That thud-thud you heard late Sunday afternoon was the supposedly almighty Atlantic Coast Conference falling face-first into a ditch, right there alongside Tobacco Road. On a day that the folks in Carolina will long remember as the Raleigh Massacre, North Carolina, the ACC champion and the No. 3-ranked team in the country, and Duke, the ACC runner-up and the nation's No. 6 team, were booted out of the NCAA tournament in the first week. And that's not the half of it. The ACC teams were ousted not by powerhouses on the order of UCLA, Notre Dame, Michigan State or even Indiana State. No, the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils were rudely eliminated by schools from the geographic region regarded as the laughing stock of college basketball—the East.
North Carolina took it on the chin first, losing to the University of Pennsylvania's Ivy League champions 72-71. That development shook even the Duke fans, many of whom wore a worried look as the Blue Devils warmed up for their game with St. John's, which had been the 40th—and last—team selected for the tournament. "Ah, don't worry," a Duke follower was advised, "those ragamuffins from up North can't do it twice." St. John's then really did it twice, beating Duke for the second time this season, 80-78, on Reggie Carter's short baseline jumper with five seconds to play.
While the East was destroying the reputation of the ACC as the toughest league in the land, the No. 1-ranked Indiana State Sycamores—vastly underrated by just about everyone except their devoted retinue of toilet-paper-packing fans—continued their winning ways. Only three weeks ago, the ISU student body president wrote to Indiana's two U.S. Senators, demanding that they launch a congressional investigation to find out what kind of fatheads were running the college polls, and how come it took almost the entire season for the undefeated Sycamores to be voted No. 1 in both the AP and the UPI rankings.
Last week, as the NCAA tournament roared through the first two rounds, jettisoning 24 of the 40 teams, the distinguished Senators from Indiana were advised to stand down. Larry Bird and the Sycamores may not need a congressional investigation to prove they are No. 1. They should get their chance to do that next week in the finals at Salt Lake City.
Indiana State may be the first team ever to come into the tournament top-ranked in both polls, undefeated in 29 games and still sneaking up on people, the way it did in Sunday's 86-69 victory over Virginia Tech. That's the kind of year it's been in college hoops.
In the Midwest, there was Oklahoma, the surprising but convincing winner of the Big Eight Conference title, thumping favored Texas 90-76, after which Sooner Coach Dave Bliss patiently explained to Oklahoma sportswriters some of the more subtle differences between a wishbone offense and the four corners.
In the Mideast, Big Ten tri-champion Iowa was upset 74-72 on a last-second shot by Stan Joplin of Toledo, a team so mean and tough that its sixth man is named Harvey Knuckles. Also playing in that regional was Louisiana State, winner of the SEC season championship but a semifinal loser in the conference tournament largely because its leading scorer, DeWayne Scales, decided to use the game to show off his dribbling for the assembled pro scouts. Scales, an all-SEC forward, then was suspended by LSU Coach Dale Brown for the remainder of the season because of his involvement with an agent.
But the real show last week was provided by the schools from the urban northeast corridor of the U.S. Syracuse and Rutgers earned spots in the East Regional semifinals, which will be held this week in Greensboro, N.C., by eliminating Connecticut and Georgetown, respectively, on Saturday. Then Penn and St. John's became the only at-large teams to win two games.
The St. John's Redmen are coached by Lou Carnesecca, who talks in a strangulated whisper out of The Godfather and spends a great deal of his courtside time on his knees. When Louie gets very excited, he walks up and down the sidelines on his knees. This week he will see if he can walk on his knees all the way to Salt Lake City for the finals.
St. John's and Penn were both supposed to take their lumps, get their watches and hold their breakup dinners all on the same day. North Carolina had defeated Duke to win the ACC tournament a week earlier, and was labeled the "hottest" team in the country by those overawed by the ACC's reputation.
