The NCAA is throwing a California Easter party this weekend and there is no guest of honor. For the first time since Helen Gurley Brown was a cheerleader, the final round of the national championship shapes up as a basketball tournament instead of a UCLA prom. Any one of the four finalists—Kentucky, Louisville, Syracuse or UCLA—could end up as King of the Hoop.
So, even if you are positive you know how the festivities in San Diego will wind up, don't bet the unemployment check on it. These finals are not only the most evenly matched since John Wooden invented the dry clean and zone press, they are spiced with the ingredients of which melodrama is made. We are assured of two semi-final subplots: an upstart in blue against another in orange, and the old master matched with his prize student. The finals could be even more gripping, particularly if Kentucky and Louisville face off in a vengeful, all-hillbilly feud.
Though the Wildcats and the Orangemen hardly figured to be in San Diego when the season began, there are no cardboard entries in the finals. UCLA has long experience in epic games; Louisville is as deep as Atlantis; Kentucky has more quick shooters than a Western; and gutty Syracuse has fate—not to mention a hawking defense—going for it.
One thread ran throughout last week's regional playoffs. Each of the winning teams had a communal style. There were no Bill Waltons or David Thompsons to dominate the scene in Providence, Dayton, Las Cruces, N. Mex. and Portland, Ore. One day the heroes were named Trgovich, Bridgeman, Lee and Phillips. The next they were Johnson, Bond, Hackett and Flynn.
Once-timid Kentucky became the tournament Cinderella and proved it no longer plays in glass slippers by going muscle to muscle with No. 1 Indiana in the Mideast and coming away bruised, battered and beautiful. The Wildcats ended the Hoosiers' 34-game win streak 92-90 and ruined Indiana's championship dreams. The Cats now face Eastern winner Syracuse, which played Beat The Clock against both heavily favored North Carolina and surprising Kansas State and won 78-76 and 95-87.
In the other semifinal, UCLA's Wooden will match blackboards with his former assistant, Louisville's Denny Crum. The Cardinals had wandered aimlessly most of the year, but they found a home in the Midwest Regional, decimating Cincinnati 78-63 and Maryland 96-82. And UCLA played perhaps its finest game of the season against Arizona State to win the West tournament 89-75, after playing one of its worst in defeating Montana 67-64.
In some ways the coastal regionals were mere bookends for the tournaments in the Mideast and Midwest. There the teams were both highly rated and evenly matched, especially in Dayton, where emotion throbbed like a cheerleader's pulse. Indiana and Kentucky may be neighbors but they definitely are not neighborly. Earlier in the year Indiana bombed the Wildcats by 24 points in a game replete with controversy. Kentucky Coach Joe Hall was embarrassed, especially by the well-publicized rap on the' head given him by Indiana Coach Bobby Knight. "All I want is another chance to play them," Hall said. "Knight personally humiliated me, and I'll never forget it."
Kentucky also never forgot the lesson it learned from the Hoosiers. After that loss the Wildcats became a pugnacious team. The turnaround was most obvious at center, where Indiana's Kent Benson had intimidated UK freshman Rick Robey. "I found out a lot from Benson," said Robey in Dayton. "I learned not to give a lot of little cheap shots but to save up for one big one."
Hall poured more gasoline on the Indiana-Kentucky fire by predicting Oregon State would beat Indiana in the Mideast's first round, but it was Kentucky that almost was burned. The Wildcats finally solved Central Michigan's pressing defense, hit 14 of their last 16 shots and ran away to a 90-73 victory as their other freshman center, Mike Phillips, came off the bench to amass 15 points and seven rebounds.
Then the Kentucky coaches retired to the press table where they scouted Indiana against Oregon State. By halftime Indiana had a 21-point lead and Hall ordered his impressionable team back to the motel. "Maybe we think down deep that we can't beat them," said Kentucky's aggressive Mike Flynn (see cover) contemplating Indiana's eventual 81-71 victory. "I don't think we do. We've improved a lot since that first game."