It took two days of furious action last weekend to reduce the field in the national basketball championship from 16 of the country's best teams to a final four; but it took only a minute after the results were in for every follower of the sport from coast to coast to realize he had good reason to be singing that old folk song to himself that goes:
There's a great time coming
And it's not far off;
Been long, long, long on the way.
The great time is this Saturday, the place is Louisville and the reason the song is in the air is that there is now every chance those two bitter enemies and implacable basketball powers, Cincinnati and Ohio State, are actually going to have their dreamed-of replay of last year's championship game.
For a full year Cincinnati's champion Bearcats have been brooding and boiling because they felt their surprise win over Ohio State in Kansas City last March was looked on as a fluke. They want to prove it wasn't. And for that same long year Ohio State's Buckeyes have been burning and broiling about the overtime defeat (70-65) that cost them their second title in a row. They want to prove it was a fluke.
Now, improbably enough, considering the chances of the same two teams facing each other in the finals two years in a row are about nil, each must win just one more game to set up the most dramatic championship battle ever. Ohio State has a semifinal game on Friday night against the eastern regional winner, Wake Forest, while Cincinnati plays an upstart underdog from the West, UCLA. The winners then meet in Saturday's grand finale. An NCAA tournament official estimated last week that 100,000 tickets could have been sold for Saturday night's game. Freedom Hall, the game site, seats 18,000, and 25,000 ticket orders were received the first day of sale in a flood of money and requests reminiscent of a World Series.
While Louisville's lucky ticket holders may have considered last weekend's regional tournaments as nothing but routes to the finals, the regionals themselves were offering ample excitement and revelations of their own. Wake Forest, led by its arm-flailing, coat-throwing coach, Baptist Preacher Bones McKinney, had the devil's own time winning the eastern regional in College Park, Md. There were 11,700 spectators filling the pastel-colored seats in the University of Maryland's spacious field house when McKinney's tall and strong Deacons began play Friday night against St. Joseph's. Wake Forest had reduced McKinney to a nervous ruin four days before when it had to come from behind to beat Yale in an overtime. Now, almost sadistically, it set about torturing its coach again. The Deacons' two biggest men, 6-foot-8 Len Chappell and 6-foot-11 Bob Woollard, at times showed about as much life as the Colossus of Rhodes, and little St. Joe's stole the ball and the play. With 38 of the game's 40 minutes gone, Wake was behind 72-66. McKinney, catapulting out of his seat at every play, tugging frantically at his dazzling red socks, throwing towels high in the air and finally doing the same with his coat, didn't have a prayer of winning at this point.
So he did a foolish thing. He ordered Wake Forest into a full-court press. This is absurd because Wake is neither fast nor agile, and St. Joe's is both. But suddenly St. Joe's normally smooth guards couldn't handle the ball. They threw away two passes and handed away a third. With 28 seconds left, Wake Guard Billy Packer sank a desperation set shot to make it 74-72, St. Joseph's favor. With 13 seconds left, St. Joe's called a time-out before attempting a free throw. McKinney, thanking the angels for that because he had no timeouts left, gave his team a play in case St. Joe's missed the shot. St. Joe's did miss, the play got the ball to Packer and, with four seconds to go, he threw in another long jump shot. In the subsequent overtime an awakened Wake won 96-85.
Nor did Wake Forest return to its earlier listless ways when it took on rugged Villanova the next night. Woolard and Chappell jumped up and down on each side of the basket like two giants on a teeter-totter, making Villanova fight furiously for every rebound. The rebound struggle seemed to tire the Wildcats and weaken their noted zone defense. Wake took the lead with 14 minutes to play and held it from there. At the end of the game Bones McKinney waved the only piece of cloth he hadn't handled in two nights, a large Confederate flag. The Dixie fans roared, and the Deacons headed for Louisville.
The NCAA's western regional was played in Provo, Utah, on the coffeeless, tealess, tobaccoless and even Cokeless campus of Brigham Young University. Perhaps basketball stirred the passions because other minor vice was so hard to come by, but Provo responded to the tournament with two crowds of 10,000, committees for every conceivable need and enough plaques for an Academy Award banquet. This in spite of the fact, as one Utah writer put it, that "the teams coming in here wouldn't excite your Aunt Abigail." He, of course, didn't know about that zany bunch of upstarts from Los Angeles, UCLA's Bruins. He learned, and so will Louisville.
The team with the second worst record in the entire NCAA tournament (16-9), sizzling UCLA literally ran away with the trophy, the plaques and the show at Provo. On the opening night, against Utah State, a team that prefers a rather deliberate style of play, UCLA displayed its blinding fast break at its best. Led by Globetrotter-slick sophomore guard Walt Hazzard, the Bruins moved so quickly they forced Utah State into an early—and desperate—press. UCLA countered with whistling passes to Center Fred Slaughter, who would then slip the ball to a guard driving for a lay-up. When State tried to close the middle, frail, pale Gary Cunningham fired in shot after shot from the corner. Ahead 43-30 at half time, UCLA frittered away its lead, as it often does, and then happily snatched it back again, as it also often does, to win 73-62.