March snows are bitter. A blizzard in November is met with a stoic shrug, but late spring flurries carve frowns. This is best understood by the college basketball coaches still clutching their chalkboards as was obvious when the NCAA tournament began last week. Defeat is different now, because in March there ain't no sunshine when you're gone. And no practice tomorrow.
And for Indiana there seems no justice. Here is a team that has beaten everybody from Joe Palooka to Ivan the Terrible, admittedly sometimes with a prayer, but more often with a machine gun, outfighting and outthinking all comers, and yet, like Rodney What's His Name, the Hoosiers don't get no respect.
Despite an undefeated record, a couple of All-Americas, a coach who acts as if he knows all the answers, the Hoosiers' chances are only as good as campaign promises. Even Robert De Niro's taxi-cab would have trouble negotiating the road Indiana must travel, for it finds itself in a regional where its opponents have a combined won-lost record of 74-7. And two of them—Alabama and Marquette—are the kind of team you'd expect to meet in the finals. The regional is aptly named the Mideast, for there is always all sorts of trouble for the undefeated. Henry Kissinger couldn't keep the peace in Baton Rouge this week.
Adding to the drama, the survivors still dribbling at other regional sites in Greensboro, Louisville and Los Angeles include a veritable phalanx of challengers. There is undefeated yet lightly regarded Rutgers, second banana to Indiana most of the year; a man with more wins than any other active college coach, Ray Meyer of DePaul; UCLA, the defending champion, which everyone knows has a score to settle and the talent to do it; a Nevada-Las Vegas club that will set a national scoring record this season; Michigan, the team that gave Indiana its biggest scare of the year; and several others with Cinderella on their minds and title in their eyes. By the time it winds up in a Bicentennial explosion in Philadelphia next week, it will have been a tournament to remember.
March 22, 1976
Indiana peaked around the end of November when it made UCLA look like its initials were on backwards. In mid-season it struggled through a series of games with the anxiety of the lead man on a minefield sweep, but at the end the club was back on target. In the opening playoff round last week, it befuddled St. John's in an easy victory that hardly caused Coach Bobby Knight to leave his seat, much less throw it.
After Knight held a team meeting last month that extolled the virtue of positive thinking, his club came out running and left footprints, and egg, on everyone's face. The Hoosiers beat their last four Big Ten opponents by an average of 23 points and coasted to their fourth straight league title. The fast-break strategy neutralized the nettlesome zone defenses opponents had been throwing at them, and effectively hid whatever weaknesses the club has shooting from the perimeter. It proved that Indiana has the characteristic necessary to all great teams: adaptability. That defense does not hurt, either.
But the Indiana players remain enigmas. They win games with flair and then talk about them in sign language. So far as we know, not one of the Hoosiers smokes grass or eats dried fruit, or vice versa; not one dares to snap back at the coach; no one needs a haircut or wears platform shoes or drives a limousine; no one knows Totie Fields; and no one lives on the beach in Malibu. Of the 16 remaining NCAA teams, Indiana is the kid down the street who shows up every Sunday morning with shoes shined, hair slicked down and a tie pinching his neck. And the kid knows that if he does something wrong like stepping in a mud puddle, he is going to get a whippin' from his papa. This is a team that is supposed to win, and sometimes that alone can be the killer.
The club's chief challengers this week, Alabama and almost certainly Marquette, are in sharp contrast. Alabama's C. M. Newton is so low-key that it may not be a coincidence that he once coached at Transylvania. A few more victories and the NCAA will investigate his heartbeat. Marquette, meanwhile, has jivetalkin' Al McGuire, a man that even Sammy Davis Jr. could not interpret. Al likes to say he just pushes the buttons, but we all know the Warriors are well coached.
If you believe that Indiana will be too wound up to run down, then consider the cold fact that history disagrees. Unbeaten UCLA teams won the NCAA crown four times, but only two other clubs—San Francisco (1956) and North Carolina (1957)—ever entered the tournament undefeated and exited with the championship. Indiana is one that didn't. Last year the Hoosiers also were undefeated, although in the NCAA they had an excuse, specifically the cast on Scott May's broken arm.
