As the end of the college basketball season neared, vengeful underdogs rose to vent their wrath on season-long leaders. Georgia Tech, West Virginia, Utah State, Texas A&M, North Carolina and Dartmouth, among others, were upset, throwing conference races into general confusion and giving the NCAA tournament selection committee agonizing fits.
NIT officials had done their shopping early, serenely added St. John's (16-5) and Holy Cross (17-3) to NIT's swelling ranks, patiently waited to snatch the runners-up in the Missouri Valley ( Cincinnati or Bradley), Skyline ( Utah or Utah State) and Mid-Atlantic (St. Joseph's or LaSalle) conferences to fill three of four remaining berths. Other possibilities: St. Louis (16-6), Xavier (17-6), DePaul (13-5), Navy (13-5), Seton Hall (13-6). Meanwhile, the NCAA could count on only NYU (15-3), Miami (21-3) and Ohio U. (14-4), the Mid-America Conference winner, but was almost sure to get defending champion California (20-1), Ohio State (19-2), Georgia Tech (20-4), Idaho State (19-3).
The unpredictable Southwest Conference was tied up tighter than a cowboy's knot, but all eyes were on Texas after the surprising Longhorns trounced Texas A&M 79-62 at Austin to join the startled Aggies and SMU in first place.
Texas got off fast, piled up a 10-point lead in the early minutes and never let up as Jay Arnette, Albert Amanza and Brendon Hughes shot the Aggies dizzy. Then Texas whipped Texas Tech 74-61, and it was apparent that the Longhorns, dead last a year ago, would be difficult to shrug off as contenders. SMU disposed of Rice 75-58 and TCU 98-67, and the Aggies recovered to beat Arkansas 82-61, setting the stage for their showdown battle in Dallas Tuesday night.
West Texas State broke through a late freeze, thanks to some alert ball-hawking by Keith Blair, overhauled New Mexico State 66-65, then beat Texas Western 72-59 to grab a half-game lead over the faltering Aggies and Arizona State in the Border Conference. NIT-bound Memphis State invaded Oklahoma City, set back the Chiefs 70-66. The top three:
1. TEXAS (15-5)
2. TEXAS A&M (17-3)
3. SMU (15-5)
"Definitely better than last year. Tandy Gillis is one of the finest corner shooters around, Darrall Imhoff is vastly improved, Bill McClintock is a master of all the rudiments of the game...he holds them together." This was UCLA Coach Johnny Wooden's educated appraisal of California after the bruising Bears held his Bruins to four field goals in the first half, beat them 67-57 to clinch a tie for the Big Five title.
Utah State's stalwart runners finally ran out of steam, succumbed to Colorado State U. and its devastating jump shooter, Larry Hoffner, 68-60, moved over to make room at the top of the Skyline for Utah, its most persistent pursuer. The Utes won twice, outshooting Denver 102-77, New- Mexico 91-83. The league championship will be decided Saturday in Logan.