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Theoretically, there is a good, simple formula for determining the best college basketball team in the U.S. After three and a half months of competition in the provinces, the best teams of the lot are herded under one roof and, if you like, the door is locked. When the hoops stop rattling, out marches the survivor—champion of the year.
It is an appealing theory but, unfortunately for mankind's pursuit of categorical certainties, the United States is a land of three million square miles and almost as many basketball teams—a surprisingly large number of which are surprisingly good; good enough at any rate, as they have been demonstrating all season, to surprise each other on odd weekends and further confuse the postseason picture. As a result, for a number of years there has been room for not one but two major tournaments, the National Collegiate Athletic Association playoffs and the National Invitation Tournament. Each has its own claim to superiority, each its dedicated following among the fans.
Into Madison Square Garden this weekend, for the 19th consecutive year, come the teams that have been the backbone of the NIT, independents (nonconference schools) such as Dayton and Louisville, St. Joseph's and Duquesne, and a few such as St. Louis and Oklahoma A & M who were strong runners-up in open-minded conferences which belong to the NCAA but still permit members to play in the rival tournament. The doors will close and a week later, in an afternoon contest to be played before a national television audience of millions, the champion will emerge. At least the survivor will be the NIT champion and almost certainly the best independent team in the country.
But while the NIT conforms to one part of the formula, the NCAA is much better equipped to handle another—deciding which one of the thousands which started the season is really the best college basketball team in the land. This year the NIT landed only two members of the Associated Press's Top Ten (see box)—Dayton (No. 3) and Louisville (No. 6)—while the NCAA was capturing a total of six and 11 out of the top 20. Lined up on the side of the NCAA are all the major conferences with their regional followings, and into the playoffs will pour Iowa of the Big Ten, UCLA of the Pacific Coast Conference, Kentucky of the Southeastern, North Carolina State of the Atlantic Coast, SMU of the Southwest, Houston of the Missouri Valley, Kansas State of the Big Seven and a handful of others. There will also be a smattering of independents willing to take a long shot at glory through the greater prestige of the NCAA. And, of course, there will be San Francisco.
Theoretically again, the two best teams, after climbing over the recumbent forms of early-round challengers, should meet in the finals for the championship. But the NCAA playoffs are so sprawling that no such guarantee is possible. In fact, basketball men are beginning to believe that the best game of this year's tournament will take place not in the finals at Evanston, Ill. on March 23 or in the semifinals the night before or even in the quarter-finals at one of four different locations across the country on March 17, but in a second-round game Friday, March 16, in Corvallis, Oregon. It is then that San Francisco runs into UCLA.
The chief riddle that has confronted college basketball for nearly two years is when—and how—is someone going to stop San Francisco? Over a stretch of 51 games, 25 of them this season, the defending NCAA champions have gone undefeated. Bill Russell, a 6-foot 10-inch rebounding and defensive genius, has been almost unanimously accepted as a super star. His teammate K. C. Jones, meanwhile, has bewildered opponents with leechlike guarding and sparkling leadership and earned an All-America rating in his own right. The Dons have height and speed, great depth and a reputation as the finest defensive team in the country.
Why then do a surprising number of those who should know better think UCLA has a chance to stop San Francisco? Well, there are several reasons. One is that while UCLA was the last team to beat the Dons (Dec. 11, 1954), San Francisco was also the last team to beat UCLA—in the finals of the Holiday Festival, Dec. 30, 1955—and that is a loss the Bruins want to avenge. The other three reasons are named Willie Naulls, Morris Taft and K. C. Jones. Naulls and Taft, the latter handicapped by an injured back when the two teams met before, have since combined their talents to run up a 17-game victory streak and become the first Pacific Coast Conference team since 1929 to complete the league schedule unbeaten. Naulls, leading scorer and rebounder in the conference, was recently singled out by a professional scout as the No. 2 player in the nation, and only a matter of quantity—not quality—prevented him from becoming No. 1. "Naulls can do everything better than Russell," the man said, "but he's five inches shorter." Taft, a catlike jump-shot specialist, ranked third in scoring on the coast behind his big teammate.