If somebody will clear the place of all this debris; if the probation sufferers over here and the ineligibility cases over there and all the college basketball people everywhere who have been charged with forgery, bribery, robbery, extortion, kidnap, child abuse, old age and failure to replace the cap on the toothpaste will kindly move out, maybe we can get some kind of a tournament started. Now.
The NCAA coasted into its 35th annual basketball playoffs last week with visions of perfection dancing ahead. Unfortunately, after many seasons of trying, the venerable organization seemed no nearer its ideal than ever before. For when the 1973 NCAA playoffs are remembered in the years to come, it will not be for any sense of logic or sweet reason. Who wasn't there will seem as basic as who was, who retained sanity as important as who won games.
This was the year the NCAA sent South Carolina and its carpetbag full of New Yorkers all the way to Wichita where there isn't even a delicatessen worth the cream cheese. It hid Oklahoma City's Abe Lemons way up in the mountains of Logan, Utah where nobody could hear his funny lines. ("We'll have to parachute in there," Abe was heard to say in the distance. "Plus battle some grizzlies.") And finally this was the year North Carolina State—unbeaten, untied and, some said, unscrupulous—was forced to sit at home on probation while everybody else fought for the championship of the other 49 states. A moment of silence, y'all, while the Wolfpack bays at the Carolina moon.
State's problems were of its own making, but baffling any cogent analysis was the NCAA's first-round pairings last Saturday that had the two best teams in the East and the two best in the Midwest facing off against each other. This ploy immediately eliminated the splendid Olympian, Mike Bantom of St. Joseph's, as well as Houston's carnival style. What the pairings also did was establish the credentials of Providence (which beat St. Joseph's 89-76) and Southwestern Louisiana (whose Dwight Lamar scored 35 points while the Cajuns were running away from Houston 102-89) as forces to be reckoned with in the ensuing rounds.
As always, the question is can Providence or Southwestern Louisiana—or anybody else—reckon with UCLA? Can Long Beach? Can Marquette? Can Maryland? Can Austin Healy? Uh, Austin Peay? Come again?
All season long, rival coaches have been puzzling over the true worth of the current Bruins. Overrated is one opinion. Can't shoot outside. Don't press that well. One-man team. Other observers claim just the opposite. Pacific's Stan Morrison says there are two leagues in college and one contains only UCLA. New Mexico's Norm Ellenberger insists it is yet to be determined if UCLA is human. Southern Cal's Bob Boyd says the Bruins may be better than ever and that they are to be compared only to the UCLA team of 1968, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's junior year.
With all of this on the UCLA side, can the NCAA tournament be as thoroughly set up for the Bruins to win again as it appears to be? Consider that here is UCLA with its John Wooden and its Bill Walton and its Keith Wilkes and it is permitted to play the West Regional at home in Pauley Pavilion, where its record is 117-2. Here are the Bruins with their 71 consecutive victories and their six straight national championships (eight in the last nine years) and their rebounding strength and their barbed-wire defense and their loaded bench and maybe their best team of all time, and they are granted another favor?
Late developments seemed to make UCLA's task easier than ever. Before the qualifying even started, two more teams with high potential faltered—North Carolina, beaten in the ACC tournament by lowly Wake Forest with the help of the familiar Last Ditch Soviet Bomb Pass; and Minnesota, which had all the talent but not enough heart to withstand the Big Ten's final week.
So we are left with a veritable Poseidon Adventure of an NCAA tournament, where audiences at the four regional sites will have to make do with watching 16 survivors of conference races and preliminary rounds battle each other this weekend at Charlotte, N.C., Nashville, Tenn., Houston and Los Angeles. The next week the four winners will meet in St. Louis in a revised semifinals format that sends the West against the Mideast and the East against the Midwest with the championship game scheduled for Monday night, March 26.
The annual frenzied pursuit of UCLA was put in fine perspective in Logan last week when Lemons was asked how he might play the defending champions. "A horrifyin' subject," said Coach Abe. "That's like thankin' about buyin' a cemetery plot." But Lemons was spared any chance when Arizona State dropped in layups all night to beat OCU in the opening round, 103-78.