Year after year this phenomenon repeats itself—the ACC whips itself into a frenzy deciding its champion, then one ACC team after another gets swallowed up in the real world. Only the 1974 North Carolina State team, featuring David Thompson, has won a national championship for the ACC in the last 22 years. North Carolina Coach Dean Smith, whose feet are seldom seen to touch the ground by his many admirers, has never won an NCAA title. The ACC has always publicized itself well, and not without help from the communications industry. "I thought North Carolina was a TV show," said Penn Forward Tony Price before Sunday's game. "We see so much of them on television in Philly."
Still, no ACC school from North Carolina (there are four) had lost an NCAA tournament game played in the state since 1961, and the Tar Heels were not only the top seed in the region, but Nevada oddsmakers had also installed them as the favorites to win the national title. But Penn had one thing working in its favor. "We were joking around all weekend about having a secret," said Penn Guard James Salters. "The secret was that we knew how good North Carolina was but they didn't know how good we were."
If the Tar Heels didn't know, they should have had some idea of what they were in for after watching ninth-seeded Penn use its quickness to get past Iona 73-69 on Friday. Against Carolina, the Quakers neutralized a trapping zone defense by slithering through the slower Tar Heels for layups and short jumpers. North Carolina's Mike O'Koren picked up his third foul with 14 minutes to play while trying to catch up with the mercurial Price, and when Dean Smith tried to protect O'Koren by taking him off the Penn forward, Price went on a tear, scoring 13 of his game-high 25 points in the next eight minutes. Bye-bye, Tar Heels.
Although St. John's had beaten Duke in the consolation game of the Holiday Festival in New York, no one in Carolina appeared to take the Redmen seriously. Carnesecca, though, recognized that Duke was indeed vulnerable, because the Blue Devils were missing two of their five regular starters: Guard Bob Bender was on the bench but unable to play following an appendectomy, and Forward Kenny Dennard was sitting beside him, nursing a sprained ankle.
Still, the Blue Devils came out and hit better than 60% of their field goals in the first half while running up leads of as many as 10 points. But the Redmen inched back, and 6:18 into the second half Duke had squandered its advantage. With the score tied 78-78, St. John's patiently worked the ball to Carter, who moments earlier had missed the front end of a one-and-one that could have iced the game for the Redmen. Swish! R.I.P., ACC.
St. John's now faces Rutgers, which has beaten the Redmen twice this season, and Penn meets Syracuse. What the NCAA ought to do is move the games from the land of the losers—Greensboro—and play them in the Northeast. Rutgers and Syracuse both have formidable centers who should create insurmountable problems for the smaller front lines of the Redmen and the Quakers. Rutgers' James Bailey, a four-year starter, may be the most complete big man in college ball. Opponents used to gang-team the 6'9" Bailey inside, but the emergence of Tom Brown at point guard and Daryl Strickland at forward put a stop to such tactics.
Penn has been foul-prone all season, and Matt White, the Quakers' 6'10" center, has fouled out of 13 games. Quick Syracuse forwards Dale Shackleford and Louis Orr and 6'11" Center Roosevelt Bouie will give the Quakers more than they can handle inside. Syracuse, now the highest scoring team (89.1 points a game) in the tournament, also should be able to neutralize Bailey and beat Rutgers to win the all-Northeastern East Regional.
In the Mideast, Michigan State and Notre Dame, two former No. 1 teams, figure to meet in Sunday's final in Indianapolis, although there is the strange and wonderful possibility that Toledo could be the survivor in this once-imposing field. Toledo's tallest starter is 6'7¼", and it must face the Irish of Notre Dame on St. Patrick's Day eve. Still, the Rockets have given up only 61.8 points a game this season, second-best of any team still alive. In the victory over Iowa, Toledo held the Hawkeyes without a field goal for a span of 8:26 in the second half. Toledo puts its head down and plays an aggressive man-to-man defense most of the time, and Coach Bob Nichols believes in a controlled, pattern offense that allows his team to dictate the tempo of the game. Whether this will be enough against Notre Dame, a shaky 73-67 winner over Tennessee last week, depends to a great extent upon the Irish. If they can regain their poise against Toledo's bump-and-stick defense, they'll win. Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps shuttles nine players in and out, whereas Toledo sinks or swims mainly with 6'7¼" Jim Swaney and 6'6½" Dick Miller, with the brassy Knuckles providing valuable assistance off the bench.
