The NCAA is throwing a California Easter party this weekend and there is no guest of honor. For the first time since Helen Gurley Brown was a cheerleader, the final round of the national championship shapes up as a basketball tournament instead of a UCLA prom. Any one of the four finalists—Kentucky, Louisville, Syracuse or UCLA—could end up as King of the Hoop.
So, even if you are positive you know how the festivities in San Diego will wind up, don't bet the unemployment check on it. These finals are not only the most evenly matched since John Wooden invented the dry clean and zone press, they are spiced with the ingredients of which melodrama is made. We are assured of two semi-final subplots: an upstart in blue against another in orange, and the old master matched with his prize student. The finals could be even more gripping, particularly if Kentucky and Louisville face off in a vengeful, all-hillbilly feud.
Though the Wildcats and the Orangemen hardly figured to be in San Diego when the season began, there are no cardboard entries in the finals. UCLA has long experience in epic games; Louisville is as deep as Atlantis; Kentucky has more quick shooters than a Western; and gutty Syracuse has fate—not to mention a hawking defense—going for it.
One thread ran throughout last week's regional playoffs. Each of the winning teams had a communal style. There were no Bill Waltons or David Thompsons to dominate the scene in Providence, Dayton, Las Cruces, N. Mex. and Portland, Ore. One day the heroes were named Trgovich, Bridgeman, Lee and Phillips. The next they were Johnson, Bond, Hackett and Flynn.
Once-timid Kentucky became the tournament Cinderella and proved it no longer plays in glass slippers by going muscle to muscle with No. 1 Indiana in the Mideast and coming away bruised, battered and beautiful. The Wildcats ended the Hoosiers' 34-game win streak 92-90 and ruined Indiana's championship dreams. The Cats now face Eastern winner Syracuse, which played Beat The Clock against both heavily favored North Carolina and surprising Kansas State and won 78-76 and 95-87.
In the other semifinal, UCLA's Wooden will match blackboards with his former assistant, Louisville's Denny Crum. The Cardinals had wandered aimlessly most of the year, but they found a home in the Midwest Regional, decimating Cincinnati 78-63 and Maryland 96-82. And UCLA played perhaps its finest game of the season against Arizona State to win the West tournament 89-75, after playing one of its worst in defeating Montana 67-64.
In some ways the coastal regionals were mere bookends for the tournaments in the Mideast and Midwest. There the teams were both highly rated and evenly matched, especially in Dayton, where emotion throbbed like a cheerleader's pulse. Indiana and Kentucky may be neighbors but they definitely are not neighborly. Earlier in the year Indiana bombed the Wildcats by 24 points in a game replete with controversy. Kentucky Coach Joe Hall was embarrassed, especially by the well-publicized rap on the' head given him by Indiana Coach Bobby Knight. "All I want is another chance to play them," Hall said. "Knight personally humiliated me, and I'll never forget it."
Kentucky also never forgot the lesson it learned from the Hoosiers. After that loss the Wildcats became a pugnacious team. The turnaround was most obvious at center, where Indiana's Kent Benson had intimidated UK freshman Rick Robey. "I found out a lot from Benson," said Robey in Dayton. "I learned not to give a lot of little cheap shots but to save up for one big one."
Hall poured more gasoline on the Indiana-Kentucky fire by predicting Oregon State would beat Indiana in the Mideast's first round, but it was Kentucky that almost was burned. The Wildcats finally solved Central Michigan's pressing defense, hit 14 of their last 16 shots and ran away to a 90-73 victory as their other freshman center, Mike Phillips, came off the bench to amass 15 points and seven rebounds.
Then the Kentucky coaches retired to the press table where they scouted Indiana against Oregon State. By halftime Indiana had a 21-point lead and Hall ordered his impressionable team back to the motel. "Maybe we think down deep that we can't beat them," said Kentucky's aggressive Mike Flynn (see cover) contemplating Indiana's eventual 81-71 victory. "I don't think we do. We've improved a lot since that first game."
Kentucky's strategy against the Hoosiers was the antithesis of Indiana's measured game plan. Hall told his players to run and shoot. "If you miss the first five, take five more," he said. Flynn, who scored 22 points to go along with an excellent floor game, Jimmy Dan Conner (17 points) and Kevin Grevey (17 points) used ammunition as if the game were being played at the O.K. Corral. Robey, Phillips, Bob Guyette and Danny Hall played bump and grunt with Benson, who was magnificent—33 points and 23 rebounds—but no longer intimidating. And freshman Jack Givens led a wave of reserves that came off the bench to wear down Indiana.
Even the refs played a part in the Wildcat game plan. During a critical late stretch, they called several fouls on Indiana for setting illegal picks that helped propel Kentucky into a 10-point lead with 4:02 remaining. But the game and emotions were far from played out. The Hoosiers struggled to within two points before Kentucky finally managed to run out the final seconds.
Afterward the tone was conciliatory. Knight congratulated Hall and praised the Kentucky effort. The winners followed his lead. "Benson came up to me, crying and everything, and said he hoped we went all the way," said Robey. "It takes a man to do that. He gave his blows and I gave mine, but we're not enemies."
Louisville's fans have maintained all season that the Cardinals needed some strong enemies to snap them out of their lethargy. Since the NBA already was booked, the Cards had to wait until last week to show what they could do.
Louisville blasted through the strongest and best-balanced regional, using the methodical attack of a woman knitting socks. Knit one, purl two, then hit the open jump shot.
