The burning question at the East Regional in Greensboro, N.C. was not whether unbeaten Rutgers could handle a pair of eager but disadvantaged opponents like Connecticut and Virginia Military Institute. The Scarlet Knights dashed past the Huskies 93-79 and the Keydets 91-75 with scarcely a passing glance. What Atlantic Coast Conference fans wondered was how Rutgers would have done against North Carolina, Virginia or Maryland. They found it appalling that the defense of the territory against invaders from the north had been left up to VMI.
The Keydets, who had their first winning season since before Pearl Harbor, nearly lost to DePaul on Thursday when they blew an 11-point lead in the last 2½ minutes and were forced into overtime. They led Rutgers briefly, 27-26, as did Connecticut, 14-12. However, playing the Scarlet Knights is like playing the bad guy in an old-fashioned Western: you may have your moments early on, but you always get it in the last reel.
So Rutgers is now 31-0. In other seasons 31-0 would have been good enough to win a national championship—even from UCLA. Yet Rutgers cannot afford to falter. In previous years 13 teams had entered the NCAA tournament undefeated. Six survived. If the Scarlet Knights want to become the seventh, only 33-0 will do. Nobody has ever won that many in one season.
"I looked at our schedule last summer," said Rutgers co-captain Phil Sellers, "and I told Eddie Jordan right then that I thought we could win them all. But you just can't expect that to happen. As a player, you've got to keep that kind of thing tucked up your sleeve until it does."
March 29, 1976
At the prospect of such an event, Sellers' admirers at the Rutgers victory celebration were calling him "Philadelphia Sellers" and ignoring the Indiana-Marquette game that was blaring on the TV set in the background. It was not Sellers but Jordan, the quick point guard, who wowed the Carolina fans. Against VMI, which has a coach and two players—Bill Blair, Will Bynum and Ron Carter—who can compete against absolutely anyone in the country, Jordan was superb. He tossed in 23 points, came up with six steals and had five assists in a performance that earned him the tournament's MVP award. Guard Mike Dabney was no slouch with 23 points of his own, and Sellers controlled his reemerging temper long enough to score 16 points and haul in a dozen rebounds. Therein lies the secret of the Knights' success: they take turns turning on.
Each of the first six players on the team, including Forward Hollis Copeland and the two freshman centers, James Bailey and Abdel Anderson, have scored more than 20 points this season and been high man in so doing. On the other hand, Rutgers has won a lot of games when at least one member of the cast was shut off. For example, sixth-man Anderson broke his nose against The Citadel and was scoreless; Jordan missed almost the entire overtime win over Manhattan because of an "injured knee," which was diagnosed by some as a discipline problem; Copeland found the basket only once in the first Princeton game; Dabney watched nearly half of the ECAC playoff game against St. John's with four fouls; Bailey did not start until the season was six games old and has begun to relinquish more and more playing time to Anderson; and Sellers shot 7-for-28 from the floor in the first two games of the NCAA tournament.
Skepticism over Rutgers' lightweight schedule follows the team to Philadelphia. Indeed, with a thoroughly tested Michigan squad awaiting it in the semifinals and, if it gets by the Wolverines, either UCLA or Indiana after that, the Knights will probably be a third, possibly even a fourth, choice in the final four. "It wouldn't surprise me," said Rutgers publicist Bob Smith. "I know there were times this year when we were, say, 15-0, that some of the New Jersey papers covering us were just hanging around so they could be there when we got beat."
Speaking of skeptics, the Knights ran into an old Des Moines sportswriter named Ronald Reagan who spent a night at their motel while campaigning in the North Carolina primary. Reagan declined to pose for pictures, but actor Jimmy Stewart, a campaign helper and an old Princeton man (B.S. '32), accepted a GO RUTGERS GO button and managed a smile in a picture with two reserve players. A longtime fan of his said Stewart looked tired and confused.
Rutgers can do that to you.