Like snowflakes, hippies and Charles Bronson movies, not one of the remaining 16 teams in the NCAA basketball tournament stands out. Even Jimmy the Greek would be hard put to name which four will reach the finals in Atlanta's Omni. The survivors from the first round have proven nothing if not this: they can win, but they can also lose. Not only are there no undefeated teams remaining, but also the schools with the best records entering the tournament—San Francisco and Arkansas—are back home practicing recruiting.
This is not to say there are no favorites, despite the fact that one survivor, Southern Illinois, which lost to little Georgia Southern during the regular season, might wind up in the Final Four. No fewer than four teams—UCLA, Nevada-Las Vegas, Michigan and Kentucky—loom as solid threats, but while all have enjoyed moments of glory, each has suffered through agonies ranging from injuries to jealousy to having to cope with NCAA investigations and legends of departed coaches.
There are various theories as to why any bet looks like a bad one this time, the most popular being the elimination of "the intelligent player." There was a time when UCLA brought the talent to the NCAA tournament while the rest of the schools employed intelligent players, college basketball's equivalent of the homely girl with the nice personality. Now everybody has horses.
Hold it. Two questions. First: Do they give scholarships at Idaho State? Second: Why would anybody accept one?
March 21, 1977
No doubt Alabama, the Southeastern Conference's third-place finisher behind Tennessee and Kentucky and the only celebrity of note not invited to the party, would delight at an opportunity to play the Big Sky representative, but the Crimson Tide must be content to win the big one in the NIT while, in the semifinals of the West Regional, UCLA faces Idaho State. Pass the sour cream and chives, please.
Every year the NCAA, through apparent whim, caprice and perversity, structures a regional top-heavy with talent. This year it is the West, where four of the nation's Top Ten teams began and two remain. After eliminating Louisville and San Francisco, UCLA and Las Vegas might be excused for viewing their next contests as practice games, although Idaho State has a 24-4 record and a 7-footer to throw at the Bruins, and Utah has beaten Vegas once this season and has the added advantage of playing in Provo.
Still, one must figure that it will be UCLA against the flamboyant Runnin' Rebels in the West finals as Las Vegas Coach Jerry Tarkanian once again tries for the Holy Grail he has sought lo these many years—a victory over UCLA. That win eluded Tark the Shark in three NCAA tournament games while he was at Long Beach State.
Mostly because it hasn't been on national television, Las Vegas is an unknown to most of the public, tagged by innuendo as a lawless group that plays no defense and follows no rules while Tarkanian draws his plays on a checkbook. But as San Francisco learned last week, Tarkanian is a wily coach and his teams can beat you with defense. Vegas forced the Dons into 32 turnovers, and increased the tempo so much that San Francisco was more confused than poised. Final score: 121-95.
Utah, which nipped St. John's 72-68, is the hottest-shooting club in Western Athletic Conference history, which is saying something, and the Utes have not lost a game in which they were ahead with five minutes remaining. That is when Jeff Jonas directs the Rocky Mountain version of the Four Corners. By the time the five-minute mark rolls around against Las Vegas, Utah most likely will be playing catch-up.
Meanwhile, paranoia still lurks in the shadows at UCLA. Gene Bartow now has won one more conference title than John Wooden did during his first two years at Westwood but is again feeling the heat. Last week the Bruins found themselves gasping for breath on an artificial football field in Pocatello, Idaho, playing their toughest first-round opponent ever, Louisville. Cardinal Coach Denny Crum bent the rules a bit by bringing his team to Pocatello several days early. UCLA claimed that gave the Louisville players time to acclimatize themselves to the thin air and the playing conditions—a portable floor in the Idaho State Minidome. NCAA rules seem to imply that a team may have only one day's practice at the tournament site. Louisville had three. UCLA Athletic Director J. D. Morgan protested, but the NCAA ruled in favor of Louisville, whereupon Morgan claimed there was "a conspiracy to get UCLA beat."
