With the postseason tournaments only two weeks off, college basketball's annual jigsaw puzzle was rapidly falling into place. Last week six major conference championships were decided, at least five more were all but settled. Only six remained in doubt.
The champions: Ohio State ( Big Ten), West Virginia (Southern), California (Big Five), Auburn (Southeastern), Idaho State (Rocky Mountain), Ohio U. (Mid-American). The near champions: Texas (Southwest), Cincinnati (Missouri Valley), Utah (Skyline), Western Kentucky (Ohio Valley), New Mexico State (Border). Conference races still in doubt: Big Eight—Kansas State, Kansas and/or Oklahoma (last two played each other Tuesday) tied for lead; Atlantic Coast—North Carolina and Wake Forest, co-favorites in championship tournament starting Thursday; West Coast—Loyola and Pepperdine in first-place tie, closely followed by St. Mary's and Santa Clara; Ivy—Princeton leading, but Dartmouth and Cornell have a chance; Mid-Atlantic—St. Joseph's and LaSalle deadlocked, with St. Joe's the likely winner; Yankee—Connecticut on top, but the Uconns can be caught by Maine, Rhode Island or Massachusetts.
The Southern Conference was bubbling over with hope when the championship tournament began at Richmond. For the first time in six years, West Virginia had finished second (to Virginia Tech) during the regular season, and there was a good chance that the result would be the same in the tournament. But the Mountaineers were in no mood to give up their title and an NCAA invitation. With magnificent Jerry West, his broken nose encased in a flesh-colored metal mask, flipping in baskets, picking off rebounds and generally behaving like the All-America he is, West Virginia squeaked by VMI 90-83, then ran William & Mary breathless to win 117-83. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech's bulky, 6-foot 6-inch Chris Smith jammed in 59 points to help the Gobblers wallop Richmond 78-59, George Washington 88-52. In the final, Virginia Tech seemed on the verge of victory when West, after being held to four field goals by tenacious Bucky Keller, fouled out with 12:31 to play and his team barely leading 49-48. However, Senior Guard Jim Warren picked up the Westless Mountaineers, scored 13 points in a dozen minutes and West Virginia won 82-72.
Georgia Tech, teetering precariously the last two weeks, stumbled out of the Southeastern Conference lead on the last night of the season, lost to sixth-place Vanderbilt 62-57, while Auburn's persevering Tigers climaxed a steady rise to the title with a thrilling 63-61 overtime victory (on Ray Groover's last-second field goal) over Alabama. But there was some solace for the Yellow Jackets. Auburn, on probation for football recruiting irregularities, is ineligible for the NCAA tournament, and Georgia Tech will represent the SEC. There was no such reward for Kentucky, beaten by Tennessee 65-63 for the first time in 10 years. For their season's work the Wildcats earned only a disdainful glare from Coach Adolph Rupp and a glum pronouncement: "This team simply couldn't realize that it is a Kentucky team."
North Carolina, despite the disquieting news that the NCAA was investigating its recruiting practices, stuck to the business at hand, prepared for Thursday's Atlantic Coast Conference championships at Raleigh by rolling over Maryland 81-64, Virginia 97-58 and Duke 75-70 to tie Wake Forest for first place. The Deacons, too, were busy and tuned up by beating Villanova 89-70, St. Francis (Pa.) 94-60.
Western Kentucky disposed of tough Tennessee Tech 85-81, Middle Tennessee 109-80 to lay one firm hand on the Ohio Valley championship. The top three:
1. WEST VIRGINIA (24-4)
2. AUBURN (19-3)
3. GEORGIA TECH (21-5)
It was like dish night in a local movie house as 7,000 jampacked the Utah State fieldhouse at Logan (see p. 40), only this time the durable Aggies weren't dishing it out. They were taking it—from Utah's fast-moving Redskins, who parlayed lanky Billy McGill's artful shot-blocking and shot-making, Joe Morton's pair of clutch foul shots, into a 77-75 victory and a virtual lock on the Skyline title.