The NCAA championship tournament was barely under way, but already the portents were bad for the favorites. The first action in the two-week event came at Lubbock, Texas, where a Midwest regional double-header produced a pair of mild surprises. First, Oklahoma City upset Colorado State 70-67, then Texas, the runaway winner in the Southwest Conference, put down a well-regarded Texas Western team rather easily, 65-47.
Oklahoma City's Abe Lemons wasn't quite ready to give up when his Chiefs trailed Colorado State 42-31 at half time. "I just told the boys to gamble," he said later. Oklahoma City began pressing on defense, daringly giving away the inside shots. But the flustered Rams couldn't take advantage of their opportunities, and soon their once substantial lead was down to 67-64. In the last minute, Gary Hill, a limber 6-foot-4 guard, threw in two field goals and two free throws and the Chiefs were the winners.
In the second game Texas Western, a strong but slow team, hoped that it could beat Texas by stopping the Longhorns' fast break. Western depended on its tight defense, third best in the nation, to do this. The strategy worked fairly well in the first half, which ended in a 25-25 tie. But then Western lost big Jeff Barnes, its rebounder, on fouls. Texas immediately took control of the backboards, which enabled it to use, its fast break with more success. With Mike Humphrey and John Paul Fultz, who scored 34 points between them, leading the way, the Longhorns pulled away from the weary Miners in the final minutes of play.
The NCAA eliminations at Lubbock, important as they were, barely got a passing notice in the Midwest, where Big Ten and Big Eight titles were at stake on the same tense day. Coming down to its final game of the season, Illinois still had a chance to tie Ohio State for the Big Ten title and, under conference rules, a deadlock would send the Illini to the NCAA tournament. An Ohio State victory over Indiana, however, would give the Bucks their fourth straight try at the national championship. All week long Illinois players had written letters to Indiana Coach Branch McCracken and his players, beseeching them to beat Ohio State. Branch and his boys, who had knocked the Illini out of the lead a couple of weeks before, were willing enough, even without special pleas. They had suffered three defeats in a row from OSU and McCracken said "there is nothing we would rather do than deprive Ohio State of a fourth straight trip to the NCAA." It might almost seem McCracken holds a grudge against Ohio State and, in fact, he does. But first of all, Illinois had to get by Iowa, and it almost didn't. After building up a 13-point half-time lead, the hot-shooting Illini turned cold. Iowa whittled away at the lead until, with about 2� minutes to go, it was behind only 69-67. However, sophomore Tal Brody drove in for a layup, sophomore Skip Thoren sank a pair of free throws and Illinois won 73-69. With that over, the Illinois players settled down in front of their television sets to watch their new Hoosier friends play Ohio State in a fight-marked game at Bloomington.
In the beginning, it looked like a romp for OSU. Despite a noisy and decidedly unfriendly welcome from the 10,500 rooters jamming the Indiana fieldhouse, Gary Bradds, the Bucks' All-America center, got his team off to an early lead. With 6:23 left to play, Ohio State was still ahead 71-60. Then Indiana's Tom Bolyard began to hit. He put in the Hoosiers' next 11 points, and almost before the Bucks knew it their lead was cut to 73-71. With 47 seconds to go the score was tied at 79-79, at which point Ohio State decided to play for one shot. Bradds came wheeling around a screen at the top of the key but, instead of taking the fadeaway jump shot that had earned him most of his 32 points, he tried to drive through Indiana's three-man zone. He was called for charging, his fifth personal foul. In the overtime, Steve Redenbaugh and Jimmy Rayl put the Hoosiers ahead with four foul shots and the Bucks were beaten 87-85. "I'll bet I've got a lot of friends in Illinois today," said Coach McCracken.
The Big Eight windup was less spectacular, but even more surprising. Colorado, not playing its best lately, was given slight chance against Kansas State in Manhattan, where the Wildcats almost never lose. Colorado Coach Sox Walseth was especially apprehensive about playing there. Weary of having visiting coaches attribute their defeats at Boulder to the high altitude, Walseth kept his face quite straight while taking public note of Kansas State's proximity to the Kaw River.
"That river-bottom sickness gets you," he said. "The low altitude definitely affects your team's play."
But once the game began Colorado's tall front liners showed unexpected immunity to river-bottom sickness. Breaking off quick picks, Jim Davis, Ken Charlton and Milt Mueller took turns driving in for easy layups. K-State's switching defense, so effective during its nine-game winning streak, turned meek and confused, and Colorado had no trouble winning 69-56. The victory gave the Buffs a tie for the championship and, because they had beaten Kansas State twice during the season, a place in the NCAA tournament.
DePaul prepared for New York's National Invitation Tournament by beating Dayton 68-66, but two other NIT teams met opponents who were not awed. Marquette, after defeating Creighton 74-68, bowed to Air Force 70-63 and St. Louis was beaten by Bradley 66-60. The top three: