Those NCAA guys wouldn't know a basketball team if they saw one," Marquette Coach Hank Raymonds said when he saw the tournament pairings, which had his defending champions headed for a Mideast Regional showdown with No. 1 Kentucky. "Common sense has to come into this. When you seed teams, you supposedly do it so the so-called powers do not knock each other off and can make it to the finals. This is ridiculous."
There always has been controversy over which of the non-conference schools should get NCAA bids and where teams should be bracketed. But this year the outcry was shriller than ever, as the NCAA selection committee crammed eight of the nation's Top 10-ranked teams into the Mideast and West regions, including all four that have been ranked No. 1 during a most unpredictable season—North Carolina, Kentucky, Marquette and Arkansas. This overloaded the bottom half of the draw, which includes the Mideast and West teams, and made it extremely difficult for any of those schools to reach next week's semifinals in St. Louis, where the prize money for the four survivors should surpass last year's figure of $215,282.55 per team.
Raymonds was right when he said the Warriors got a bad draw; he was just mistaken about the reason, because in a first-round game played in Indianapolis last Saturday, Miami of Ohio knocked Marquette out of the tournament with a stunning 84-81 overtime victory. The Miami upset was the first score reported across the country on Saturday afternoon, but before the day was over three other reputed powers had been eliminated. Kansas led most of the way in its game against UCLA in Eugene, Ore., eventually losing 83-76 because of an imbalance in fouls (40 to 14) and the scoring of Bruin Guards Roy Hamilton (23 points) and Raymond Townsend (22). In Tempe, Ariz., San Francisco jumped out to a 21-8 lead over slumping North Carolina, then had to rally to win 68-64 as Center Bill Cartwright (23 points, 11 rebounds and six assists) outscored the Tar Heels' Phil Ford, who hit only seven of 21 shots in his final college game. And New Mexico, considered a threat to win it all because the West Regional will be held on the Lobos' home court in Albuquerque, will have to watch from the stands after falling to Cal State-Fullerton 90-85.
The only two Top 10 teams in the upper half of the bracket were in the Midwest. Notre Dame beat Houston 100-77 and DePaul defeated Creighton 80-78. Thus, by Sunday night—before a single regional game had been played—the touted strength of the tournament had been cut nearly in half.
March 20, 1978
Upsets notwithstanding, the problem the six-man selection committee faced in seeing that enough Top 10 teams made it to the regional finals was twofold. First, half a dozen regular-season conference powerhouses—North Carolina, Arkansas, Florida State, Kansas, Providence and Syracuse—failed to win their respective postseason tournaments. This demanded a juggling job by the committee, which, according to an NCAA edict, had to place those tournament losers in brackets that would keep them from playing the winners until the finals. Secondly, the top-seeded independent in each region, as judged by record and strength of schedule, was purposely kept in its own geographic region. With 21 conference slots locked in since last summer, according to five-year records in NCAA tournament play, very few options remained. So four athletic directors and two conference commissioners got together in a smoke-filled room in Mission, Kans. to position the 32 teams.
Actually the room wasn't smoke-filled because only Andy Geiger of Penn is a smoker and he held his cigarettes to a minimum. And contrary to what its critics claim, the selection committee didn't exactly finger next week's winner. Kentucky, UCLA, Notre Dame and Duke should still play out that little drama in St. Louis' Checkerdome.
"I think we're going to have to take a long look at our procedures," said Tom Jernstedt of the NCAA. "Teams like Marquette and Kentucky should never have to meet before the finals of the regional."
Now they won't. The Warriors' loss to Miami was as unexpected as last year's semifinal victory and the result of each game pivoted upon a controversial play involving Center Jerome Whitehead. Whitehead was the hero of Marquette's 1977 win over UNC-Charlotte when he made a disputed last-second layup (Was it offensive goaltending? Did it beat the buzzer?) to pull out a 51-49 victory and send the Warriors to the finals. This time the decision went against Whitehead, who was called for a flagrant foul and ejected from the game with Marquette leading 68-58 and only 3:38 left. In trying to clear a defensive rebound, Whitehead elbowed Redskin Guard John Shoemaker in the face. Shoemaker fell to the floor where he lay stunned for two minutes. Referee Peter Pavia sent Whitehead to the bench, and in the ensuing argument in which Raymonds claimed that the blow was unintentional, the coach got hit with his first technical of the season.
Miami made three of the four free-throw attempts and scored on its out-of-bounds possession, and Marquette's lead was halved. Shoemaker, a fine baseball prospect who was due at the Los Angeles Dodgers' camp in Vero Beach, Fla. the next day, then scored twice from left field to help tie the score at 75. Marquette All-America Butch Lee, the game's high scorer with 27 points, made a basket that was disallowed at the end of regulation time, and Miami went on to win. "I don't think our conference should have to play Marquette every year in the NCAAs," said Miami Coach Darrell Hedric, "but this one turned out to be a classic, didn't it?"
