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Lew Alcindor's reign over college basketball ended last March with UCLA's third straight NCAA championship—and a big sigh of relief from everybody else. The man who had inspired the no-dunk rule, packed the Astrodome, boycotted the Olympics, demoralized every opponent and topped it off by knocking his own school finally was gone. Now there was going to be some fun, some healthy, eye-gouging, elbow-swinging fun. Maybe even a tumbleweed of a team from El Paso could win the whole laugh-in, as in 1966.
The hilarity, measured in terms of poked eyes and bruised knees—not to mention bruised egos—began last week. Some favorites lost their poise and flopped, some underdogs got injections of vitamin JC and won and suddenly there were 16 teams left with still plenty of running before any of them claimed the title. The whittling process the NCAA calls its regional tournaments—this year they are at Columbia, S.C., Columbus, Ohio, Lawrence, Kans. and Seattle—will have reduced the field to four by Saturday night. The finals are scheduled for next week in College Park, Md., and the hope of Jimmy Collins of New Mexico State, John Vallely of UCLA, Dan Issel of Kentucky or Bob Lanier of St. Bonaventure (see cover), to mention just a few, is that he and his teammates will be up there looking down at all the rest, the way Alcindor used to at the end of NCAA finals. The probability is that Vallely will be the lucky man. UCLA should win—for the sixth time in seven years.
It is now clear that Alcindor's era was only an era within an era, John Wooden's. Coach Wooden remains supreme, quoting homilies and tongue-lashing a player or two when the need arises. His teams won two NCAA championships before Alcindor enrolled, and this season, as usual, the Bruins are champions of the Pacific Eight. They have experience, quickness, discipline, a powerful and high-scoring front line and perhaps the most accurate-shooting pair of guards in the college game.
They have, however, better opposition than UCLA clubs of the past, and winning the NCAA this year will be no stroll through the park. Oregon and USC in UCLA's own league have proved the Bruins can be beaten, and the big man in the middle, the guy who can score 30 or 40 points, swat away shots and control the backboards, is on the other side this time—an Issel or a Lanier or an Artis Gilmore of Jacksonville.
Almost every year in the NCAA one underdog (Utah in 1966, Ohio State in '68, Drake last year) slips through a regional and into the final four. This time the field is so wide open that four or five, and maybe seven or eight, teams have legitimate shots at winning it all, and this is excluding perhaps the finest team in the East, South Carolina, a victim of the Atlantic Coast Conference's lucrative but thoroughly unnecessary three-day tournament to pick an NCAA representative. The No. 3-ranked Gamecocks, having beaten each of the other ACC teams twice in regular-season play, almost made it through this gauntlet of despised rivals—but not quite.
South Carolina survived a slowdown Thursday afternoon and beat Clemson 34-33. Afterward, the Gamecocks' superb guard, John Roche, was correct when he said, "We're the best team. If someone else wins, it's a fluke." In the second round South Carolina outfought Wake Forest 79-63, but with 10:55 to go the fluke occurred. Roche landed on an opponent's foot and sprained his ankle. He was hampered in the slowdown finale the next night, and South Carolina lost in double overtime to North Carolina State, a team it had beaten the week before by 16 points. Thus, N.C. State moved into the regional against St. Bonaventure.
Poor South Carolina should have proceeded forthwith to the National Invitational Tournament, right? No, suh! Since it is the host school for the East Regional, it will not be allowed by the NCAA to compete in any rival event. The Gamecocks will stay home and sniff camellias.
St. Bonaventure, then, is the choice in the East. The Bonnies (23-1) beat Davidson 85-72 in a rugged first-round game Saturday. Lanier, likely to be the pros' first draft choice, was intimidating on defense, took 15 rebounds and scored 28 points. Davidson's excellent rebounding power was at least partially offset by the Bonnies' three black forecourt men, Lanier, Matt Gantt and Gregg Gary, all of whom could take up soaring—without gliders. They are known as the Soul Patrol.
Patrol Captain Lanier, at 6'11" and 265 pounds, is as big as a house, but his legs are springy, his left-handed jump shot is soft and delicate and his disposition pleasant. His roommate, little Guard Billy Kalbaugh, enjoys telling stories about Buffalo Bob's put-ons and legendary big feet. Such as the time an airline stewardess said to Lanier:
"You must be a famous basketball player. Are you?"