March snows are bitter. A blizzard in November is met with a stoic shrug, but late spring flurries carve frowns. This is best understood by the college basketball coaches still clutching their chalkboards as was obvious when the NCAA tournament began last week. Defeat is different now, because in March there ain't no sunshine when you're gone. And no practice tomorrow.
And for Indiana there seems no justice. Here is a team that has beaten everybody from Joe Palooka to Ivan the Terrible, admittedly sometimes with a prayer, but more often with a machine gun, outfighting and outthinking all comers, and yet, like Rodney What's His Name, the Hoosiers don't get no respect.
Despite an undefeated record, a couple of All-Americas, a coach who acts as if he knows all the answers, the Hoosiers' chances are only as good as campaign promises. Even Robert De Niro's taxi-cab would have trouble negotiating the road Indiana must travel, for it finds itself in a regional where its opponents have a combined won-lost record of 74-7. And two of them—Alabama and Marquette—are the kind of team you'd expect to meet in the finals. The regional is aptly named the Mideast, for there is always all sorts of trouble for the undefeated. Henry Kissinger couldn't keep the peace in Baton Rouge this week.
Adding to the drama, the survivors still dribbling at other regional sites in Greensboro, Louisville and Los Angeles include a veritable phalanx of challengers. There is undefeated yet lightly regarded Rutgers, second banana to Indiana most of the year; a man with more wins than any other active college coach, Ray Meyer of DePaul; UCLA, the defending champion, which everyone knows has a score to settle and the talent to do it; a Nevada-Las Vegas club that will set a national scoring record this season; Michigan, the team that gave Indiana its biggest scare of the year; and several others with Cinderella on their minds and title in their eyes. By the time it winds up in a Bicentennial explosion in Philadelphia next week, it will have been a tournament to remember.
Indiana peaked around the end of November when it made UCLA look like its initials were on backwards. In mid-season it struggled through a series of games with the anxiety of the lead man on a minefield sweep, but at the end the club was back on target. In the opening playoff round last week, it befuddled St. John's in an easy victory that hardly caused Coach Bobby Knight to leave his seat, much less throw it.
After Knight held a team meeting last month that extolled the virtue of positive thinking, his club came out running and left footprints, and egg, on everyone's face. The Hoosiers beat their last four Big Ten opponents by an average of 23 points and coasted to their fourth straight league title. The fast-break strategy neutralized the nettlesome zone defenses opponents had been throwing at them, and effectively hid whatever weaknesses the club has shooting from the perimeter. It proved that Indiana has the characteristic necessary to all great teams: adaptability. That defense does not hurt, either.
But the Indiana players remain enigmas. They win games with flair and then talk about them in sign language. So far as we know, not one of the Hoosiers smokes grass or eats dried fruit, or vice versa; not one dares to snap back at the coach; no one needs a haircut or wears platform shoes or drives a limousine; no one knows Totie Fields; and no one lives on the beach in Malibu. Of the 16 remaining NCAA teams, Indiana is the kid down the street who shows up every Sunday morning with shoes shined, hair slicked down and a tie pinching his neck. And the kid knows that if he does something wrong like stepping in a mud puddle, he is going to get a whippin' from his papa. This is a team that is supposed to win, and sometimes that alone can be the killer.
The club's chief challengers this week, Alabama and almost certainly Marquette, are in sharp contrast. Alabama's C. M. Newton is so low-key that it may not be a coincidence that he once coached at Transylvania. A few more victories and the NCAA will investigate his heartbeat. Marquette, meanwhile, has jivetalkin' Al McGuire, a man that even Sammy Davis Jr. could not interpret. Al likes to say he just pushes the buttons, but we all know the Warriors are well coached.
If you believe that Indiana will be too wound up to run down, then consider the cold fact that history disagrees. Unbeaten UCLA teams won the NCAA crown four times, but only two other clubs—San Francisco (1956) and North Carolina (1957)—ever entered the tournament undefeated and exited with the championship. Indiana is one that didn't. Last year the Hoosiers also were undefeated, although in the NCAA they had an excuse, specifically the cast on Scott May's broken arm.
This year Marquette figured to be the Hoosiers' major hurdle in regional play, but that was before Alabama mauled North Carolina last weekend. The Tar Heels' coach, Dean Smith, will be excused if he takes the entire Crimson Tide team with him to the Olympics, with Newton as his assistant.