Conspiracy or not, the Bruins might have lost without Brad Holland. The sophomore guard, morose after being benched earlier in the season and perhaps thinking of transferring to several schools, among them Las Vegas, got into the game in the second half and hit a bunch of rainbows that enabled UCLA to win 87-79.
The East Regional at College Park, Md. is a mystery. Notre Dame? VMI? How many had these two in their Top 20 at the start of the year? The Irish beat Hofstra 90-83 while the Keydets whipped Duquesne 73-66. And North Carolina, the team from M*A*S*H, seems to keep losing players and winning games, while setting records for optimistic medical bulletins. Let's see, the latest is that Tom LaGarde is going to throw away his crutches and Walter Davis is going to pull the pins out of his fractured finger just before game time. Right. With LaGarde and Davis incapacitated, Notre Dame can beat North Carolina. Talk about luck of the Irish.
But nobody can beat Kentucky, not in this region. The Wildcats have muscle, speed, a bench, a coach—and tradition. One thing is certain: now that Kentucky has plodded past pesky Princeton, it will be off and running. "I'm from racehorse country," says Coach Joe Hall. "It's difficult to hook our horses to a plow." The mules, Rick Robey and Mike Phillips, get the ball, and the thoroughbreds, Jack Givens and Larry Johnson, take it from there.
In the losers' division, the Midwest, the good news is that someone has to win at Oklahoma City. The bad news is that someone will. Marquette, Kansas State, Wake Forest and Southern Illinois have 27 defeats among them.
Of course, Marquette's star has fallen much farther than the others'. The Warriors were highly thought of until their midseason swoon, precipitated perhaps by the pending retirement of coach and philosopher Al McGuire. Lately, in a narrow loss to Michigan and a 66-51 NCAA win over Cincinnati, the patient's condition appeared to be improved.
The other three teams also have had problems. Kansas State and SIU trailed in their Big Eight and Valley races most of the season, while Wake's travails were just the opposite. The Deacons did their usual el foldo at the wire.
For certain, the Wildcats of Kansas State will not be bashful. Freshman Curtis Redding and juniors Mike Evans and Scott Langston all like to throw up the mail-in jump shot. "You need a lot of mustard to cover them," points out Providence Coach Dave Gavitt. "They're a long hot dog that stretches all the way around the building." Still, Marquette should return McGuire to the NCAA finals for the last farewell.
The Mideast was the regional where Kentucky was going to delight the hometown tobacco farmers and fried-chicken barons in Lexington's Rupp Arena with an easy victory. Then Tennessee got in the way, twice, and tied Kentucky for the Southeastern Conference championship. So Kentucky was sent off to the East, leaving Tennessee to defend SEC honor. Only Syracuse, ignored most of the season, upset Tennessee in overtime last Sunday.
The Syracuse victory notwithstanding, Michigan remains the team to beat in the Mideast. The Wolverines started the season No. 1, and finished No. 1, but along the way sowed enough seeds of doubt to leave the unfaithful wondering if they were charmed last year. Simply put, replacing departed Forward Way-man Britt was a more difficult task than anyone but Coach Johnny Orr realized. However, Michigan's victory over Holy Cross in the first round last week was the school's 10th in its last 11 games, resurrecting the rumors that if Michigan wins it all this year, Orr will cash in his chips. Against Detroit in the Mideast semifinals, Michigan should prove that a good dressing can save a slightly wilted salad, meaning, who remembers the middle of the season?
In the other match-up are two teams that are better than most people think, but not as good as their fans hope. One is Syracuse, the other is North Carolina-Charlotte, starved for attention and with a brilliant player in Cedric (Cornbread) Maxwell, hero of last year's NIT. Neither team has the bench to stick with Michigan, although it should be a game for 30 minutes.
Strength is important, especially in a tournament as grueling as the NCAA. And Kentucky has the muscles to overpower the field. Of course, what will happen is that Las Vegas will run right through the West and wear down Michigan in the final, or that Dean Smith will find a cure for the sick and lame of North Carolina, or that Marquette will give McGuire an emotional going-away present. Not even the Greek knows.