After Houston defeated UCLA last January in the Astrodome, establishing that the Bruins were less than immortal after all, Lew Alcindor sat dejectedly in his dressing-room cubicle, slowly shaking his fist. "Never again, never again," he said. It was about the only dramatic thing he had done on a night that belonged completely to Houston's Elvin Hayes.
Since then the conjecture has been that these two teams and their rival demigods, Big Lew and Big E, would meet again in the semifinal round of the NCAA tournament at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles. The way the draw is set up (opposite) they cannot meet in the finals and, of course, they must shove and elbow their way past some fine teams even to reach the semis, but a rematch does seem inevitable. Then the Bruins will be playing in their home town and in an arena thoroughly familiar to them. UCLA practically owns the Los Angeles Classic, which is staged in the Sports Arena, and not so long ago played all its home games there. The ushers know Hail to the Hills of Westwood
by heart. Easily 90% of the 10,000 tickets already sold to the public went to people in the southern California area, most of whom will do all in their lungpower to reverse that decision under the Dome.
"I don't visualize any problem with the crowd," said Houston Coach Guy Lewis. "When you're going for the national championship, you aren't going to let the crowd bother you. I'm more worried about UCLA."
He should be. The Bruins seem to be hungrier and more aggressive since the Houston loss. Alcindor, who shot poorly under the Dome because of a scratched eyeball suffered in an earlier game and was sluggish from the attendant layoff, is "devastating" again, according to California Coach Rene Herrerias. " Lew is the greatest I've ever seen, just fantastic," he said after Alcindor made 11 of 15 shots in the first half of a recent game against the Bears.
Except for Lew's return to form, UCLA's offense has not changed much, but John Wooden has made the trap zone an important part of his defense. Now when Alcindor clears the board the zone enables UCLA's wingmen to take off more quickly on Wooden's pet fast breaks. Edgar Lacey's quitting has not appeared to hurt appreciably; Mike Lynn is a better shooter, Jim Nielsen has more brawn and everybody gets to play more, boosting morale.
Houston is also missing a man. Guard George Reynolds, a slick passer and all-court hustler, is ineligible for NCAA competition because he did not have enough credits when he transferred to Houston from a California junior college. "He meant a great deal to our offense," says Lewis. "He was leading the team in assists, in fact. But I think my son Vern will be able to replace George on defense all right."
Before UCLA starts worrying about how to stop Elvin, however, it must worry about the state of New Mexico. In the West Regional this weekend in Albuquerque, the Bruins are likely to be playing New Mexico State and New Mexico on successive nights—each time before close to 15,000 cactus-country basketball fans. The UNM Arena is mostly underground; it is called "The Pit" by students, "The Snakepit" by visitors. Against Purdue and Houston in similar circumstances, UCLA did not do so well.
New Mexico State made it to the Friday night game by beating Big Sky champion Weber State last weekend 68-57, and that was the Aggies' first NCAA tournament victory in six tries. They have piled up a 22-5 record since almost upsetting Houston in last year's playoffs, but the red, white and blue "Go Aggies" bumper stickers, the Aggie press and their outstanding sophomore from Syracuse, Jimmy Collins, should not be enough to upset UCLA. State is quick, but it is also inexperienced and tends to get in foul trouble.
New Mexico, which finished first in the Western Athletic Conference after being picked to finish next to last—if it were to finish at all—has lost Greg Howard, its top rebounder and third best scorer. He is ineligible because of the same kind of JC-transfer rule that eliminated Reynolds of Houston. The Lobos still have 6'8" Center Ron Sanford, who knows all about Alcindor from their prep days in New York City, and leading scorer Ron Nelson. New Mexico has never played a single NCAA tournament game, but with the home-court advantage it should not be embarrassed.
"This is the greatest-working group of kids I've ever coached," said New Mexico's Bob King. "They have guts, poise and just great effort."