davidson has been waiting for this one since losing to North Carolina by four points in last year's regional at Raleigh. The Wildcats' Mike Maloy, a junior to match Scott, murdered Villanova in a preliminary tournament game Saturday and is extremely quick for a man 6'7". Doug Cook helps him with the rebounding and Dave Moser and Jerry Kroll hit well from outside. This is Coach Lefty Driesell's best team in nine years at Davidson and might be the one finally to break out of the East and get into the final four.
Davidson and St. John's met at Charlotte earlier this season and the quick, hot-shooting Redmen from New York won in overtime on Bill Paultz's basket at the buzzer. "Both teams are real tough," says Villanova's Howard Porter, who has played against both. "Davidson is stronger inside, but St. John's has the balance, the great shooters."
Great shooters is right, notably John Warren and Joe DePre. The latter can zip past practically anybody if he gets them in a one-on-one situation, which he often did as the Redmen defeated Ivy champion Princeton on Saturday. They gave UCLA a good battle in Madison Square Garden in the Holiday Festival and let it be known they preferred the NCAA to the NIT this year because they wanted another crack at the Bruins. St. John's beat both Davidson and Carolina this season, but its two-point win over the Tar Heels came the night after Villanova had softened up the Southerners in a tough game. It seems too much for St. John's to beat both teams again in a three-day span.
If it comes to Davidson versus North Carolina, Mike Maloy might dash and dart around the bigger Tar Heels and score 30 points or so, but Moser will have his hands full getting the ball up-court to Maloy and Coach Smith can always unleash Scott.
At Manhattan, Kans., Colorado and Colorado State—who did not deign to play each other during the regular season—will meet to decide some local issues but probably not much else, since neither is of championship caliber. Colorado has a terrific sophomore, 6'8" Cliff Meely, who can score and rebound, and a snappy little guard, Gordon Tope, who drives around the Boulder campus in a jeep that comes equipped with a 200-pound St. Bernard, but the Buffaloes are a year or two away from challenging for the top. State built most of its record at home in Fort Collins and was only 5-5 on the road. Colorado should win and move into the Saturday game against the survivor of Texas A&M's contest with the Missouri Valley champ, either Louisville or Drake.
Not since SMU 13 years ago has a Southwest Conference team become one of the final four, and the Aggies probably are not going to change that pattern. Louisville or Drake should beat A&M and Colorado and move on to Freedom Hall, there to be a stepping stone for UCLA, despite the presence of a whizbang guard, Willie McCarter, on Drake and the excellent things Louisville Coach John Dromo has done with a team that was not supposed to go far.
For New Mexico State this is the second year in a row it has earned the privilege, if that is the word, of playing UCLA on the first night of the West Regional. Two years ago its first tourney foe was Houston and Elvin Hayes. Yet, the Aggies do not lack for confidence. They beat WAC co-champion Brigham Young on Saturday, and when USC's upset of UCLA was announced one fan said, "Heck, why didn't they wait and let us do it."
Santa Clara must open with Weber State, and the Broncos—looking beyond to UCLA—might be caught by surprise. Weber has good size, quickness and fine shooting from its guards. If Santa Clara is fired up, and it seems the Ogden brothers at forwards and 6'9" Center Dennis Awtrey, one of the least known of the nation's better players, always are, the Broncos should win it. If they do, the rebound battle, Bud and Ralph Ogden and Awtrey versus Alcindor and all his helpers, should be fun to watch, and even more interesting will be seeing how well Santa Clara's guards can harass UCLA's. The two teams met in the regional last year and Santa Clara got run out of the gym at Albuquerque. It ought to be closer this time.
There were more than 70,000 applications for tickets to the Louisville games and now that UCLA has stumbled once and proven itself fallible, the NCAA probably could sell twice that many seats. The fact is that not only at St. John's but at a lot of other places in the country there is a strong belief that this year's edition of the Bruins is not bound in the same rich leather of the older ones, even if Alcindor is a year older and presumably a year stronger and wiser. Before the loss to USC, UCLA already had played two difficult games against Washington, a mediocre team with a fine coach, Tex Winter, who insisted all season the Bruins could be beaten and was finally proved correct.
"Patience is the first requirement," he said before last weekend. "You can't play a definite delay game, but you must work for the high-percentage shot and pass up those tempting perimeter shots John Wooden's teams have always given you. You must force UCLA to play defense as long as possible.
"One good, quick guard is needed to get the ball upcourt and control the tempo of the game. If the Bruins have a weakness this year it is the inability of the guards to apply proper pressure. Defensively, because the Bruins have too many good shooters, I think a pressure defense, man-for-man, all over the court, is the answer. You must press three-quarter court and force the forwards and the big guy out to help get the ball upcourt. Once the Bruins get in their offensive set you must go to a specially concocted defense to help out against Lew. You must gamble somewhere. I say play tight on Lynn Shackelford and John Vallely and give the other forward and guard the outside shot, using your defensive men to sag back on Lew.
"Under no circumstances do you get into a running game with UCLA. I don't think there is a college team in the nation capable of running with them."
Coaches like Dick Garibaldi at Santa Clara, Rupp at Kentucky and Smith at North Carolina no doubt have already reached such conclusions themselves, but they probably figure that their real problem is USC's triumph. The upset may have taken away UCLA's worry of carrying on the winning streak, just as the loss to Houston last year had a pressure-relieving effect on the team before the playoffs.
These Uclans are quite a bit different from the national championship teams of '67 and '68. They shoot better—going into this last weekend sophomores Curtis Rowe (6'6") and Sidney Wicks (6'8") and Alcindor were the leading percentage shooters in the Pacific Eight, and Shackelford and Vallely, letting fly from greater distances, were not far behind—but they guard less now that Mike Warren and Lucius Allen have gone. Still, with their rebounding, speed, depth, the winning streak off their backs, a smart man on the bench and Lew Alcindor, who stands on two awfully long legs under the basket, the Bruins are anything but bearish. They should win.
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