Some people still think basketball is spelled U-C-L-A and that John Wooden still sits courtside at Pauley Pavilion with his Wizard's wand concealed in a rolled-up program. How else to explain why the Bruins were invited to the NCAA tournament? Remember when they had lost only three games in Pauley in 11 years? Well, this season, the first under Coach Larry Brown, they lost four. Not only that, UCLA lost nine games in all, the most in 17 years, and finished an embarrassing fourth in the Pac-10. Invite these Bruins to the NCAAs? What nerve, what gall, what...genius.
Last week at the West Regional in Tucson, UCLA continued to start two freshman guards, Rod Foster and Michael Holton, and a relative runt at center, 6'6" sophomore Mike Sanders. And the Bruins continued to gun down bigger teams with better records. First it was Old Dominion and DePaul. Now it was Ohio State and Clemson.
All of a sudden, Brown, to his and everybody else's amazement, had a team in the semifinals, something Wooden didn't accomplish until his 14th season in Westwood.
Ohio State was a distinct favorite over UCLA Thursday night, having just crushed Arizona State, which in turn had bashed the Bruins by 12 in mid-February. Coach Eldon Miller started a monster front line of 6'9" Jim Smith, 6'10" Herb Williams and 6'7" Clark Kellogg. And Guard Kelvin Ransey, three times All-Big Ten, was, said Miller, "the best backcourt man I've worked with in 19 years of coaching."
Ransey, with 29 points, four rebounds and two assists, lived up to his notices, but the big men were too slow. James Wilkes, who had saved a little boy from drowning in a motel pool that afternoon, was a hero again in the evening, keeping the ball away from Williams in the middle. Sanders darted in and around the key for 19 points and eight rebounds. Ransey poured in the points, but UCLA won the battle of the boards 34-31, had four fewer turnovers and took the game 72-68, even without a good scoring night from Kiki Vandeweghe, who was limited to 12.
Sanders, voted the regional's outstanding player, was the key man. He had been a high school center in DeRidder, La. (ex-UCLA-star Walt Hazzard discovered him and recommended him for a grant-in-aid), but he hardly expected to play that position at UCLA.
When Brown was hired by UCLA, he kept ex-Bruin Larry Farmer as an assistant. Farmer told him, "There's a kid on our team that nobody's heard of, who probably played only 100 minutes all year as a freshman, who might be our best player. Coach, he'll play any position; he'll do anything it takes to win and you're going to fall in love with him."
Brown did come to admire Sanders, but he kept him on the bench at first, along with the freshman guards. He felt an obligation to start upperclassmen who had endured all or part of the Wooden-Gene Bartow-Gary Cunningham coaching changes. That policy has been junked, and Brown also has jettisoned a complicated attack and reinstituted Wood-en's old high-post offense.
After Ohio State came Clemson, well coached by Bill Foster and boasting three 6'10" men across the front line, as well as two good guards in All-ACC Billy Williams and Bobby Conrad, whose dad played in the 1955 NCAA tournament for Loyola of New Orleans. On Thursday, Clemson had followed its normal procedure of coming from behind in the second half to beat Lamar 74-66.
Clemson was a bit of a Cinderella team itself, having finished fourth in the ACC and having only one league victory on the road. Brown felt his team was drained by the Ohio State game and was worried that the Bruins couldn't win unless they were emotionally high. He was wrong. Clemson wasn't quick enough to stop UCLA from maneuvering into position for relatively unchallenged three-and four-foot jumpers. Vandeweghe and Sanders had 22 points and four assists apiece, and the four freshmen, Holton, Foster and subs Darren Daye and Cliff Pruitt, darted around like jackrabbits, accounting for a total of 31 points, nine rebounds and nine assists.
Early in the season this same talented quartet was making unforced turnovers and missing free throws in the clutch. Now they are, in effect, sophomores with lots of experience. If Vandeweghe isn't on target, they aren't bashful about putting it up themselves.
The final score was 85-74, and once again the Bruins won the rebound battle, too, 40-34. Foster was in awe of their board strength. "They're not as tall as some people," he said, "but they play a lot taller than you list 'em in the program." And he was impressed by their quickness. "We tried to press 'em a few times and they went by it before they knew we were pressin' 'em."
So for the 14th time (six more than its nearest rivals, Ohio State and Kentucky) UCLA had made it into the final four. Naturally, Brown had to allude to UCLA basketball tradition in his remarks to the press.
"We've played so much better in this series of games—the last six—than we have all year," he said. "I guess that's the reason we're going to Indianapolis. Our guys have those letters on their chests. Some of them think they're Superman, and I'm not going to tell them any different."