This year Marquette figured to be the Hoosiers' major hurdle in regional play, but that was before Alabama mauled North Carolina last weekend. The Tar Heels' coach, Dean Smith, will be excused if he takes the entire Crimson Tide team with him to the Olympics, with Newton as his assistant.
Anybody named C. M. who smokes a pipe, wears brown on brown and talks with a shrug tends to go unnoticed. So let's look at what he has done. Newton has taken a club that was the crumbs on the Southeastern Conference's dinner table and won 22 games each of the last four regular seasons. He is a disciple of Adolph Rupp, having played for him and coached in Lexington. "There's a lot of Rupp in me," he admits. Both in meticulous organization and results. The Crimson Tide has won or shared the league title three straight years and lost only 13 games over that span. "We can line up with anyone in the country," says Newton. He has a big team that plays bigger and, better yet, plays quick. At the end of the regular season the Tide shed the "choke" label that has hung around its neck. It came from behind to win four of its last five games, and all told won 13 games in which it trailed in the final 10 minutes.
Newton uses an all-black lineup that is strong and can shoot. It relies on its inside game and a rough and raw defense. Leon Douglas thinks he is the best center in the country and was so young (17) when he started playing at 'Bama his teammates called him "Grandpa." He took Carolina's vaunted big men and did everything but pick them up, turn them upside down and shake them.
Gramps has help in the corners from 6'6" freshman Reginald King and 6'8" Rickey Brown, a player with a shot that has the feel of suede. In the backcourt, Anthony Murray has earned a reputation as the SEC's best defensive guard, and his running mate, T. R. Dunn, might be second best. Murray stayed awake all night on the eve of the Carolina game, thinking about stopping Phil Ford. "I just laid there listening to the wind," said Murray. Besides Murray, Ford was bothered by a bad ankle and scored only two points.
One final note of concern for Indiana. Baton Rouge is only a four-hour drive from the Alabama state line. LSU Coach Dale Brown has been urging the locals "to support the SEC champion" in the regional. The Hoosiers will be in hostile territory.
And then comes Marquette in the regional finals on Saturday. Probably. First Marquette has to beat Western Michigan, but one kiss from Bo Ellis or Jerome Whitehead and this prince will surely turn back into a frog. Western Michigan has a reputation as a good passing team, but Marquette will make them a passing fancy. McGuire's coaching philosophy can be summed up by recounting his instructions when the club fell behind Western Kentucky last week. "I told them to jump," said McGuire.
In a sport that is littered with coaches who act as if they want guns on their hips and bullwhips in their hands, McGuire is an anomaly. The joke is that he attends practice less than Johnny Carson appears on The Tonight Show. And he lets his players say their piece. In several games, Guard Lloyd Walton and McGuire have disagreed loudly over strategy. Says Walton, "The nice thing is, when he yells, you can yell back. He gives you that freedom. Of course, when he says shut up, I shut up. He's the boss."
Its coach's flashy rhetoric tends to obscure the fact that Marquette has won 22 straight, including late-season victories on the road at Louisville, Notre Dame and South Carolina, even though Ellis was slumping. "He's an unselfish guy, but he's not playing like the Bo of old," says Walton. It may be that everyone else is playing better. Pro scouts say the Warriors have six sure prospects, which is about par for the course. And this season marked one of the few times in recent years that McGuire did not lose a player to the bigs via the hardship draft.
At Marquette, everybody either wants to be a pro or a comedian. Kevin Byrne, the team's Sports Information Director, was asked how Ellis acquired the nickname "Secretariat of College Forwards." Replied Byrne, "Al asked him how many classes he was taking. Bo stomped his foot three times." If Ellis stomps up and down the court like the Bo of old, Marquette could be the NCAA champ. And McGuire can take his routine on the Playboy Club circuit.
Out West, Pepperdine has a center from Brazil, Las Vegas has comedienne Totie Fields setting its training table and Arizona has rugged Bob Elliott, but UCLA has something much better: its home court. Various estimates put Pauley Pavilion's worth at between 10 and 15 points. Says Pepperdine's Gary Colson, "We've got 500 seats in the rafters. They've got about 13,000."
