Like snowflakes, hippies and Charles Bronson movies, not one of the remaining 16 teams in the NCAA basketball tournament stands out. Even Jimmy the Greek would be hard put to name which four will reach the finals in Atlanta's Omni. The survivors from the first round have proven nothing if not this: they can win, but they can also lose. Not only are there no undefeated teams remaining, but also the schools with the best records entering the tournament—San Francisco and Arkansas—are back home practicing recruiting.
This is not to say there are no favorites, despite the fact that one survivor, Southern Illinois, which lost to little Georgia Southern during the regular season, might wind up in the Final Four. No fewer than four teams—UCLA, Nevada-Las Vegas, Michigan and Kentucky—loom as solid threats, but while all have enjoyed moments of glory, each has suffered through agonies ranging from injuries to jealousy to having to cope with NCAA investigations and legends of departed coaches.
There are various theories as to why any bet looks like a bad one this time, the most popular being the elimination of "the intelligent player." There was a time when UCLA brought the talent to the NCAA tournament while the rest of the schools employed intelligent players, college basketball's equivalent of the homely girl with the nice personality. Now everybody has horses.
Hold it. Two questions. First: Do they give scholarships at Idaho State? Second: Why would anybody accept one?
No doubt Alabama, the Southeastern Conference's third-place finisher behind Tennessee and Kentucky and the only celebrity of note not invited to the party, would delight at an opportunity to play the Big Sky representative, but the Crimson Tide must be content to win the big one in the NIT while, in the semifinals of the West Regional, UCLA faces Idaho State. Pass the sour cream and chives, please.
Every year the NCAA, through apparent whim, caprice and perversity, structures a regional top-heavy with talent. This year it is the West, where four of the nation's Top Ten teams began and two remain. After eliminating Louisville and San Francisco, UCLA and Las Vegas might be excused for viewing their next contests as practice games, although Idaho State has a 24-4 record and a 7-footer to throw at the Bruins, and Utah has beaten Vegas once this season and has the added advantage of playing in Provo.
Still, one must figure that it will be UCLA against the flamboyant Runnin' Rebels in the West finals as Las Vegas Coach Jerry Tarkanian once again tries for the Holy Grail he has sought lo these many years—a victory over UCLA. That win eluded Tark the Shark in three NCAA tournament games while he was at Long Beach State.
Mostly because it hasn't been on national television, Las Vegas is an unknown to most of the public, tagged by innuendo as a lawless group that plays no defense and follows no rules while Tarkanian draws his plays on a checkbook. But as San Francisco learned last week, Tarkanian is a wily coach and his teams can beat you with defense. Vegas forced the Dons into 32 turnovers, and increased the tempo so much that San Francisco was more confused than poised. Final score: 121-95.
Utah, which nipped St. John's 72-68, is the hottest-shooting club in Western Athletic Conference history, which is saying something, and the Utes have not lost a game in which they were ahead with five minutes remaining. That is when Jeff Jonas directs the Rocky Mountain version of the Four Corners. By the time the five-minute mark rolls around against Las Vegas, Utah most likely will be playing catch-up.
Meanwhile, paranoia still lurks in the shadows at UCLA. Gene Bartow now has won one more conference title than John Wooden did during his first two years at Westwood but is again feeling the heat. Last week the Bruins found themselves gasping for breath on an artificial football field in Pocatello, Idaho, playing their toughest first-round opponent ever, Louisville. Cardinal Coach Denny Crum bent the rules a bit by bringing his team to Pocatello several days early. UCLA claimed that gave the Louisville players time to acclimatize themselves to the thin air and the playing conditions—a portable floor in the Idaho State Minidome. NCAA rules seem to imply that a team may have only one day's practice at the tournament site. Louisville had three. UCLA Athletic Director J. D. Morgan protested, but the NCAA ruled in favor of Louisville, whereupon Morgan claimed there was "a conspiracy to get UCLA beat."