Earlier in the season, Cincinnati's young team had lost to the Cardinals by only eight points, and the Bearcats had matured to win 16 straight games thereafter. But Louisville's patience took them right out of the game. The Cards, led by Junior Bridgeman on his way to a 20-point game, coolly built a 17-point lead in the first half and refused to rattle when Cincinnati closed to within nine in the second period. As usual, everybody on the bench played except the trainer.
Meanwhile, Maryland was manhandling Notre Dame. Terp freshman Brad Davis' hurry-up offense wrecked the Irish. When Davis was not scoring, he was drawing the defense to him and passing off for easy baskets. "We can't let Davis get that penetration," said Louisville Guard Phillip Bond. "If I can guard him without anybody helping me out, we should be able to control them." Bond came through, scoring a career-high 23 points, holding Davis to eight and keeping Louisville together in the early going when Bridgeman and Allen Murphy were playing like Frick and Frack.
Everybody was ready to take UCLA's temperature after the Bruins' performance against Montana in the opening round in the West. UCLA survived by only three points to prove conclusively that it can win even when it does not play well. Not surprisingly, Wooden decided it was time for a talk. "I told them we were in sudden death now and that we had to show some real intensity," he said. "The only fierce competitor on the team is David Meyers. The rest of them are all kind persons."
More important than the lecture was Wooden's decision to excuse sophomore Forward Marques Johnson from running in practice. Johnson suffered a hepatitis attack last fall and has been slow to regain his strength. He showed up in fine fettle indeed for the Western title game against Arizona State.
The Sun Devils had made the finals by defeating Nevada-Las Vegas 84-81. Against UCLA, Arizona State planned to put pressure on the ball. The strategy went awry when the Sun Devils slipped into early foul trouble and were forced to play three guards against the Bruins' inside game. ASU's lack of height became doubly critical because Johnson was playing so well. The soph scored 20 points as the Bruins plowed to a 46-36 first-half lead. "We were ready to play," said Johnson, who finished with 35 points and 12 rebounds as UCLA won the way it used to—laughing. Asked to explain the team's uneven performances, Guard Pete Trgovich, who scored nine of UCLA's last 12 points to save the Montana game, responded, "We don't respect some teams enough."
Respect has no place in Syracuse's game plan. The Orangemen came to the East Regional with a 21-7 record, but they beat North Carolina and Kansas State in the final seconds, which suggests that they might be more than lucky.
Guard Jim Lee hit a jump shot with five seconds left that sent North Carolina home, despite the Tar Heels' 65% field-goal shooting. Then Forward Rudy Hackett scored at the buzzer to force the final game against Kansas State into overtime. Given a reprieve, Syracuse got off death row with some solid shooting in the extra period.
But against Kentucky, Syracuse might be out of its league as well as out of rabbits and top hats. The Wildcats have jelled. They start four seniors and freshman Robey, and backup centers Phillips and Hall and Forward Jack Givens, all freshmen, have been quick to jump off the bench and play older.
The Syracuse center is Earnie Seibert, a 6'9", 230-pound sophomore. "I'm not in favor of the 30-second clock," cracks Coach Roy Danforth. "I don't know if Earnie can get from one end of the floor to the other in that time. But you know, somebody up there likes us." Nonetheless, Kentucky should defeat Syracuse and march into the finals for the first time since 1966.
Despite its shallow bench, UCLA has a fearsome nucleus, headed by Meyers, Johnson and Richard Washington. Wooden has taken to referring to Trgovich and Andre McCarter as "my much maligned guards," but in recent weeks they have not deserved the description. UCLA's most serious problem is Meyers' physical condition. He has 31 different flavors of leg injuries, and if he is sidelined the Bruins will be in trouble. "I've been taking a beating this year," the Spider Man says. "The referees don't like me. Guys hit me and nothing gets called."
Louisville's sweep through the Midwest was even more remarkable since its best athlete, Wesley Cox, was hobbled with a hamstring pull. He made a couple of cameo appearances against Cincinnati, but then, with a little help from the team doctor, he scored 15 points and had nine rebounds in the final against Maryland. "He played with a lot of pain and a lot of pain-killer," said Crum.
The Cardinals attack in the same way the Marines used to take beaches. Crum sends in waves of reserves and they are good ones. His most experienced guard is senior Terry Howard, a two-year starter who now is a second-or third-stringer. But Howard picked up the slack when Cincinnati made a slight run at the Cards and he has not missed a free throw all season.
Louisville has similar strength at the other positions: Ricky Gallon supports Bill Bunton in the middle, Danny Brown fills out the backcourt and Ike Whitfield supplies help at forward. The starting five should be listed with the Missing Persons Bureau. Allen Murphy, Bridgeman, Bunton, Cox and Bond are the best unpublicized players in the country.
Crum played at UCLA and was Wooden's assistant for three years. In one celebrated incident during the NCAA finals in Houston in 1971, they squabbled on the bench, ostensibly over strategy. But the real reason for the argument was that Wooden was miffed because Crum had failed to give him a ride to the arena. The Wizard had had to walk.
The rivalry between Crum and Wooden will seem tame should Louisville and Kentucky meet in the finals. Four years ago when the current Wildcat seniors were billed as top bananas, Crum claimed his freshmen were better. Now the teams may get a chance to prove who was right. "It would shut up a lot of mouths," is the way Murphy put it. Bond says the game would rank in importance with the Kentucky Derby.
At any rate, the tournament will be a horse race. And not one of the entrants is a long shot.