Everything we do," says Michigan Basketball Coach Dave Strack (above), "is keyed on Cazzie Russell." And what Michigan has managed to do so far this season is win 22, lose four and get to the semifinal round of the NCAA tournament in Kansas City. There it will meet Duke, and everything it does in that game depends on the doubtful state of Cazzie Russell's ankle (opposite).
The coach of the Duke team, Vic Bubas, is a man who allows himself no doubts at all. He is a vigorously positive thinker who will not touch uncomplimentary mail with a 10-foot letter opener. Occasionally, however, a subversive note gets through his guard, like the recent series of postcards from a room-and-board man at a nearby state mental institution. The man pointed out to Vic the blunders he was making with the Duke team, the team Bubas says—without a doubt—is of championship quality. Last week, before the NCAA regional at Raleigh, the man closed his serial essay with a final postcard, saying, "O.K., Bubas, I've got you this far. Now you're on your own."
On his own and doing fine, thank you, Bubas and his Blue Devils swept through the tournament at Raleigh without missing a step. Hack Tison, the 6-foot-10 forward and highest stepper of all, leaped two rows into the stands on the final exhilarating night—Duke 101, Connecticut 54—to wrest the game ball from an opportunistic fan and later declared he was playing with "a great team, man, a great team." Duke Captain Jeff Mullins was endorsed as a player who could do no wrong, and could do right like no other player. "Going to Kansas City," No. 1 tune on the Duke locker-room hit parade for some time, twirled redundantly on the phonograph. It was suddenly quite clear that it is not postcard insanity to believe that the Blue Devils are of national-championship quality.
In the way of proving it, they are going to Kansas City this weekend along with the two best teams in the nation by popular vote: UCLA, still undefeated after 28 games and several miracle escapes, and Michigan, still the toughest bully on any block. The fourth qualifier after regional eliminations is the only one that did not figure: Kansas State.
None of the four has ever won a national championship, and only Duke made it this far last year. UCLA appeared as a semifinalist in 1962, Kansas State in 1958 and Michigan would rather not discuss it. ( Michigan basketball was formerly underprivileged.) The Wolverines, nevertheless, have unequivocal credits this year: they knocked off defending champion Loyola 84-80 in the regionals at Minneapolis last week, and Duke will remember them from December when they crushed the Blue Devils 83-67 at Ann Arbor. Should Michigan repeat over Duke in Friday night's first game and UCLA repeat its 78-75 December triumph over Kansas State, form will have been served and UCLA will play Michigan for the championship on Saturday. UCLA can then do away with any doubts about its 18-point victory over Michigan in December and satisfy the wish of Coach Strack, who says he has just been dying for a rematch.
But man cannot live on form charts alone, else he lose his shirt and get heartburn when the Loyolas of the world rise up and beat the favored Cincinnatis, as they did at Louisville last year. Duke is not the same medium-soft touch it was in December. Bubas has long quit experimenting with his lineup, and Mullins, smoother of execution than a man has a right to be and still be mostly gristle, looks now like the best college player in the country, all abilities considered.
Normally this would make Duke just that much more appetizing for Michigan's carnivores, except for the factor of jazzy Cazzie Russell's damaged right ankle and heel. Jammed in February when he collided with teammate Bob Cantrell, Russell's ankle is swollen and aching (there are bone chips and torn ligaments) and has responded to ice packs and to Cazzie's "few prayers" only reluctantly. He plays at two-thirds capacity. Cazzie Russell at two-thirds capacity is still better than most (he has only been averaging 25 points a game since the accident), but he cannot cut nearly as sharply and he is not rebounding as well.
In the dressing room after Michigan's 69-57 victory over Ohio in the regional final at Minneapolis, Russell sat studying the tape on his injured member. "Man, I wanted to jump," he said, "and I wanted to run, but I couldn't. I couldn't even get tired. I can usually lose my man—you know, throw a fake, then disappear. But now I throw a fake and my man is still hounding me. And on defense. Oh, man, it's embarrassing. You know, I'm not the best defensive player when I'm healthy, but now...."
Michigan power is still a big, bold item, however, and it was in ample evidence at Minneapolis, where the Mideast Regional had a glittering field, including Loyola and Kentucky—and inexplicably attracted fewer people than the state high school tournament in the same arena three days before.
Michigan Center Bill Buntin terrorized defending champion Loyola. At one point Loyola's Ron Miller drove for a shot and Buntin slammed it down his throat. Loyola's Les Hunter got the rebound, put it up and Buntin slammed it down his throat. Miller got it again and Larry Tregoning slammed it away.