The young men and their coaches pictured and described on these pages have been thinking, dreaming and playing basketball for nearly six straight months now. If they weren't still undefeated in the tournament, the four coaches probably would be unpacking their old fishing gear or getting golf clubs down from the attic. The players would be catching up on studies or on romances with coeds. They are not, of course, unhappy about going to Louisville, and they will appear there with immense pride and all the skill they can muster. But it's been a long season, and the pressure at this point is heavy indeed. If one team can throw off this burden, it will transcend the wisdom of any scouting report and will surely be the winner.
On the record, against all opponents, Cincinnati and West Virginia are toughest, Louisville the weakest, yet Louisville beat both Michigan State and Kentucky on the boards. One reason is that Louisville has three men of equal effectiveness—Turner, Sawyer and Goldstein—to be blocked out, and they are getting better with each game. Robertson, West and Imhoff are far the best on their teams, of course, and none of them is easy to contain. Imhoff is greatly improved. He was badly beaten on the boards by St. Mary's strong Tom Meschery in their first meeting this season, turned the tables when they met last weekend. This improvement enables other Cal players to move out closer to rival shooters. For his size (6 feet 3), West may be the best anywhere; in this tournament thus far, he has repeatedly come off the defensive board with the ball when West Virginia was behind, and triggered fast breaks. Robertson has been rebounding successfully against players up to six inches taller than he is all season; he did well against TCU's 6-foot-10 Kirchner and Kansas State's 6-foot-8 Boozer and Frank. In both games he had good support from Tenwick and Wiesenhahn. He and West can play anywhere and still handle defensive and offensive boardwork, because of their superb sense of anticipation and timing.
Conceding the fact that California plays in ball-control territory, their defensive record is still outstanding. Against nondeliberate Utah, they pressed so forcibly that the Utes were only able to get off 43 shots and were beaten by nearly 20 points, though their percentage was better than Cal's. Against Cincinnati, Cal will likely press all the way, with McClintock on Robertson and Imhoff double-teaming him and Fitzpatrick harassing the first dribbler. As usual, too, Pete Newell will have some surprises in this department. Cincinnati's defense in the Kansas State game was the major factor in the victory, forcing State into many hurried shots and mechanical errors. At other times—against Bradley and TCU, for example—it has been mediocre. West Virginia always gets top-grade defense from West in the clutch, and in the Boston U. game got a fine job from Akers, who held Washington to 6 points. They also use a zone press frequently. Louisville, and especially their sophomores, appear weakest in this area, easily faked into leaving their feet, stabbing at passes to no effect and often committing silly fouls. All teams seem to prefer switching man-to-man, but Louisville occasionally uses a combination of man-to-man out front and a three-man zone inside. At least it looks that way.
For the season, these are the shooting percentages: Cincinnati, .476; West Virginia, .461; California, .407; Louisville, .360. Yet, if a new season began next week, the chances are that Louisville would climb considerably in the standings. How else is it possible to account for the fact that against two strong defensive teams—Michigan State and Kentucky—they shot at much better than 50% during their second-half drives to victory? Cincinnati's percentage must also be qualified somewhat because Mike Mendenhall, second only to Robertson in accuracy with .513, is ineligible for this tournament because he played for a few minutes during the 1955-56 season before being injured and withdrawing. The absence of his shooting and playmaking ability has also thrust the task of chief quarterback on Robertson, a burden Robertson has thus far assumed easily and with no sloughing off of his other duties. In the tournament he has brilliantly set up his teammates by offering himself as decoy, drawing two defenders and hitting his free man with perfect passes. Davis is a threat outside and from the corner, though his shooting was off somewhat against K-State and TCU. Robertson often feeds Tenwick so well that it takes a good big man to handle him. The West Virginians have great stamina, will press all night on defense and run all night on offense. All year, however, they have had trouble clinching a game once they gain the lead. With a big man on him, West will usually move outside; against someone his size he takes over the pivot. At either spot he is accurate and deceptive. California's deliberate attack sets up Fitzpatrick outside, and up to 25 feet he hits well. Imhoff does a reasonably good job on tip-ins, and his fall-away hooks are improving. Louisville's recent phenomenal shooting has come off screens set up by a well-handled weave, with Turner hitting better from the corner and Goldstein from off the top of the key. Underneath, Sawyer's 6 feet 11 is a threat in itself, though he has little deception. The two guards, Tieman and Andrews, have also been hitting at close to 50% lately; altogether, the offense has upheld Peck Hickman's preseason prediction of becoming a late-blooming beauty.
Cincinnati should beat California, because it does not seem reasonable that anything even Pete Newell throws at Robertson in the way of defense will stop this truly extraordinary athlete. If it keeps him from scoring, such a defense would probably leave one of Robertson's teammates clear and Robertson will get the ball to him. True, Cincinnati's own defense has been extremely erratic, but Cal does not appear to be strong enough offensively to take full advantage of it. Louisville has been playing either over its head or certainly up to its full potential, whereas West Virginia has yet to put together a real team effort in this tournament. A slight falling off by the Cardinals, inevitable sometime, and a first-rate effort by the Mountaineers, also overdue, and it's West Virginia against Cincinnati in the final. O.K., we like Jerry West too, but we think Oscar Robertson is better. That's what makes horse racing—and basketball.