The Irish are currently 23-5, but apart from an early-season victory at UCLA, they lost most of what could be described as their important games. Sophomore Kelly Tripucka is the leading scorer but averages only 14.2 points, which is an indication of Notre Dame's depth but also points up the fact that the Irish don't have a player they can go to when they need a basket.
Michigan State is playing as well now as it has all season, as the Spartans demonstrated in their 95-64 rout of Lamar on Sunday. Forward Gregory Kelser had 31 points in that game, and 6'8" Earvin (Magic) Johnson did his customary prestidigitation thing with 13 points, 10 assists and 17 rebounds. "We got a team that can kill you from the outside," said Johnson, "and we got a team that can kill you from the inside. If we're on top of our game, ain't nobody in the world can beat Michigan State."
LSU lost Durand Macklin, its best player, at the start of the season with a foot injury and now plays Michigan State without the 6'9" Scales, too. Coach Dale Brown used reserve Center Rick Mattick, a 250-pound 7-footer, in a second-round 71-57 win over Appalachian State, and Mattick played well. With 6'9" Greg Cook and 6'9" Lionel Green, LSU has no trouble controlling the boards against most teams. The fact that the Bayou Bengals no doubt will be outrebounded by the Spartans should set up a Michigan State-Notre Dame confrontation for a berth in the final four, with the Spartans having the edge.
Of the four teams playing in the West Regional this week in Provo, Utah, only DePaul is playing to the level at which it performed all season. The Blue Demons face Marquette, a team they beat 61-60 in Chicago last month, and the outcome will doubtless be decided by the performances of DePaul's blocky 6'7", 225-pound Mark Aguirre and Marquette's 6'9" Bernard Toone.
DePaul stays almost exclusively with its five starters, mainly because Coach Ray Meyer has no bench to speak of. "Substitution changes the tempo of our game," says Meyer, putting the best possible face on a bad situation, "so we don't believe in it." The Blue Demons are weak at center. If that doesn't hurt them against Marquette's 6'9" Odell Ball, it virtually eliminates any chance they might have against the winner of the UCLA-San Francisco shootout.
The No. 2-ranked Bruins didn't play particularly well in beating neighboring Pepperdine 76-71 last week, and if they can't work up more enthusiasm for their game against 7'1" Bill Cartwright and the Dons than they've showed the past two weeks, they might be blown out.
Ah, the Midwest Regional. It will, in fact, be played in Cincinnati. And, yes, you geography buffs, the Midwest will take place in a city 104 miles east of the site of the Mideast Regional.
Oklahoma's Raymond Whitley scored four touchdowns and an extra point for 25 points (10 for 12 from the field and 5 for 5 from the line) in the Sooners' win over Texas to get to Cincy.
Oklahoma missed its first two field-goal attempts, then hit 14 of its next 17 shots over a Texas zone. The Sooners are rich at guard, with Whitley and John McCullough and super-sub Cary Carrabine, and also at center, where 6'9" Al Beal holds sway. Oklahoma is an excellent outside-shooting team, but all of the Sooners will have to be hitting at once for Oklahoma to beat Indiana State.
The Sycamores have been the most consistent team in the country—with the possible exception of the touring Soviet club. In addition to the wondrous Bird, ISU has a whole nest full of good players. Guard Carl Nicks scores 19.9 points a game and gets three-point plays almost at will; he had four against Virginia Tech. Forward Brad Miley is the designated defender and sets screens for Bird, while 6'7½" Alex Gilbert crashes the boards and tries to avoid getting fouled (he's a 28% free-throw shooter). The Sycamores aren't deep, but in Bob Heaton and Leroy Staley they have two strong backup players.
The Sycamores should face Arkansas in the Midwest finals, after Sidney Moncrief and the Razorbacks dispose of Louisville. Moncrief, the 6'4" guard whose 21.8 points a game this season led Arkansas to a 24-4 record, is probably the second-best player in the game. If Arkansas and Indiana State get together, look out for a low-flying Bird and a highflying Moncrief.
In the air, not in a ditch.