If Pepperdine is to avoid an early return to the beachfront community of Malibu, it needs big games from 6'10" Marcos Leite and 6'6" Ollie Matson Jr. Leite was the second leading scorer in the 1972 Olympics while playing for Brazil and is shooting 70% from the floor. Matson is the son of the Pro Football Hall of Fame running back.
Unless UCLA reverts to its disconcerting habit of reading its mail, lying in the sun, thinking about Hollywood or whatever it is that bedevils the Bruins at times, it should meet Las Vegas in the West's finals. And that will be like Gary Cooper going up against John Wayne.
Guns will be smokin'. Vegas' shuttle offense should wear down Arizona, but the Rebels will have no such advantage against UCLA. The Bruins are a team that is willing to dance to the music, but most of the year the opposition has tried to waltz, not boogie. With Vegas, which has averaged 110 points and gone over 100 more than 20 times this year, the game will be basket-tennis.
UCLA finally seems to have found its identity, with freshman David Greenwood now comfortable at center and the confusion at guard straightened out. Says renowned prognosticator and TV commentator John Wooden, "They're better now than they were a year ago."
Las Vegas is counting on its valet service. The Rebels give you the dry clean and press on defense. "We'd press even if we were playing the Girl Scouts," says Coach Jerry Tarkanian.
At Greensboro, Rutgers faces the same sort of competition it has all year. The East is easily the weakest regional, with DePaul, VMI and Connecticut joining the undefeated Scarlet Knights. The others ought to stay home and watch the Mideast on television.
DePaul is the most underrated. Because the club lost eight times this year, the school's publicity staff revved up a campaign to get the Blue Demons an invitation to the NCAA, pointing out that they played 10 times against teams rated in the top 20, and won six. Sophomore Dave Corzine is one of the reasons, although sometimes he seems overinvolved with his coiffure. Early in the season Corzine fretted that fans were ridiculing his fluffy hairdo, so teammate Ron Norwood cut it for him. When Ray Meyer started coaching 529 victories ago, he never had this problem.
VMI is in the regional on a pass. It beat Tennessee in the opening round because the Vols' star, Bernard King, was sidelined with a dislocated thumb. It is one of the few times that VMI has seen a pass. Says Guard Ron Carter, "We always shoot from the outside."
No one knows anything about Connecticut except that it beat Hofstra, which no one knew anything about, either. Coach Dee Rowe relies on his team's "rat defense," big points from Guards Joey Whelton and Al Weston and a caress. "I pat 'em on the rear and give 'em love," he says. Against Rutgers, they'll need more than love. Rutgers should beat whichever club it faces in the finals, if for no other reason than that Hollis Copeland, the team's sophomore forward, is shooting well again.
Rutgers suffered through its Dog Day Afternoon last week when Princeton's Peter Molloy threw away a chance at a life of leisure on Wall Street by missing the front end of a bonus free-throw situation with four seconds left. Rutgers escaped with a one-point victory, and now should move on to Philadelphia, still unloved and chanting, "Woe is me."
Any one of four teams could come out of the Midwest at Louisville. And each of them is heavy on what they consider superstars. Michigan has Rickey Green, Notre Dame has Adrian Dantley, Missouri has Willie Smith and Texas Tech has Rick Bullock. With the exception of Dantley, none of them had good games in the opening round. Dantley never has a bad game.
On sentiment, pick Notre Dame to win the regional. It would be nice to think that Dantley could have a chance to earn his NCAA championship degree. On talent, take Michigan, even if it has played two straight shaky games. The Wolverines were young at the season's opening, with freshman Center Phil Hubband and junior college transfer Green, but Coach Johnny Orr thinks they are a better team now than the one that almost upset UCLA in the NCAA last year. In any event, the winner of the Notre Dame-Michigan game should beat Missouri or Texas Tech.
So what we have now is a tournament within a tournament. The Mideast is that strong. And Indiana must be ruminating about just what it has to do to win the NCAA. Last year someone broke Scott May's arm; this year everyone wants to break Indiana's heart. First Alabama, then Marquette, then UCLA or Las Vegas, and finally Rutgers, Michigan or Notre Dame. That is not snow. That's a blizzard.