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TGS HOOPS SPECIAL REPORT...OLD RIVALS AT THE SWEET SIXTEEN
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


A bit unlike college football, which is more defined by its traditional rivalries because of the lack of a national playoff, rivalries in college hoops tend to be slightly minimized in comparison because of the focus on the NCAA Tournament. That's not to say that North Carolina-Duke and other college hoop rivalries aren't a big deal, because they most certainly are; ask anyone who has been to one of those Tar Heels-Blue Devils upheavals of nature at Cameron Indoor Stadium. College hoops, however, is truly defined by what happens in March, and rivalries simply become further enhanced if their chapters include postseason play.

So it goes for at least two of this week's Sweet 16 matchups in which college basketball history can be magnified. There are subtle differences, however, between Cincinnati and Ohio State (who meet up in the East at Boston on Thursday night) and Indiana and Kentucky (who get together in the South region in Atlanta on Friday). In the case of in-state Ohio State and Cincinnati, it's the rivalry that has always teased to become one, because it has never gotten off the ground as most in the midwest would have hoped; they've met only once (at the "John Wooden Tradition" event at Indianapolis in 2006) in 50 years. As for border rivals Indiana and Kentucky, they've been getting together in the regular season since Branch McCracken and Adolph Rupp were on the sidelines, most recently in a scintillating game at Bloomington last December 10 when the Hoosiers shocked the Wildcats by a 73-72 score thanks to Christian Watford's last-second triple, triggering a stampede to the Assembly Hall floor that nearly trampled Dick Vitale and Dan Shulman from their courtside ESPN telecast location.

Indeed, Hoosiers-Wildcats has long been one of the most colorful of the non-conference rivalries in college hoops, a December staple that grips fans in each of those hoop-crazed states. Although none other than Bob Knight was a bit cool on the IU-UK battles that would endure through his tenure at Bloomington. In the excellent biography Knight, written by the legendary Bob Hammel, the controversial Knight related an on-air conversation he once had with legendary Cats broadcaster and friend Cawood Ledford that stunned not only Ledford but some fans when the General said he wasn't all that enamored with the hoopla surrounding Hoosiers-Wildcats. "Because of all of the things going on down here (UK), I didn't care for the rivalry as much as he (Ledford) thought I did," said the coach. Of course, his disdain for former Kentucky HC Joe B. Hall was well-documented, stemming in part from an incident in an early-season game during the 1974-75 campaign in which Knight and Hall's assistant Lynn Nance exchanged angry words after the General had given Hall a "tap" on the head at the end of a late-game sideline discussion (Nance obviously taking offense at the Knight "gesture").

Later that season, however, the sides would collide again in the Mideast Regional final at Dayton, the Hoosiers unbeaten and riding a 34-game win streak and favored after having routed the Cats, 88-64, in the regular-season game in which Knight and Nance had words after the General's "love tap" to Hall's head. The beatdown had been severe in the first meeting, with IU at one time expanding the lead to 78-44. Moreover, UK's C Rick Robey was overwhelmed by punishing IU soph counterpart Kent Benson, who physically manhandled the UK frosh. But Robey learned from the experience. "I found out a lot from Benson," said Robey in Dayton. "I learned not to give a lot of little cheap shots but to save up for one big one." More kerosene was added to the looming battle in the Elite Eight when none other than Hall predicted that Ralph Miller's Oregon State would upset Indiana in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night, although the Hoosiers acted as if they could care less when rolling to a 21-point halftime edge and eventual 81-71 win. Meanwhile, the Cats set up the rematch by pulling away late from a stubborn Central Michigan side and its pressing defense, with UK hitting 14 of its last 16 shots to win by a 90-73 count.

Knight himself has often said that 1974-75 side was probably his best-ever at Bloomington, but dame fortune worked against the Hoosiers late in the season when star jr. F Scott May suffered an arm injury in a mid-February game at Purdue. The top-ranked Hoosiers, who had been dismembering opposition to that point, suddenly looked mortal when hanging on for a 1-point win over the Boilermakers, with May sidelined for the second half. Still, they continued to roll and stayed unbeaten through the final weeks of the regular season and into the Big Dance minus May, beating Don Haskins' UTEP in a first-round game at Kentucky's old Memorial Coliseum in Lexington.

May's absence, however, had caused Knight no shortage of consternation as he grappled with the best way to replace his star performer in the starting lineup. Knight decided to go with sixth man John Laskowski, an outstanding shooter but limited defender. The General later related his dilemma to Hammel in Knight.

