They've won 25 straight and have pummeled opponents by an average of 18 points a game, the very margin by which they whipped Villanova, 89-71, in the Midwest Regional final on Sunday. So who but the brothers of Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma fraternity will be favored in Albuquerque? Louisville? The Cardinals have already played their championship game, against Kentucky. North Carolina State seems best suited to beating Virginia and North Carolina, neither of whom will be on hand to be beaten again; and say what you will for Georgia, it's a team that finished tied for fourth in its conference.
So it has to be Houston. The Cougars boast the only genuine center in the Final Four. His name is Akeem Abdul (Jelly) Olajuwon; he's 7 feet and 240 pounds, and when he finally got around to missing a shot last Sunday afternoon in Kansas City's Kemper Arena, only a little more than six minutes remained in a game that Houston led 68-51. He'd made his other 10, including five dunks, and finished with 13 rebounds, eight blocks and the Most Outstanding Player award. When Villanova Center John Pinone insisted afterward that Olajuwon hadn't been intimidating, that "we just didn't shoot the ball very well," he got looks of incredulity.
Four years ago Olajuwon was playing soccer in Nigeria. But when he arrived in Houston in 1980, he had a problem: He weighed only 190 pounds. A diet featuring steak, ice cream and jellybeans—hence his nickname—took care of that, and pickup games with some of the pro talent around Houston, like Moses Malone, Major Jones and Allen Leavell, took care of his basketball deficiencies. And he continued to eat.
At the Midwest, Olajuwon and the other Phi Slams were in a belligerent mood over aspersions cast upon one of their little men, most particularly over what Dick Vitale, ESPN's college hoops-man, said about the Cougars' starting point guard, freshman Alvin Franklin. You'll have a hard time, Vitale opined, winning a national title with a child running your offense. Well, Franklin has committed exactly two turnovers in five postseason games, and as for being tough, he grew up in La Marque, Texas riding bulls. Said Houston's cool-headed, good-passing substitute Guard Reid Gettys, "Opinions are just like derrieres. Everybody has one, but not everybody wants to see yours."
In the "slow" semifinal bracket at Kansas City, Coach Rollie Massimino's Wildcats squeezed by Iowa, 55-54, on four late free throws, while over in the "fast" bracket, Houston sent Memphis State home 70-63 by shutting down Keith Lee (13 points and 6-for-15 shooting) and making its foul shots, too. Olajuwon finished with 21 points, six rebounds and five blocks.
In the final, Houston put Villanova away early, thanks to the opportunistic shooting of Michael Young and Larry Micheaux, who would combine for 50 points, and a first-half outburst by Olajuwon. Villanova had stifled the Cougars on six of their first seven possessions, mainly with a 1-3-1 halfcourt trap, and held an 11-10 lead when Akeem drew his second foul. But with 12:32 to go in the half, Jelly got on the beam, tap-slamming a Micheaux miss, scoring on a follow and a six-footer in the lane and then nailing another stuff on an inside pass from Young. By the time he took a breather, the Cougars had gone up 22-18 on their way to a 37-27 halftime lead.
Aware of Houston's reputation for being soft in the backcourt, Villanova pressed desperately in the second half. "Our philosophy," says Coach Guy Lewis, "is that if you press us, we'll try to stuff it to you at the other end." Forward Clyde Drexler and Olajuwon slipped behind the defense to do just that. Meanwhile, the Wildcats were getting the ball inside to Forward Ed Pinckney and Pinone. But the ball wasn't staying there. Olajuwon would either block a shot outright or sweep away the miss. Even young Franklin took part in the revelry, running down an Akeem cream of a Pinone shot and nailing the breakaway slam for a 53-33 lead.
Olajuwon's arms seemed to be constantly windmilling, and all Massimino could do was continue to press and dance a sideline gavotte, hoping to get an occasional goaltend or a foul from the officials. With a couple of minutes left he cleared his bench. "They're extremely talented and run very well," he said of the Cougars afterward. "But the big guy in the middle makes them great."