If California and Ohio State meet in the final round of the national college basketball championships the night of March 19—an entirely reasonable prospect—one of the classic patterns in sport will be on display once again. It will be Tunney against Dempsey all over, Riggs against Budge, the White Sox "Hitless Wonders" against the Cubs. In other words, boxer versus slugger, great defense opposed to great offense.
California leads the nation in containing rival scoring, and Ohio State leads in points per game. Logically enough, their playing styles are completely different. California uses its rebounding power to upset its rivals by forcing them to play at California's deliberate tempo. Ohio State uses its superb control of the backboards to fast-break endlessly, destroying the opposition's defense by simply running away from it. Both teams have individual stars—Darrall Imhoff at Cal, Jerry Lucas at Ohio State—but their court styles place great reliance on team play. For this reason, skill and confidence run deep in both squads, which is not true of teams whose main burden is carried by one man—Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson, West Virginia's Jerry West. California is a veteran crew, coached by that wily old hand, Pete Newell. Ohio State is largely a sophomore team, coached by youthful Fred Taylor, in his sophomore year in the big time. From every angle, and whoever won, this would be a fascinating final contest (if it took place). Who would win? Precedent provides few clues. Slugger Budge beat boxer Riggs in most of their matches. But Tunney beat Dempsey in both bouts, of course, and the White Sox beat the Cubs, in their World Series 4-2. The vast majority of expert opinion would undoubtedly favor California, first because Cal has a great stake in the outcome as defending champion and second because Pete Newell has a genius for instilling self-discipline in his players—this is an especially valuable asset in the pressure of tournament basketball. But California might indeed be the better of the two and still lose this one game. And the plausibility of such an "upset" adds savor to this possible championship final.
What might prevent the meeting? What interloper will eliminate either Cal or State—or both—before the final round? As the official NCAA draw (following page) shows, Cal should have little trouble in its first two games, against Idaho State and the West Coast Conference champion, both apparently out of their class. Then, in Seattle, Cal should face Utah or USC. It has already beaten USC three out of four times, but Utah would cause considerably more trouble. Jack Gardner's Utah teams have made three trips to the NCAA in the past five years, and each time they have been unlucky enough to meet the eventual champion in an early round. Utah was humiliated by Cal in the tournament last year; it is a much better team now, though its defense is still erratic. Cal plays deliberately for the good shot and will very likely force Utah into costly defensive errors. That alone should decide the issue.
The final hurdle for Newell's men will come in San Francisco's Cow Palace in the semifinal round—likely a game with Cincinnati—and this is another probable highlight of the tournament. The same two teams met in the semifinals at Louisville last year and Cal put on one of the finest displays of defensive skill in the history of college ball. Cincinnati played the first nine minutes of the second half without scoring a field goal; Robertson got just one in the whole second half. Cincinnati finished with 58 points, 26 below its season's average.
One big difference in Cincinnati this year is the presence of a center, 6-foot-9 Paul Hogue, just about the size of Cal's Imhoff. But in no other way does Hogue yet measure up to Imhoff. He is far less quick afoot and, even more critically, his hands are slower. This is why he often gets into foul trouble early in a game. The feeling here is that it will require much more of a team effort, offensively, than Cincinnati can offer to beat California.
In its half of the draw, Ohio State should also encounter little difficulty in the first few games. Neither Miami nor Western Kentucky has the offensive power to match it point for point even if State throws up the feeblest of defenses. Two of the possible opponents in the next round-Ohio U. and Notre Dame—have been beaten by teams that Ohio State has whipped decisively. The last is Georgia Tech, which has nowhere near the speed to keep up with Lucas & Co. and has only two players of the caliber of State's regulars—Roger Kaiser and Dave Denton. So the rub for Ohio State, as for California, comes in the semifinals in San Francisco.
Reason dictates that the team to face State in the Cow Palace will be either West Virginia or Duke, with all the others falling by the wayside in the most evenly matched of regional playoffs. Only NYU appears to have a chance of pulling an upset here, and it has already lost to West Virginia by 29 points. Though this game was played in Morgantown, still the margin of West Virginia's superiority was too great to be laid to a home-court advantage.
Of these two possible opponents, Ohio State would likely have more trouble with West Virginia, which would give it the tougher battle on the boards. If State cannot get a big share of the rebounds its most potent offensive weapon, the fast break, becomes ineffective. State would, of course, have its hands full trying to contain Jerry West. He is college basketball's Sugar Ray Robinson—inch for inch (at 6 feet 3) the best player in the land. But he is at the end of a long regular season (and the Southern Conference tournament) during which he has played a great deal of every game, his nose has now been broken twice and he must cover it with a mask on the court, and West Virginia does not appear to have the bench or the balance to beat Ohio State at its best.
Duke, the other possibility, is riding the crest of a late-season drive but has no adequate reserves for the six men who have played most of its games—a major handicap in tournament basketball.
Not all the best teams in the U.S.—SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's top 16 are listed on these pages—will play in the NCAA tournament, of course, since only the winning team in each major conference is eligible. Thus, Cincinnati represents the Missouri Valley in the NCAA, but Bradley and St. Louis will play in the National Invitational Tournament in New York's Madison Square Garden. The same applies to the Skyline's second-place team, Utah State, and to independent St. John's.