The college basketball season was in its final days, and as far as the NCAA championship was concerned, the thing to be was a favorite. Sixteen teams played in the four NCAA regional elimination tournaments over the weekend (see page 22) and what came out as winners were the three big names—Cincinnati, Duke and Loyola of Chicago. The sole underdog to join this elite trio was Oregon State, and its victory in the West was a mild enough upset. Thus, one thing the regionals insured was that the NCAA finals in Louisville's Freedom Hall this weekend was going to be a battle of the best. Meanwhile, there was plenty of other tournament action where favorites didn't fare so well.
As it moved toward its weekend finale in New York's Madison Square Garden, the National Invitation Tournament offered enough tension for a whole season, and then some. Three of the first six games were decided by a single point, and Wichita, the nation's No. 5 team and the pretournament pick, was knocked out by Villanova.
Villanova's reputation was hardly impressive going into the NIT. The Wildcats had floundered badly early in the season, but they showed a winner's flair as they beat DePaul 63-51 and then upset Wichita 54-53. DePaul stayed with Villanova for a half, but eventually the Wildcats' harassing zone defense choked off the Blue Demons. However, it was Wally Jones, a quick 6-foot-2 guard, who really ruined them. When he wasn't throwing accurate passes to fast-cutting teammates, he was going over the frantically waving DePaul defenders for 10 baskets (and 28 points in all) with his unusual jump shot on which he hesitates briefly in mid-air and then pushes the ball off, like a girl throwing a baseball.
Wichita, with a reputation for fast-breaking and zone-pressing, didn't do either very well against Villanova. Jones, directing the offense with the nonchalance of a man out for a stroll, merely dribbled away from the press whenever the Shockers tried it, and the fast break died when Villanova's 6-foot-7 Jim Washington consistently snatched rebounds away from Wichita's 6-foot-10 Nate Bowman. Despite this, Villanova was behind 53-51 with 1:16 to go after it let Dave Stallworth get away for three layups in the stretch. But Jones came to the rescue. He slipped in his funny little jump shot from short range and then added the winning point on a free throw.
For a while Memphis State looked like a team that could give the favorites trouble. Urged on by four pretty cheerleaders who had the Garden jumping with their gyrating versions of the twist, the big Tigers broke away from Fordham in the last half and won 70-49. But the twisters couldn't help against Canisius. The Griffs soon found a simple way to beat Memphis State's zone. Tony Gennari and Dick McClory shot over it for 34 points, and Bill O'Connor, a robust 205-pounder, pushed in 27 more, mostly from underneath the basket. Despite this, and the loss of four starters on fouls, Hunter Beckman, a crewcut shooter who scored 30 points, kept his team in the game until the last three minutes, when Canisius pulled away to win 76-67.
St. Louis and Miami also scored first-round victories, but barely. St. Louis, locked in a close struggle with La Salle, got help from an unexpected source. With Bill Nordmann, his starting center, in foul trouble, Coach John Benington decided in the closing minutes to gamble with Gil Beckemeier, a 6-foot-10 third-stringer, thus hoping to control the rebounds. Beckemeier did more than that. He sank three turn-around jump shots off the pivot in the last two minutes and won the game for the Bills 62-61.
St. Francis of Brooklyn had bigger Miami on the run for a long time. Except for Mike McCoy, a lithe 7-foot-1 center who scores from outside (and did for most of his 29 points), the Hurricanes shot badly and handled the ball worse. With Jim Raftery driving off a high post for 23 points, St. Francis was ahead 66-65 with 3:38 to play. Then Raftery fouled out, and Miami went on to win 71-70 on McCoy's layup.
THE SMALL COLLEGES
The names weren't as big but the crowds were as enthusiastic and the stakes just as high in Evansville, Ind. and Kansas City, where small-college championships were settled last week.