The arrival of spring usually inspires a resurgence of hope all around, but this week 23 college basketball teams are conducting—in an atmosphere of semi-despair—the formal rites that should legitimatize UCLA as national champion. In its 29th tournament, the NCAA stands for No Chance Against Alcindor.
This theme is likely to continue for the next two years, but there is the sad additional note that many of the same young men must go down to frustrating defeat throughout the Alcindor Era. For while much has been made of the fact that UCLA is virtually an all-sophomore team (five of the first six; no senior at all), a less publicized truth is that sophomores abound in unusual numbers everywhere. At the same time, only a few teams feature seniors. There are exactly 11 senior starters on the top 10 teams.
Indeed, the figures suggest that the younger the team the better. The best team in the country is 80% sophomore. The five best are 48% sophomore. The 10 top teams are 36% sophomore, and all 23 in this year's tournament field are 31% sophomore. How good are they? Well, in the seven first-round games played last Saturday, the winners started twice as many sophomores as the losers. There have been tournaments before that starred sophomores and were notable for the absence of seniors—Indiana's 1953 champions played no seniors; Ohio State's 1960 winners were led by three sophomores—but none has been so overwhelmingly populated by rookies.
The presence of so much extreme youth is bound to produce surprises and unexpected play—good and bad—throughout the tournament. This has been the case all year, for even the best teams have gone through long, unexpected slumps and periods of uneven play that may be attributed to inexperience.
A classic example of how unpredictable sophomores can be occurred Saturday in the qualifying round at Lexington, Ky., where one of Virginia Tech's two starting rookies, Ken Talley, made 10 of 15 shots, had his best night ever with 24 points and led the Gobblers over Toledo and its three sophomore starters 82-76. The irony is that only the week before Toledo had routed Tech 90-71. Though they lost Saturday, the Rockets were helped considerably by sophomore Bob Miller, who came off the bench to score 19. That sixth-man position, traditionally, is supposed to be handled by a cagey veteran who can withstand the pressure and the burden of having to fire off the bench and stir up his club. But even this venerable role has been assumed by sophomores on many teams. The best, perhaps, is Bill Voight of SMU.
Virginia Tech will be joined at Evans-ton, Ill. in the Mideast Regional by Tennessee, Dayton—which qualified with a mild upset overtime win over Western Kentucky—and Indiana, the Big Ten co-champ. The Hoosiers scrambled to a 10-4 record, a complete turnaround from last year. They were led by Butch Joyner, a much-underrated player who averaged 19 points a game and who, together with Bill DeHeer—a sophomore, of course—gave the team the rebounding it lacked in 1966. Indiana tied with Michigan State over the regular season, but there was no playoff. An archaic Big Ten rule stipulates that in such cases, the team that more recently represented the conference must yield the NCAA berth. This is a generous gesture, but one hardly designed to produce the best team.
Still it ranks right up there with the Code of Hammurabi when compared to some of the NCAA dictums. One such rule cost Defending Champion Texas Western the services of senior Forward Nevil (Shadow) Shed. ( Texas Western is now, officially, the University of Texas at El Paso, or UTEP.) It seems that Shed played on the varsity for North Carolina A&T when he was a freshman there in 1962-63. This was legal, approved by the NCAA. It was also permissible for Shed to play all this regular season for UTEP. But he was declared ineligible for the tournament. There is about as much logic in this as there would be in declaring that all children of a certain marriage were illegitimate if born on Tuesdays or Thursdays. To make the whole thing even sillier, it was decreed that if North Carolina A&T had had an enrollment of less than 751 males when the party of the first part played there, then it would all be hunky-dory and he would be eligible.
Thus, Shed was sitting in the press box Saturday night in Fort Collins, Colo. when UTEP beat Seattle to qualify for the Western Regionals against Pacific. However, with Shed ineligible and Bobby Joe Hill flunked out, Coach Don Haskins has been forced to use Fred Carr, a football linebacker, as a regular forward. Carr did not even suit up for Haskins until February 25.
His squad is so decimated that Haskins really would have preferred to have come to New York and the NIT—where it is still considered permissible to use players who have played all year long. The Miners felt, however, that they were obliged to at least attempt to defend their national crown. As a reward for this decision, the NCAA shifted UTEP to the Western Regional, which denied the school an opportunity to defend its Midwest Regional championship.
Utah State did choose the NIT over the NCAA because, as in the case of Shed, one of State's players was declared ineligible. He had attended junior college for a year, a normal occurrence in that area. However, the NCAA bans such a JC transfer from its tournament—though, of course, he may be used all season to get his team into the tournament. Utah State Athletic Director Frank Williams also joined a chorus of independents in claiming that the NCAA discriminated against them and in favor of conference teams.