Kentuckians must think it was a classic break now that the Wildcats have survived a scare by Florida State and can once again concentrate on being a tournament favorite. For their 85-76 come-from-behind victory UK fans can thank Coach Joe B. Hall. Behind 39-32 at half-time and becoming aware that his power-oriented starting lineup could not keep pace with the fast-breaking Seminoles, Hall benched starters Rick Robey, Jack Givens and Truman Claytor and replaced them with three quick scrubs—Dwane Casey, Lavon Williams and Freddie Cowan. The difference in speed between the two teams disappeared, and when Williams jammed in a rebound with 12:52 left, Kentucky trailed only 45-44. From that point on Guard Kyle Macy was the key. During a streak of 14 unanswered points that gave the Wildcats a 62-53 lead they never relinquished, Macy made a basket-saving defensive play, sank a long jumper and converted a three-point play.
The final margin was convincing, considering how well Florida State had played. Yet it pointed out the fact that Kentucky can be had if the tempo is fast enough and demonstrated that the Wildcats haven't developed into the overpowering team everyone expected them to be this year. "I just wasn't getting the effort I wanted out of our starters," said Hall. "I decided if we were going to get beat, I'd rather it would be with guys who can burn rubber."
Kentucky should be tested by Michigan State in the finals of the Mideast Regional in Dayton. The Spartans, 10-17 a year ago, ran their record to 24-4 with a 77-63 win over Providence, as Forward Greg Kelser scored 23 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Michigan State should get by Western Kentucky, which upset Syracuse 87-86 in overtime when Forward Marty Byrnes missed a one-and-one free throw with three seconds left. Earvin Johnson, Michigan State's spectacular 6'8" point guard, played on a sore ankle against Providence but scored 14 points and looked more like a Harlem Globetrotter than a college freshman while handing out seven assists.
The West Regional is wide open. Cal State-Fullerton, the third-place finisher in the Pacific Coast Athletic Association during the regular season, saw to that by beating New Mexico. The Titans held the Lobos' red-hot Marvin Johnson to 15 points while getting a total of 82 from Forwards Kevin Heenan (22) and Greg Bunch (18), Guard Keith Anderson (23) and Reserve Mike Niles (19). Without New Mexico waiting at the Pit, UCLA should prevail. To get to the final four the Bruins must find a way to handle Arkansas' three 6'4" leapers—Sidney Moncrief, Ron Brewer and Marvin Delph—who had a field day in the Razorbacks' 73-52 win over Weber State in Eugene. Of course, Arkansas will have a problem of its own trying to match up against the taller Bruins of Coach Gary Cunningham. "It's pretty hard to tell Gary's team from mine," John Wooden said recently of his former assistant. And while this is no Bill Walton-type juggernaut, the kind that swept through the NCAA tournament when the finals were held in St. Louis five years ago, Cunningham, like Wooden, has his team playing fundamentals just the way Wooden's did.
For Notre Dame's Digger Phelps this is a unique opportunity to prove that he can do more than beat UCLA on national TV. Despite having superb players during his six-year career in South Bend—some of whom turned pro just when he needed them most—Phelps has never taken a team to the final four. Now the Irish have their best draw.
Duke, favored in that forgotten regional, the East, could surprise Notre Dame, but first will have to contend with Penn and a streaking Bobby Knight team from Indiana. Duke barely got by Rhode Island 63-62, depriving the Rams of a home-court advantage this week in Providence.
Indiana survived another stormy season under Bobby T, bouncing back from a 2-5 conference record to tie Minnesota for second place in the Big Ten. Along the way Knight stopped giving postgame interviews to the press, preferring instead to send publicist Kit Klingelhoffer around with a mimeographed sheet of the coach's thoughts.
Whether or not Knight's team makes it to St. Louis, his influence will be felt there because the games will be played on Indiana's home floor. It seems that the NCAA made a special request for Knight to inspect the playing floor at the Checkerdome, which is primarily used for hockey. Knight found the existing basketball surface unsuitable. So next Monday the Assembly Hall floor in Bloomington will be dismantled and shipped to St. Louis on two 40-foot semi-trailer trucks.
Obviously, this is an unusual tournament. For the second straight year, following a succession of UCLAs, NC States and Indianas, there is no truly dominant team in the field, or in the country, for that matter. Likewise, there is not a single player remaining in the tournament listed among the top 30 scorers in the nation. College basketball at the top has become almost exclusively a team game these days, and no one man figures to get his team out of trouble in St. Louis the way a Walton or David Thompson might have in the past. In a sense, everybody in the tournament is a dark horse at this point. Even Kentucky.