It all began peacefully enough, one of those nice pleasant weeks toward the end of any basketball season when the birds are singing, shots drop softly through the nets with a soothing swish and tournament bids float into the mailbox with a happy, spring-like flutter.
True, there existed a certain amount of confusion in the ranks of teams pointed toward the NIT. Louisville, for example, lost to Eastern Kentucky which then lost to Dayton which had beaten Xavier the week before just a few days after Xavier had defeated Louisville which, in turn, had just won over Dayton. Also, somewhere in there, Xavier beat Eastern Kentucky too, which brought up another point: what business was it of Eastern Kentucky's in the first place since no one had even invited them to the NIT?
But those things were hardly worth a second glance. Across the country, peace and promise prevailed. Southern Methodist, called the Southwest Conference's team of destiny, clinched a championship and moved serenely into the playoff brackets of the NCAA. Kansas State thumped two foes, including challenging Iowa State, and assumed a lead in the Big Seven. San Francisco remained undefeated and extended its consecutive victory record through 47 games. Utah disposed of Brigham Young for the second time, anchoring the Skyline Eight crown more firmly than ever on its head. And UCLA's Bruins, the last team to beat San Francisco (Dec. 11, 1954), continued to dine on Pacific Coast Conference opposition while licking their chops in anticipation of another crack at the defending NCAA champions in the first round of this year's playoffs.
Then, as it must each week, even to basketball coaches, came Saturday.
Illinois, No. 2 in the nation, unbeaten in the Big Ten, the beautifully balanced team which Midwesterners said could stop San Francisco, couldn't even stop Robin Freeman. Two weeks earlier Illinois humiliated Ohio State 111-64 and held Freeman to 12 points, his lowest in two years. Saturday night a vengeful Freeman confounded the Illini with 43 points, beat them 87-84 and dropped them back into a tie with Iowa for the Big Ten lead.
North Carolina State, pride of the Atlantic Coast Conference and the team which Southerners said could stop San Francisco, discovered it would probably never get the chance. The reason was Ron Shavlik, State's marvelous scorer and rebounder who seemed on his way to an All-America list as fast as his 6 feet 8 inches could carry him. But Saturday as State beat Wake Forest and, as favorite, prepared for the conference tournament, Shavlik broke his wrist. The prognosis: six weeks in a cast and no championship.
Kentucky, Southeastern Conference champion 11 times since 1943 and the team a coach named Adolph Rupp said would sure as heck stop San Francisco, faced a pleasant task—beat Alabama and then begin getting ready for the NCAA. But Coach Rupp proved a fallible prophet when Alabama walloped the Wildcats 101-77. This was nice for ' Bama since they remained unbeaten in conference play but it also posed another problem: Jerry Harper, who scored 37 points against Kentucky, and his four starting teammates played varsity basketball as freshmen and are thus ineligible in senior year for post-season competition under NCAA rules.
Tough? Well, there was lots of company. Columbia, leading in the Ivy League race, was bounced out of first place by also-ran Cornell. Houston, after cinching a tie for the Missouri Valley title, lost to Wichita and found itself facing a possible playoff for the NCAA bid it once had so securely wrapped up. George Washington and West Virginia, Southern Conference leaders, took a breather before tournament time—and both lost by nearly 20 points to nonconference foes. Temple, beaten only once all season and with a tournament gleam in its eye, lost to both St. Joseph's and Duquesne.
The birds were still singing but at week's end the baskets weren't swishing quite so smoothly.
Southwest. SMU, with an NCAA berth safely stowed away, hit 38 of 41 free throws to beat Arkansas 80-72 and run its conference record to 11-0. One more victory and the versatile Mustangs can become the first Southwest Conference team since Texas in 1947 to finish the season unbeaten in league play. The Border Conference, which will furnish SMU's first-round NCAA opponent, was in a three-way snarl involving erstwhile leader Texas Tech (beaten twice during the week), Texas Western and New Mexico A&M.