Not many rival coaches are going to get teary-eyed about it, but this has been a trying season for UCLA's John Wooden. Opening at his alma mater, Purdue, he saw his defending national champion Bruins almost get upset by a so-so team having a very good night. Lew Alcindor suffered a scratched eyeball in the first game with California. and shortly afterward Houston beat UCLA in the Astrodome spectacular. Then Forward Edgar Lacey quit the team (he is now playing AAU ball for a potato-chip company). And Houston, not UCLA, finished on top of the wire-service polls. Still, there are a few things to be salvaged from this season. The Bruins have won 14 straight since their Dome defeat, and Friday night, in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament, they get another chance at the Texans.
The NCAA cast at Los Angeles is practically the same as it was at Louisville in 1967: UCLA vs. Houston and North Carolina vs. a sleeper from the state of Ohio. Last year Dayton sneaked in the back door and made it past Carolina to the finals. Now Ohio State has climbed the tournament ladder and squeezed through an upstairs window.
A couple of weeks ago the Buckeyes themselves thought they were all through. Iowa, with a half-game lead in the Big Ten race, had only to beat Michigan at home to clinch the championship and move on to the Mideast Regional. Ohio State Captain Bill Hosket bought a ticket for the regional games, fully expecting to be a spectator. But Iowa lost, and Ohio State won the subsequent playoff on a neutral court.
No matter. The regional was in Lexington, and home team Kentucky, the SEC champ, just does not lose basketball games in Lexington. Not with Adolph Rupp sitting there. Furthermore, these particular Buckeyes were certainly not reincarnations of the super Ohio State athletes of the early '60s—Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Mel Nowell et al.—who won one NCAA title and finished second twice. In fact, a scout for one of their opponents who saw them play Georgia Tech earlier in the season said, "I thought then I'd like to make my living playing them."
Now he is not so sure. Ohio State beat East Tennessee last Friday night in a so-what game while Kentucky was impressively mashing Marquette. Al McGuire, the Marquette coach, had attempted to stir up his outmanned team by jousting verbally with Rupp at a Thursday night banquet, but the guy who got stirred up was Kentucky Center Dan Issel. He beat Marquette's center badly.
Issel probably should have saved some energy for the following night. While he wilted repeatedly between rest periods on the bench, Ohio State whipped Kentucky in nearly every category, including points. The game was close all the way and the Wildcats had a one-point lead with 28 seconds left, but they erred by not fouling in order to gain possession. Ohio State would have been allowed one free throw, so Kentucky would only have risked having the game tied in exchange for a chance at the last shot. Instead, Ohio State got it. A member of State's tall, muscular front line, 6'7" Dave Sorenson, hit a five-foot fall-away jumper with three seconds left to win the game 82-81 and send himself and his teammates on an unexpected trip to the Coast.
There, in the Sports Arena, the Buckeyes will battle Carolina for the right to play the Houston- UCLA winner in the final. They threw their coach, Fred Taylor, in the shower after the Kentucky victory, but Fred likely will have a quiet, nonceremonial bath at his hotel after the Carolina game. The Tar Heels learned their lesson last year from Dayton. "Now it's us against the Cinderellas again." said Coach Dean Smith. "Cinderella Dayton took us out last year when we were looking ahead. We'll be ready this time."
Carolina is a veteran, tournament-toughened team. The Tar Heels beat Oregon State in the Far West Classic in Portland, scraped through the annual Atlantic Coast Conference playoffs, easily took undefeated St. Bonaventure and then state rival Davidson in the East Regional. The Bonnies were the flop of the tournament (a good, young Columbia team annihilated them in the consolation game), but Davidson stayed with North Carolina right to the end, even without one of its best players, sophomore Doug Cook, who was injured. "I'm not but 35 years old and I'm going to be up there someday soon," said Davidson's Lefty Driesell afterward. "I've got most of these boys back and some of them may be with me when we win this whole thing."
Right now, however, North Carolina is up there, led by All-America Larry Miller. Everyone knew Miller was a fine clutch player, but the surprise for the Tar Heels at Raleigh was Center Rusty Clark, who had 22 points and 17 rebounds against Davidson and did a good defensive job on St. Bonaventure's Bob Lanier. Carolina should get by Ohio State, most likely by using its half-court pressure defense to harass the Buckeye guards, who are not in a class with the front line of Hosket, Sorenson and Steve Howell.
North Carolina, like Ohio State, has a proud basketball tradition, and the players bitterly remember being run off the floor twice last year at Louisville, while their fans, with admirable sportsmanship but depressing effect, yelled, "We're No. 4, we're No. 4!" Miller especially embarrassed himself last year, making only five of 20 shots in each game. "I am going to have a good game the first night," he said, "and then we'll worry about UCLA or Houston. Last year we came out of the ACC tournament, played sloppily in the Easterns and felt lucky to even be in the final four. Then everybody said we didn't have a chance to beat UCLA and we just kept thinking about that. Dayton made us look terrible. This time nobody knows if UCLA is going to win against Houston. I don't know either. But the winner of that game is bound to have a letdown the second night. We may be in there to see just what happens."