There is an old priest's tale concerning the graduate of a certain Midwestern university who went to the big city seeking his fortune, but instead dropped out, freaked in, affected the ways of the counterculture and shuffled around mumbling "digit" a lot. About this pseudo hippie, it was prophesied that he could wear all the beads and headbands he wanted, but he would never get the Notre Dame out of him.
As college basketball's best teams dwindled down to a precious few last week, it became abundantly clear, even as the UCLA Bruins finally rid themselves of the Oregons, the Oregon States and the tenacious, terminal USC demons from their own Pacific Eight conference, that the question remained whether they, too, have got the Notre Dame out of them. Or the North Carolina State. Or, for that matter, the various puzzling performances that have marred one more otherwise brilliant season.
It was in Kansas City exactly a decade ago that the Bruins began this most awesome of dynasties, but as they have struggled this season in defense of an eighth straight championship they have taken on the personalities of more strange beings than even little Regan could muster. Is it simply a kind of Seven Year Itch? Or is it that, in this era of exorcism, some obsessive Captain Howdy is still lingering inside the men from UCLA screaming, "Take me." In either case, as the 35th grand old NCAA tournament gets underway, the fact is that somebody just might.
Before it was discovered midway through the season that Coach John Wooden was not born in a manger and that Bill Walton did not drink molten lava for breakfast after all, UCLA was a mystique as much as a team, a source of terror in the mind as well as a creator of havoc on the court. Then Notre Dame ended UCLA's 88-game winning streak, and later the two mediocre Oregon schools upset the Bruins within 19 hours. The chill was gone. Suddenly, UCLA was a gingerbread house, and the critics nibbled away.
The UCLA offense was too predictable, they said. The press was a fraud and didn't work anymore. The guards could not shoot or penetrate. The cheerleaders were pregnant. Walton was bothered by a back injury. He had become passive from transcendental meditation and weak and docile because of his vegetarian diet.
Last Saturday night, however, Mahareshi Billy came out snortin' and snarlin' and dancin' his number all over the Trojan heads, leaving little doubt that he and his mates are ready for the ultimate challenge again. In a masterful display of defense, UCLA held USC to four baskets in the first half and roared to a 47-13 margin as Walton, in full cry, had 20 points and 16 rebounds. The rest of the 82-52 contest was almost as brutal, and if it did anything besides sewing up another Pac Eight title and humiliating the crosstown rival, it was justifying the goodness of limas, carrots and okra.
"Doctors tell me animals must eat meat to be killers," Wooden said the day before the slaughter. "But not all do. Baboons go for fruit."
Wooden did not mean to imply he was running a simian operation instead of the same marvelous basketball machine everybody has come to love and hate, but he surely would like to make another monkey show out of the tournament. Still, the presence in the field of Notre Dame and North Carolina State would seem to preclude that possibility. The particular moments featuring this long-awaited ménage √† trois of a denouement—a fourth outfit undoubtedly will show up just to fill out the table—has to wait on the finals at Greensboro, March 23-25. But in the meantime there should be spirited competition this week in the four regional sites at Tucson, Tulsa, Tuscaloosa and Raleigh.
Bearing in mind that at any moment your favorite team could be kidnapped, arrested, indicted, impeached or brought before Judge Sirica, here is an analysis of what might happen along the way.
The West: Two familiar names are missing from this regional, Weber State, which failed to qualify in the Big Sky, and Long Beach State, which failed on land, sea and in the sky to get past the NCAA infractions committee. For the 49ers, who had their best team in history and the freshman of the year in Cliff Pondexter, it was a bitter pill. But they are no more saddened than the customers will be who have to witness a massacre in the desert.
As a measure of the strength here, there are three teams that lost to the likes of Western Kentucky, Seton Hall and Stetson. They should pass the hat for this crew.
The first impostor to test UCLA will be Dayton, which has already traveled 23,000 miles mostly on the scrawny shoulders of Guards Don Smith and Johnny Davis. They combined for 42 points in the Flyers' first-round victory over L.A. State while converted Guard Mike (Sly) Sylvester got another 30. In past weeks Dayton fans have chanted, "NIT! NIT!" at home games, but Coach Don Donoher opted for the big tournament, then beat Notre Dame to finish the regular season. "I may have potatoes in my head," said Donoher. During its recent doldrums, UCLA has been using more and more people—most notably the quicksilver messenger, Andre McCarter, who should be more than enough to offset Dayton's backcourt speed and get the Bruins to the winner of the San Francisco-New Mexico contest.
