There is an old priest's tale concerning the graduate of a certain Midwestern university who went to the big city seeking his fortune, but instead dropped out, freaked in, affected the ways of the counterculture and shuffled around mumbling "digit" a lot. About this pseudo hippie, it was prophesied that he could wear all the beads and headbands he wanted, but he would never get the Notre Dame out of him.
As college basketball's best teams dwindled down to a precious few last week, it became abundantly clear, even as the UCLA Bruins finally rid themselves of the Oregons, the Oregon States and the tenacious, terminal USC demons from their own Pacific Eight conference, that the question remained whether they, too, have got the Notre Dame out of them. Or the North Carolina State. Or, for that matter, the various puzzling performances that have marred one more otherwise brilliant season.
It was in Kansas City exactly a decade ago that the Bruins began this most awesome of dynasties, but as they have struggled this season in defense of an eighth straight championship they have taken on the personalities of more strange beings than even little Regan could muster. Is it simply a kind of Seven Year Itch? Or is it that, in this era of exorcism, some obsessive Captain Howdy is still lingering inside the men from UCLA screaming, "Take me." In either case, as the 35th grand old NCAA tournament gets underway, the fact is that somebody just might.
Before it was discovered midway through the season that Coach John Wooden was not born in a manger and that Bill Walton did not drink molten lava for breakfast after all, UCLA was a mystique as much as a team, a source of terror in the mind as well as a creator of havoc on the court. Then Notre Dame ended UCLA's 88-game winning streak, and later the two mediocre Oregon schools upset the Bruins within 19 hours. The chill was gone. Suddenly, UCLA was a gingerbread house, and the critics nibbled away.
The UCLA offense was too predictable, they said. The press was a fraud and didn't work anymore. The guards could not shoot or penetrate. The cheerleaders were pregnant. Walton was bothered by a back injury. He had become passive from transcendental meditation and weak and docile because of his vegetarian diet.
Last Saturday night, however, Mahareshi Billy came out snortin' and snarlin' and dancin' his number all over the Trojan heads, leaving little doubt that he and his mates are ready for the ultimate challenge again. In a masterful display of defense, UCLA held USC to four baskets in the first half and roared to a 47-13 margin as Walton, in full cry, had 20 points and 16 rebounds. The rest of the 82-52 contest was almost as brutal, and if it did anything besides sewing up another Pac Eight title and humiliating the crosstown rival, it was justifying the goodness of limas, carrots and okra.
"Doctors tell me animals must eat meat to be killers," Wooden said the day before the slaughter. "But not all do. Baboons go for fruit."
Wooden did not mean to imply he was running a simian operation instead of the same marvelous basketball machine everybody has come to love and hate, but he surely would like to make another monkey show out of the tournament. Still, the presence in the field of Notre Dame and North Carolina State would seem to preclude that possibility. The particular moments featuring this long-awaited m�nage � trois of a denouement—a fourth outfit undoubtedly will show up just to fill out the table—has to wait on the finals at Greensboro, March 23-25. But in the meantime there should be spirited competition this week in the four regional sites at Tucson, Tulsa, Tuscaloosa and Raleigh.
Bearing in mind that at any moment your favorite team could be kidnapped, arrested, indicted, impeached or brought before Judge Sirica, here is an analysis of what might happen along the way.
The West: Two familiar names are missing from this regional, Weber State, which failed to qualify in the Big Sky, and Long Beach State, which failed on land, sea and in the sky to get past the NCAA infractions committee. For the 49ers, who had their best team in history and the freshman of the year in Cliff Pondexter, it was a bitter pill. But they are no more saddened than the customers will be who have to witness a massacre in the desert.