By DAVID MILLER News Sports Writer
The recently completed NCAA Tournaments, both men’s and women’s events, as usual provided a lot of drama and unexpected happenings.
The sports world really was abuzz about the University of Connecticut’s women’s team losing for the second straight year in the semifinal round. The buzz was heard because it is almost taken for granted that UConn will win the women’s championship every year.
Last year Mississippi State beat the UConn women on a last second shot in overtime. This year it was Notre Dame, also on a last second shot in overtime, that stunned basketball junkies everywhere.
In reflection, after hearing some of the comments made by the so-called experts on television concerning the UConn defeat, the words of my junior high basketball coach uttered so many, many years ago resounded in my mind.
“That’s why they play the game. Any time two teams line up to play, anything can happen.”
He said that after our team, which had been undefeated, lost to a team that had not won a game before playing us. Not only had the other team not won a game, but it had been soundly defeated by teams that we had beaten soundly.
My mind also harkened to a few years later, during my high school tenure. This time my memory involved the NCAA tournament. Ohio State was the defending national champion and had been ranked No. 1 all season long. The Buckeyes were the overwhelming favorites to win again. In fact, everyone was conceding Ohio State a third consecutive title the next year as well.
The reason that Ohio State’s success was a foregone conclusion had a little something to do with the presence of Jerry Lucas. Lucas had been the most highly recruited high school player ever, receiving more offers than Wilt Chamberlain had a few years earlier.Lucas was from Middletown, Ohio, and he passed up nearby Cincinnati to play in Columbus for Ohio State.
I read somewhere that Lucas had 150 scholarships. Not offers, but full academic scholarships that had been awarded to him for his skill in the classroom. Of course, it was hoped that he might choose to play basketball, but as I understand it, he was awarded most of the scholarships with no strings attached.
What made Ohio State such a lock in all the experts’ minds was that the Buckeyes also had John Havlicek. Larry Siegfried and Mel Nowell, all of whom were All-America quality. Bob Knight, who later became a well known coach also was a part of the team.
In Lucas, Havlicek and Nowell’s sophomore year (1960) Ohio State easily won the National Championship game beating California by 20 points. No one expected anyone to derail the Ohio State express for at least two more years.
The next year, Ohio State lived up to expectations, breezing through the season as the No. 1 ranked team. The Buckeyes, who were unbeaten, didn’t have much trouble in the NCAA Tournament either, getting to the 1961 championship game against Cincinnati by defeating St. Joseph by 30 points. Guess what, Cincinnati, which had lost two times earlier in the season, was the upset winner. Never mind that the Bearcats were ranked No. 2, very few of the experts gave them a ghost of a chance. The Bearcats had some good players, but none who had the reputation of Lucas or Havlicek. Paul Hogue, Bob Wiesenhahn, Tom Thacker and Tony Yates were the top names for Cincinnati.
Cincinnati slowed down the pace looking for high percentage shots. The strategy worked enough to keep the game close and when the chips were down, Cincinnati made enough plays to win the game.
In those yearsa third-place game was played ahead of the championship. This year the consolation game featured St. Joseph and Utah. Those two teams battled it out for four overtimes with St. Joseph finally winning 127-120. The long delay in starting served to make Ohio State tense, while at the same time the extra time seemed to relax the Bearcats.
To the surprise of very few, the two teams wound up in the championship game again in 1962. Ohio State again was the clear cut favorite having lost only once during the year. Havlicek and Lucas were seniors and they had something to prove. But once again Cincinnati came away a winner. Paul Hogue and Tony Yates were still playing, but it was a newcomer, Ron Bonham, who really made the Bearcats perk. Hogue had an outstanding game in the championship and was named the most valuable player for the tournament.
Ohio State had a legitimate excuse for losing. Lucas had injured his knee in the semifinal game against Wake Forest and was just a shadow of his usual self against Cincinnati. He could manage only 11 points while playing hobbled.
As it turned out, Ohio State, the team experts believed would run away with three consecutive national championships, had only one to show for the Lucas-Havlicek era.
One of the Cinderella teams this year was the Loyola of Chicago Ramblers. The last time the Ramblers had been in the NCAA Tournament was 1963 when they won it all. Who was the runner-up, you ask? Cincinnati, which had made the title game for the third consecutive season. Again Ron Bonham was the team’s leading scorer. Yates and Thacker were a part of the team also and Cincinnati was an overwhelming favorite to win its third consecutive championship trophy.
George Ireland was the Ramblers coach andhe broke an unwritten Gentlemen’s Agreement among major college coaches that said only two black players could be on the floor at any given time. Ireland regularly played three and sometimes four black players, much to the consternation of the other members of his coaching fraternity. Ireland set things up for Don Haskins and the 1966 Texas Western Miners who won the NCAA Tournament while starting five blacks.
Cincinnati was the top ranked team going into the 1963 tournament. Loyola was ranked No. 3. The Ramblers had won 28 games and lost two—one to Bowling Green and the other (in the final regular season game) to Wichita. Cincinnati had lost only once.
The top Loyola player was Jerry Harkness who went on to play professional basketball for the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers. Loyola used only five players in the game which went to overtime. The five had enough steam to win by two points in the extra period. For the third consecutive year the underdog had won the title.
As things turned out, Loyola was the last team to win a national championship before UCLA began a string of 10 titles in 12 years. The Bruins won the 1964 and 1965 crowns before Texas Western won in 1966. Then it was seven consecutive championships for UCLA until North Carolina State broke the string in 1974. John Wooden and UCLA won again in 1975.
Speaking of North Carolina State, the Wolfpack’s win over UCLA in the semifinals in 1974 was a bit of a surprise. The Bruins and Wooden were expected to win every year and when they didn’t, the basketball world was stunned. NC State and UCLA had played earlier in the season with UCLA winning easily. But when they met in the Final Four the Wolfpack prevailed to win80-77 after two overtimes.
NC State had Tommy Burleson, who was listed as 7-foot-4, and their main man was David Thompson. UCLA had Bill Walton on the roster. The Walton-Wooden combination was the reason that UCLA was a heavy favorite, despite the fact that North Carolina State had been ranked No. 1 for much of the season. After beating UCLA, the Wolfpack went on to defeat Marquette in the championship game.
The Wolfpack’s other championship came in 1983 and was even more of a surprise as they whipped Houston, which had been heavily favored. Who can forget seeing coach Jim Valvano running on the court at the end of the game to celebrate the upset.
A final upset that I might mention in this space involved the Oklahoma Sooners—in a losing role. Winning the title that year (1988) was Kansas, a team that was dubbed Danny and the Miracles, referring to All-American Danny Manning and a cast of lesser known players. Oklahoma was coached that year by Billy Tubbs and had Mookie Blaylock, Harvey Grant and Ricky Grace on its roster. The Sooners were highly favored partly because they had beaten Kansas easily twice before that season and were ranked No. 1 nationally much of the year. Kansas was a No. 6 seed in the Tournament and had lost 11 games during the season. The Jayhawks hadn’t been expected to go very far in the NCAAs.
Manning, as he had been the entire tournament, was superb against the Sooners, who weren’t too bad either. But when the final bell sounded Kansas had won 83-79.
Picking NCAA brackets is a tricky business. I usually pick a bracket before the whole thing begins, but rarely tell anyone what my picks are. That’s because they never come close to being accurate. I guess the unexpected is why the NCAA Tournament is so fun to think about.