Geography determines championships," is the succinct summing-up by La Salle's wise old warrior, Coach Dudey Moore, of the prevailing view in basketball circles that a team playing on its home court has an incalculable advantage. After Kentucky won the NCAA title last year, playing all tournament games either in Lexington or Louisville, this theory was cited by partisans of other teams as the prime reason for the Wildcats' victory.
Well, the correctness of Moore's general thesis has been demonstrated too often to be doubted, but it also cannot be doubted that Kentucky was the best team in Louisville last year and would have been the best in Dallas or New Delhi. And this year, no team will have a home-court edge. North Carolina, with eight of 12 players from the New York City area, opened the tournament earlier this week in Madison Square Garden, but anyone who wants to make a home-court case of this is welcome to the task.
Starting with the quarter-finals this weekend, all games will be played on neutral courts, and the task of picking a probable winner is also unwelcome in most sensible quarters. For the fact is, no team stands out.
Kansas State, with the best record (23-1) and a tall, veteran crew, should rate top preference, except for one key psychological factor that is always an important consideration in tournament play. Most of this year's Staters made the trip to Louisville last year, and disappointed everyone with two games (against Seattle and Temple) in which they played the poorest basketball they displayed all season. Coach Tex Winter has to remove this nightmare from the memories of his players.
One expert at this sort of thing, possibly the best coach anywhere in the area of psychology, is Michigan State's Forddy Anderson. Two years ago Anderson brought a group of unheralded, green youngsters to the NCAA tournament. Playing as if they had been living on benzedrine, the Spartans tore through the early rounds, against all contrary predictions, and it took a triple-overtime loss to the eventual champion, North Carolina, to eliminate them. Two veterans of that team, the great re-bounder Johnny Green and the high-scoring Bob Anderegg, are still with Anderson. They lead a poised, tenacious club that is lacking only in size, and they must be rated highly.
Psychological factors also influence consideration of North Carolina. The Tar Heels may be the best-balanced team in the nation (see page 52). They have great natural talent and much old-fashioned savvy. And yet, the quality which has hitherto been the hallmark of teams coached by Carolina's Frank McGuire—poise—is apparently missing. One night Lee Shaffer, Doug Moe, Harvey Salz and York Larese look like pros; the next, they appear listless. Yet a team of such potential cannot be counted out.
And who would care to eliminate a club coached by the old master, Adolph Rupp—especially since it boasts one of the country's best outside shots in Johnny Cox and probably the slickest sophomore in Bill Lickert. Sound in fundamentals, as usual, tough on the boards, Kentucky does not need to play at Lexington to be a threat in this tournament.
Whether Cincinnati or Bradley goes to the Midwest Regionals at Lawrence is immaterial; either should move on to the quarter-final round. There, either would have trouble with Kansas State. Cincinnati, even with the truly great Oscar Robertson, was no one-man team this season, and one of the best of the Bearcats was Mike Mendenhall, a fine shooter and strong defensive man. But Mike is ineligible for the tournament because he played all of 16 minutes during the 1955-56 season; Cincinnati will miss him sorely. Bradley's good ball handlers and accurate shooters do not appear strong enough on the boards to beat tall and rugged Kansas State.
All other teams must be considered darkhorse entries. West Virginia still has to display tournament-level ability; Dartmouth's three straight road losses to non-Ivy opponents dispelled earlier notions of its strength; Marquette has learned much from a year under Ed Hickey, but it takes a longer period to produce a champion.
In this group, however, St. Joseph's, California and St. Mary's deserve a bit more respect. The defensive records of both West Coast clubs are, of course, questionable, since practically all teams there play a deliberate, low-scoring game. St. Mary's can rebound and Cal can shoot with the best; but both have serious deficiencies elsewhere on offense. St. Joseph's has the size and all-round ability to surprise many good opponents, but every bracket in this tournament is tough, and the competition in Charlotte will pit the Hawks against a team that almost certainly will be out of their class.