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There are 23 teams in the NCAA tournament, all of them listed neatly in the little boxes on the chart on the opposite page. To paraphrase an old line, you could say, "Twenty-two skid-doo!" and accurately reflect the overwhelming opinion of the public and the polls, which have established a field of teams and a team to beat. The team to beat is Michigan.
Michigan has not lost since January 2, when it was upset 75-74 by St. John's in Madison Square Garden, although many of its victories since then have appeared to be hairbreadth escapes from defeat. Close or not, they were victories, and against strong opposition. The Wolverines have earned the role of favorite.
If beating Michigan is a requisite for winning the title, seven of the 22 teams in the field have the personnel and the playing style to become champion: St. Joseph's, Miami of Ohio, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Brigham Young, San Francisco and UCLA. Most compare favorably—as does Michigan—with the picture of the composite NCAA title-holder that emerges from a study of the tournaments since 1951, when the field was expanded from eight to 16 teams and became essentially the kind of competition it is today. Here is that ideal team:
The team has seniors on it but is not dominated by them. It has, in fact, nearly as many sophomores as seniors, and more juniors than either.
The team has a good bench, but not a deep one. Seldom does an NCAA champ depend on more than seven regulars. It is marked by superior teamwork and is well-balanced, but it is led by an All-America, most often at center. He plays his best in the tournament, but he is not a superstar, nor is he one of the nation's highest scorers. He is an All-America in large measure because his talents fit so well with those of the other players on his team, rather than because he overshadows them. The collegiate superstars, contrarily, usually have carried their teams to a level just short of the championship. Only Bill Russell, of those acknowledged to be superstars in the pros, led his team to a title. The others—Pettit, Chamberlain, Baylor, Robertson and West—lost in the finals or semifinals, while such players as Schlundt, Rosenbluth, Hatton, Imhoff and Harkness led their teams to victory.
(Coincidentally, it has been true since 1954 that the team among the NCAA's final four that boasts the highest individual scorer does not win. This could jinx Michigan, for Cazzie Russell is the ninth highest scorer in the country, and only one of the other eight has steered his team into the tournament—Bill Bradley of Princeton, who is No. 3. Presumably, the only thing that can save Michigan is for Princeton also to go to the finals in Portland.)
The team, if not staffed by highly experienced players, is led by a coach with many years of college competition behind him. Ohio State's Fred Taylor and Cincinnati's Ed Jucker brought home winners early in their careers, but they are the exceptions, THE TEAM'S coach has masterminded at least 250 games and won two-thirds of them.
The team is among the nation's leaders in either offense or defense. It does not seem to matter which, only that it be superior in one of the extremes of playing styles. It is, however, better at rebounding than shooting, whether it specializes in offense or defense.
The team is no surprise. It has been ranked prominently by the wire-service polls—almost always in the top three, and nearly half the time as No. 1.
The team supports the theory that a champion is a good road club, but only because it wins everywhere. It does not lose more than three games during the season, and it almost never loses at home. (In 166 games over 14 years, the champion has lost twice at home.) Perhaps even more important, it has almost as much success on neutral courts, where NCAA tournament games are played.