The Locker Room
By Dan Callahan
I’ve seen a bunch of NCAA Tournaments in my lifetime, even three in person. During most of the regular season I’m not a big basketball guy at all, but when the conference tournaments get underway and the NCAA starts, I really enjoy it. I think basketball makes a mistake by starting its season too early and often it seems much of the season goes unnoticed because too much of it takes place and it’s still football season, but not the NCAA. Basketball is a tournament sport.
What are some of the ones I remember the most? The first one I can remember I was at a friend’s house in Coalwood, West Virginia. The Blanchard family had a television, we didn’t. It was fuzzy and black and white, but I saw North Carolina behind Billy Cunningham knock off Wilt Chamberlain and the Kansas Jayhawks. You think 7-2 looks tall today, just think how tall it looked to me in 1957.
I remember back-to-back national championships for Cincinnati, the only two the Bearcats have ever won in 1961-62 under Ed Jucker, both those wins came over Ohio State and Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, and yes, Bobby Knight. The next year was real special I thought. Cincy was going for three straight and a small school from Illinois, Loyola under George Ireland had moved onto the scene behind a great lefty jump shooter named Jerry Harkness. It was kind of like the movie “Hoosiers.” The team that nobody believed could win it all, did, and the Ramblers were good.
Then UCLA went on its run, and won 10 of the next 12 titles and took a lot of the interest away. Back then there was no investigative department in the NCAA and I know John Wooden was a great coach, but UCLA had all the good players and I mean all of them. Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Lou Alcindor back then, was a New York City kid, not California, and UCLA was the only school going all over the country to get the top players. Universities just didn’t make that kind of investment back then.
But a real special NCAA for me was 1974. It was in the Greensboro Coliseum, and I was sitting side court foul line extended. In the semifinal I watched David Thompson, still one of the great college players I’ve ever seen, at 6-4 fly and stuff 7-foot Bill Walton and UCLA. State beat Marquette for the title with a team that had big Tommy Burleson, little point guard Monte Towe, a really fun team under Norm Sloan.
I really enjoyed Dean Smith and Carolina beating Georgetown in 1982. Michael Jordon, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, the best threesome ever on the same team in the history of college basketball. Then in 1983 came Jim Valvano and “Phi Packa Attacka” vs. unbeatable Houston. The summer before the Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce had Valvano for a guest speaker, and he allowed me 15 private minutes. He was a very enjoyable person. Then came the unbelievable run, a string of comebacks that you can’t describe. Then Derrick Whittenburg fires up a jump shot from too far out with three seconds on the clock, but Lorenzo Charles moves in from behind Akeem Olajuwon and puts in an offensive rebound bucket at the buzzer. Absolutely tremendous.
Those are just some of the ones I remember the most, and I’m sure you have yours, but I thought of something this past week when Kansas fans were really giving Bill Self a hard time for not getting to the Final Four. I think Self is a really good coach, and I didn’t think he had the talent like some schools, Kentucky, Duke, and so forth. So, I checked the Jayhawk roster, did a tad of research.
Point guard Frank Mason is the player of the year in college basketball and I have no problem with that at all, but I’m betting few people know Mason is a Virginia kid. He’s from Petersburg. He was not a big-time recruit at all. His best offers were Virginia and Wake Forest. Then Kansas called. He was a three star, not four or five. Then there’s swing guard Devonte Graham. Self had missed out on a couple of players he was recruiting, had an injury situation he did not know would heal in time for the season so at the last minute he offered Graham. Graham had already committed to Appalachian State. That’s right Appy. That’s the best offer he had, so naturally to said yahoo and took off for Kansas, a two-star recruit. Sviatoslav Mykhailuk is from Holland. His best offers were UVa and Iowa State, another two-star player. Self offered and he went to KU.
That’s three of Kansas’ starting lineup. Self develops players I think. He is not loaded down with the talented one and done players that I think is a practice that has severely hurt college basketball. Oregon knocked ’em out and did so because they have better talent than Kansas. Once every now and then the team with the most talent doesn’t win and I think that’s flat out terrific, but it’s not space science. Just who is out there that Kansas would want to replace Self with. It’s silly.
And Just How Easy is This?:
There are 341 Division 1 college basketball programs. Exactly 23 of them have ever won a national championship. It’s a hard thing to do. Only 15 programs have won two or more. Because of that run in the 60s UCLA has won the most with 11, but I believe one day that will be overtaken. Kentucky has won eight, Indiana, North Carolina, and Duke five, UConn four, Kansas and Louisville three, Cincinnati, Florida, Michigan State, N.C. State, Oklahoma A&M, San Francisco, and Villanova have won two. Who are the most successful programs in college basketball history? No surprises. 1- UCLA, 2- Kentucky, 3- Carolina, 4- Duke, and 5- Kansas.