This is another puzzle, for early on the Dons lost five straight games and seemed to have left their hearts in Sausalito, while all New Mexico did was survive another wacky schedule in the WAC and finally win the league on a play the Lobos call the "blind-pig route."
San Francisco is a versatile and dangerous outfit, but its stars, Kevin Restani and Phil Smith, have been erratic. New Mexico, on the other hand, is more balanced and even tends to play defense in a league where, if you don't score 800 points a game, you must be a cactus.
The Lobos have had one player accused of shoplifting, another of stealing a bicycle—prompting a third to ask Coach Norm Ellenberger, "Does the probation officer come with us on the road?"—but they are a relentless group familiar with the Tucson floor. Ellenberger, a flamboyant sort, will bring his low-neckline bodyshirts and his lucky squash-blossom necklace from the Jicarilla Apache tribe, and he will probably get by San Francisco. Against the Bruins, though, the entire Apache nation might not be enough.
The East: It is not stretching a point to say that there will be three men in Raleigh who honestly have had better years than UCLA's Walton. One is Billy Knight of Pittsburgh, who is the most underrated player in college. Another is Marvin Barnes of Providence who, when he remembers not to loaf, is nearly as intimidating as the big redhead. The third, of course, is David Thompson, who—let this heresy stand—should have been voted Player of the Year both on performance and for withstanding the spectacle of Coach Norm Sloan's vibrant haberdashery while continuing to play like a genius.
Pittsburgh is a deceptive, mature bunch of opportunists who were looking forward to avenging one of three regular-season defeats, by South Carolina. Instead Furman beat the Panthers to it. Coach Joe Williams' tall Paladins, who had their own grudge to settle with the Gamecocks (Frank McGuire would not schedule them), achieved a sweet upset in the Palestra when Clyde Mayes became a rebounding fool and Furman's weak "layup defense" tightened for a 75-67 victory.
The Paladins are strong on the boards where Pitt is not, but when Knight, Mickey Martin and Lew Hill, among other Panthers, are on their game, they outsmart the enemy and make a team like Furman look bad.
The result here should be academic, however, because the key to the East is in the meeting between Barnes and Kevin Stacom of Providence and Thompson and Tom Burleson of N.C. State.
These are old friends, teammates from the World University Games who are chafing to get at each other. "We'll have our hands full," Barnes said after the Friars decked Penn. Bad Marvin is right. He has had a wondrous year in which he has carried the team above its rightful level during those times that Stacom wasn't saving the day with last-minute heroics. But it is probably asking too much of this pair to beat the Wolfpack in its lair.
For one thing, the Friars do not have a power forward, and Barnes says he will have to guard Thompson. This would leave Burleson open in the middle, where Penn's John Engles had a field day last week. Ultimately, for Providence to upset State, Barnes will have to stay down under, and Stacom must have a dazzling night while Thompson and company are suffering post-ACC letdown. The Friars are just one little Italian guard short of being able to pull it off.
The Midwest: This is the regional that came in from the cold. Originally nobody wanted it. Now nobody can win it. Transferred from New Mexico State to Wichita State to Kansas State, the games were finally put down at Oral Roberts and then—surprise!—the Titans were invited to play.
The fact is the champion here ought to mail in its scores to Greensboro. Louisville is too small. Kansas is too slow. Creighton is too white. And Oral Roberts—well, this is not a year to get the Devil ticked off.
"The Lord meant ORU to play in Tulsa," orated Oral himself after somebody up there put a hate on Syracuse and gave the Titans an 86-82 overtime win by virtue of missed Orange free throws.
Roberts had long since forced Coach Ken ("Ah'm not scientific; Ah jest want mah gahs shootin' 50 tahms a half") Trickey into resigning. Then big Guards Sudden Sam McCants and Al Boswell came through with flashy seasons, and ORU became a spectacular freak show of offense.
On the other end of the floor, though, the team is godforsaken. An equally fast opponent with discipline can get all the three-footers it wants, and that's the scenario Louisville hopes to follow.
