This is the season for disaster movies with happy endings, but even fire marshal Steve McQueen would not have enough hoses, asbestos raincoats or Smokey The Bears to put out the University of Louisville's version of The Towering Inferno. When it gets down to the closing scenes, the rangy Cardinals invariably burn their opponents.
Louisville's second-half blaze again was raging in Freedom Hall last week, singeing the field in the Citizen's Fidelity Holiday Classic, which was a hometown basketball tournament sponsored by a bank, not a Christmas party for patriots. In the last halves of tournament games against Western Kentucky and Florida State the Cards averaged 51.5 points, shot 53%, outrebounded the opposition 60-37 and looked like a team with a thirst for first. The victories ran their record to 7-0 and suggested that maybe half good is not half bad.
In the tournament final against a boyish Florida State team that is going to grow into something big as soon as it gains experience, Louisville got rid of the yawns with about four minutes to go and scored 12 straight points to win 79-61. Until then its intent had been as difficult to divine as the lyrics of a rock opera. On the playgrounds they call it "half-steppin'," and the vexing style is symptomatic of Louisville's play this year. Part of the malaise can be traced to platoon substitution and an early-season itinerary that emulated Magellan's. The Cards have already played and won at Houston, Dayton, Florida State and Marquette. If anybody has trod a tougher road, come out, come out, wherever you are.
About 2001, when The Godfather Part XX is being shown on wrist TV and moonshiners are piloting rocket ships with baby shoes hanging from the heat shields, Louisville fans still might be ruminating over this stack of Cards. Their play has been like romance. When it's good, it's fantastic. When it's bad, it's still good.
When the good times roll, they add up to quite an affair. The Cards have a child coach in 37-year-old Denny Crum, a 17-year-old infant center, three or four guys who play rhythm guitar on the scoreboard and the mark of a truly great team: a sensitive superstar who at any moment is liable to take a vow of silence and become a vegetarian Zen mystic with bad knees and a hyphenated name. Naturally all pro scouts worth their pocket tape recorders showed up at Freedom Hall to lie to each other, chart the tournament and put ciphers in their secret-agent codebooks.
The Cardinals were not the only attraction at the tournament. Purdue was ranked in the Top 20, Florida State will be and Western Kentucky had a band of Captain Marvel leapers who moved as fast as well-struck tennis balls. A lot of people were interested in what Crum would say. The Louisville coach has a penchant for honesty and a contempt for tradition that make him sort of a cross between Lenny Bruce and Earl Butz. Critics say he has to open his mouth to tie his shoes, but anytime a man wins 80% of his games he can afford to be candid.
Florida State immediately showed what it could do by defeating Purdue 69-66 in the first round. The Seminoles went to the finals of the 1972 NCAA tournament, but all they have to show for it is the nefarious tag of outlaw. Since then, they have been the objects of calumny and contempt, and people have been circulating the canard that their student-athletes think Ben Franklin discovered electricity when his kite hit a power line. The facts are that Florida State has been 18-8 each of the last two seasons and largely ignored in the polls. The Seminoles have their share of bookworms and, under the tutelage of Coach Hugh Durham, play a disciplined style that was in vogue back when the cream in your coffee came from cows.
"It didn't come as any shock to us that we beat Purdue," said Durham. Carlton Byrd, a 5'8", 140-pound hummingbird, hit four pressure free throws at the end, and the combination of Wayne Smalls' defense and a bad ankle forced Purdue's floor leader Bruce Parkinson into a sour game. The Boilermakers had 11 days off before the tournament and found that they could not play on the 12th day of Christmas.
Western Kentucky was faced with the task of meeting Louisville in the other opening-round game. Coach Jim Richards tried a variety of gimmick defenses and a fast break that left spectators with sprained necks, but even if it had Gloria Swanson on its side Western would not have had enough wrinkles to beat Louisville. The Hilltoppers went to the pits at halftime to change tires and refuel, but they soon found out they were the ones being gassed. The Cardinals scored 58 points in the final 20 minutes and exited laughing by a 107-81 score, although their starters averaged only 20 minutes of playing time.
Part of Louisville's undulating play could be traced to Crum's free substitution. The starters have been on the floor for only 25 minutes a game as the coach has worked in a cast of extras large enough to put on a Hollywood epic. And it is a canon that Crum's teams specialize in languid performances during non-conference play. "We could be winless right now and still take the NCAA title," he says with a shrug. "We've got a lot of offense we haven't even put in and a lot of other stuff that's going to help us later in the year. We're going to get better. If we were worried about our non-conference record we wouldn't play the teams we do on the road."
The victory over Western was almost overshadowed by the continuing saga of Wesley Cox. Louisville's sophomore controversy. Cox was burned several times early in the first half by the Hill-toppers' fast break and was yanked. Back in the game just before halftime, he made a couple of mental errors, and Crum angrily shouted at him from the bench. Cox snapped back, "Take me out." He sat on the bench the entire second half, boycotting the team huddles. Later Crum insisted that Cox had twisted his ankle in practice a few days earlier and could not run at full speed, but there were suspicions of more serious problems, since Cox' reticence and shy, soft manner have been interpreted as moodiness. "I don't read what is written about me," he said contritely the next day. "I know what the coaches are telling me is right."
Hugh Durham spent the hours before the final game back at the motel where he had his team secluded about 15 miles from Freedom Hall. He railed about the lack of credit State was receiving for its win over Purdue, construed it as evidence that his players are not given recognition because they are not what he called "hot-shots" and talked strategy with his father Sam. Durham grew up in the Louisville suburb of Lyndon and attended Florida State, where he was in the same fraternity as Burt Reynolds. Durham is a fierce competitor who plays racquetball and badminton well enough to enter the state championships, and he was hoping that his team's badgering defense would be strong enough to stop Louisville. Two weeks earlier, Florida State made the Cards nervous in Tallahassee before the visitors managed an 84-75 victory. You can tell when the Cards are nervous. They don't yawn as loudly.
Naturally the Cardinals looked sluggish in the first half against the Seminoles. Crum played 10 different men, and FSU's Larry Warren, who shoots jump shots both right-and left-handed, hit a couple from outside Big Bertha's range to help hold Louisville to a 34-32 half-time lead.
Senior Bill Bunton has been all but convicted of child abuse by eager Cardinal fans because he is keeping freshman Center Ricky Gallon, who is barely old enough to have a driver's license, out of the starting lineup. But Bunton's rebounding and defense had ensured the Louisville lead by steadily forcing Florida State's game to the outside.
Allen Murphy, who scored 44 points in the two games and was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player, and Junior Bridgeman each scored a pair of baskets to start the second half, and the Cardinals crept ahead. Bridgeman is a psychology major, which brings up the question: Won't everyone shrink from an analyst named Junior? They probably won't if they are basketball fans, more than a few of whom have already had their heads turned by him. He was the MVP in the Missouri Valley Conference last year, and against Florida State made seven of eight shots and scored 18 points in 26 minutes.
Still, his team needed help from that long bench. Louisville slipped into foul trouble and four starters were out of service for much of the last half. The score was 67-61 with 4:29 left when Bridgeman, Murphy and Bunton returned, joined two minutes later by Cox. Then, with freshman Guard Rick Wilson getting loose for two fast-break baskets and a couple of assists by virtue of confusion in the Florida State secondary, Louisville outscored the Seminoles 12-0, and the game became history. "Talent beats you, and they're loaded with it," said Durham. He sounded burned up.