My Most Pleasant Memory:
I had been covering the Metro Conference basketball tournament at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky. I drove down the state from there to Bowling Green, opening round site of the Midwest Region. Virginia Tech was there back during the Wayne Robinson, Les Henson, Jeff Schneider years. Kentucky was also there with Sam Bowie and Kyle Macey, and Bobby Knight’s Indiana team was in town for the region.
Following dinner at an NCAA function all the press corps gathered out around the indoor pool and enjoyed a cold drink and conversation, lots of stories to tell. CBS was also there and the NCAA would open with Bowling Green as the featured site because of Kentucky and Indiana. That meant that also out poolside were the two gurus of that time, Billy Packer and Al McGuire. After a while it got around to everybody saying who was their pick to win it all even before the first game was played the next day. I was a young reporter back then, so I didn’t speak up.
But Packer noticed me sitting there and we had talked before at Wake Forest and Carolina. He asked me my pick. Again, at that time I was covering the Metro Conference, and I always thought it was better that given credit for. In addition to Tech, there was Louisville, Cincinnati, Memphis, Florida State, St. Louis, and Tulane. Great travel schedule, Louisville is a good town, Tulane is a trip to New Orleans and the French Quarter, Memphis meant Beale Street and great music, and St. Louis meant a trip down the Mississippi and the Checkerdome. FSU meant sunshine in the winter and a town with about a dozen good pool halls. It was all good.
But then Packer said make my pick. I said Louisville. McGuire laughed. Ask me if I was a rookie? I said no, but haven’t been around too long. But I have run “Tobacco Road” for a couple years, and covered the Metro. I have a basis for my pick. I think I know what it looks like. McGuire said what could that be? Louisville can’t defend a big man, you have no post player.
I said that is correct, but what they do have is Darrell Griffith, in my opinion the best player in the nation. There was also Derek Smith, Wiley Brown, and Rodney McCray, not 7 footers, but all 6-8, 6-9 and could jump, score, defend, and rebound. I had seen Louisville five times that season, and I really liked that team, and Griffith was flat out terrific. He was the man. When it was over, Louisville defeated UCLA handily in the final, and Griffith won the MVP of the Final Four. My only disappointment? I never saw Packer or McGuire in person again to discuss my pick.
Some NCAA Tidbits:
The first NCAA Tournament was staged in 1939 and there were only eight teams. In fact, most of UCLA’s titles came with 16 for fewer teams in the tournament……Until years later, the NCAA played second fiddle to the NIT. Of course, that has changed drastically today…………………Who scored the most points ever in an NCAA tourney game? Austin Carr of Notre Dame in 1970 vs. Ohio. Carr scored 61. The next game Carr tossed in 52………At least one of the top four seeds have made the Final Four in all but three years since the seeding process began in 1979. Carolina and Gonzaga are 1’s this time.
Only Those That Shave Get to Play:
All four teams in the Final Four this year has chest hair. The “diaper dandies” have gone home. The “One-and-Dones” are done. I view that as a very positive development for college basketball. We are starting to see it more. Good programs are recruiting the highest-level player than can, but even if they don’t want to, and would love to have to best players even for just one season, this Final Four has benefited from player development. How nice.
Maturity is a big thing. It’s always a decision if you get to make it. Do you want the one-year 18-year-old to win it for you, or would you rather have three or four 3-star recruits on your team that have been in the program three or more years? I like the maturity, the experience of being totally understanding of your school’s system, and playing with the same guys for three years. And just maybe, some of them are getting educated too. How nice. All of them can’t be out demonstrating a lack of “safe space.” Virginia Tech was an improved team this year. Much of the reason for that was its maturity. It’s a huge asset. In college hoops, being old is good.
But this year’s Final Four has the Tar Heels who start three juniors and two seniors, the Ducks who start two seniors and two juniors, the Gamecocks who start two seniors, and a junior, and the Zags who start two seniors and three juniors. As it should be in this opinion.
Who’s going to win it all? I like Carolina, and I hope I’m right. Once again, the Tar Heels save the bacon for the ACC. I view such thoughts as humorous. Do you think any Duke fans are rooting for UNC? I love it when Alabama football fans stand and cheer “SEC, SEC.” Do they really think anybody from Auburn wants them to win? When Virginia Tech played Clemson in the ACC title game last season, just how many UVa fans do you think were cheering for the Hokies? The conference thing is silly, so silly I want somebody to explain to me why anybody from Miami cares what happens in Syracuse. The truth. They don’t. These four teams are on their own, and the one that wins it, will win it all for themselves. Nobody else is involved.