Coach Denny Crum's Cardinals have the finest gang of flyers since the Wallendas, featuring rookie Wesley Cox, a 6'5" center, and Bill Butler, a 6'1" forward, on the high wire. Allen Murphy is Sudden Sam's equal as a shooter, and Louisville's Junior Bridgeman will be the best player on the floor. But a run 'n' gun affair might take too much out of the winners for them to recover enough for a physical tussle with, probably, Kansas.
The Jayhawks are not a lock to defeat Creighton, the tournament light-horse, which is well-coached, poised and has traveled everywhere but to the Golan Heights under the reins of Eddie Sutton. But Kansas, with pivots Danny Knight and Rick Suttle muscling inside, Norm Cook and Roger Morningstar scoring from the wings and Tom Kivisto supplying brains in backcourt, has some impressive artillery.
Speaking of which, security guards recently shot a man who threatened to bomb the Mabee Center at Oral Roberts. When the shooting stops this time, the survivor should be Kansas.
The Mideast: A lot of things could have happened in Tuscaloosa. There could have been a kind of rematch of the national football championship between Alabama and Notre Dame. There could have been a rematch of the national bad-taste-and-obscene-finger-gestures championship between Marquette and Wisconsin. But what is here is simply the best regional of the four—again.
Vanderbilt is in to prove that just because its team looks exactly like the recent Kentucky fives does not mean it will collapse the way the Wildcats did. Marquette is in to prove it can find a more absurd way to collapse than the way it usually does. Notre Dame is in the curious position of possibly facing four teams it has already defeated (Indiana, Marquette, Kansas, UCLA) in order to win the championship. And the Big Ten just barely struggled in after a playoff between Michigan and Indiana.
The Fighting Irish, whose inside-out-side Jersey punch of John Shumate and Gary Brokaw helped to destroy Austin Peay and Fly (Air Ball) Williams, would be the favorite over either Big Ten representative. But the problems they pose are not the same.
Indiana at heart is a disciplined unit of windup students who got in trouble late in the season when they began to scatter and run. Against Notre Dame, the Hoosiers would be better served by Quinn Buckner slowing the tempo, Kent Benson posting up and Bobby Knight barking cadence from the bench.
Michigan, on the other hand, cannot go slow. The Wolverines are the year's biggest surprise as Campy Russell blossomed into a leader and freshman Steve Grote brought stability. But Michigan cannot cope on the backboards, and they would meet the end of the road against the fearsome inside tandem of Shumate and Adrian Dantley.
Unpredictable Marquette which, Al McGuire says, has been "dynamite, then sandpaper," stands a better chance against Notre Dame. A tired Warrior team lost by six to the Irish at South Bend, but rejuvenated Maurice Lucas is working well now underneath with Bo Ellis while Earl (Gosling) Tatum swings everywhere else. And there is always the scratch-your-eyes-out defense.
It is no foregone conclusion that Marquette will advance past Vandy. The Commodores stumbled down the stretch, but they are a finesse aggregation that shoots well, does not foul much and at any time can turn Jan van Breda Kolff loose to shock the competition.
Nonetheless, Notre Dame is prepared for future shock. This is a team that has gone against the toughest schedule of all and won seven games by six points or less; it is blessed with ability at every position. After UCLA won 94-75, Digger Phelps vowed to the Irish, "Get me to Greensboro, and I'll find a way to beat UCLA. I promise you."
UCLA's Wooden is not unaware of the emotionalism inherent in a rubber match. "I really want Notre Dame," he said before USC. And he clenched his fist as he said it.
Both sides are neglecting one barrier to such a meeting. Since East meets West in the NCAA's restructured alignment, North Carolina State would get UCLA first. The Wolfpack would be on home soil playing before more than 15,000 screaming partisans for whom this sport is a gut-wrenching passion play. This time they would be ready.
"I was too high for the first one," David Thompson says of the meeting in which UCLA riddled State 84-66. "I started badly, then just shot to get my touch back." It never came. Hounded by Keith Wilkes, David missed 13 of 20 shots and, even though the UCLA players were astounded at his ability, he considered himself a washout.
This is a different Wolfpack. The weaknesses have been shored up by experience. North Carolina State is deeper than Notre Dame and more versatile than UCLA. Over and above its rivals, the Pack has something left to prove. And it still has Thompson.
"I couldn't believe what the dude was able to do," UCLA's Tommy Curtis said the other day. "It would be a thrill to walk on the floor again with David."
It would be a privilege, too, for a team to have its dynasty ended by him.