"Playing Laskowski meant we had to make changes in our defense that wouldn't have been needed if we had just replaced May with the man who was a starter for us the next year, Tom Abernethy," Knight growled. "Quinn Buckner and Bobby Wilkerson were the best pair of defensive guards I've ever seen in college basketball, but with Laskowski in the lineup we had to put Wilkerson on a forward, and that broke up the Buckner-Wilkerson combination. With Abernethy, we wouldn't have had to do that. It was my mistake, nobody else's, and I believe I cost us a chance to win the NCAA championship."

May had been cleared to play just before the regional final, but was ineffective and inconsequential in a token appearance off the bench vs. UK. Sensing that Indiana might be a bit vulnerable on the stop end with Laskowski, Hall simply ordered his players to run and shoot vs. the Hoosiers. "If you miss the first five (shots)," said Hall to his troops, "take five more."

With Gs Mike Flynn (who scored 22 points) and Jimmy Dan Conner (who added 17), plus sharpshooting F Kevin Grevey (who added 17 more points) and a productive bench led by frosh Jack Givens, the Cats were running like the thoroughbreds at Keeneland. Meanwhile, Robey, along with fellow bigs Mike Phillips (another frosh C who used to frequent Keeneland with Robey) and rugged forwards Bob Guyette and Danny Hall, were able to trade shoves and elbows with the raging redhead Benson, who nonetheless contributed 33 points and 23 rebounds in a furious performance. But IU fell behind and could never catch up, flustered further by a succession of illegal-screen calls in the second half that turned Knight's face beet red. The Hoosiers got close but could never get ahead and bowed by a 92-90 count.

"Our defense just wasn't good enough," said the General to Hammel in Knight. "The best team I ever had was eliminated by Kentucky. We'll never know, but I don't think it would have happened if I had kept Buckner and Wilkerson together."

Meanwhile, the tale of Ohio State vs. Cincinnati has few chapters, to the chagrin of many midwest fans who know what bubbles beneath the surface regarding the two schools. At least from the perspective of Cincy, which has long felt the Big Ten Buckeyes have looked down upon the Bearcats. With only the one aforementioned exception in 2006 over more than a half-century, OSU has avoided Cincy like the plague, a fact not lost on Bearcat backers. The dislike has also long carried over to rival newspapers from Columbus and Cincinnati, which would often war with words. Indeed, long-ago and legendary Cincy Enquirer columnist Dick Forbes pulled no punches as far back as the early '60s when talking about the Buckeyes. "As strange as it may seem to some," said Forbes in one of his columns in March of 1963, "the athletic world is not measured by the acres of the Ohio State campus in Columbus. Nor is it measured by the Big Ten."

But there is indeed a hardwood history between OSU and Cincy, from a long-ago era in which the Buckeye State dominated college hoops as it seems to be doing again this season with four entries into the Sweet 16. The Bucks and Bearcats met in back-to-back years for the NCAA title in 1961 and '62 in a pair of championship games that were deliciously-ironic due to reluctance of the sides to get together in the regular season when both OSU and Cincy were acknowledged powerhouses.

The Buckeyes, with an underclass-laden team featuring a pair of sophs, 6-8 C Jerry Lucas and 6-5 F John Havlicek, not to mention a reserve soph F named Bob Knight, plus jr. G Larry Siegfried, had rolled to the 1960 title when crushing defending national champion Cal at San Francisco's Cow Palace, 75-55, to win the 1960 crown. The Buckeyes looked even stronger with their stars all back for an encore in 1961; indeed, many believed the Bucks were on their way to what would have been an unprecedented three titles in a row with the dominant Lucas in the fold. Reaching the 1961 Final Four in Kansas City as heavy favorites while being hailed as one of the great teams in college history, HC Fred Taylor's unbeaten Buckeyes were shooting nearly 50% from the floor and ranked No. 1 all season. And they did little to disappoint in the national semis vs. Jack Ramsay's Saint Joseph's, blasting the Hawks by a 95-69 count.

That Cincinnati would be the opponent in the finale was a startling development 51 years ago, simply because the Bearcats had failed to reach the final game the previous two seasons with Oscar Robertson in the fold, losing to Pete Newell's Cal side in national semifinal games in both 1959 &'60. With the Big O moving to the NBA's Cincinnati Royals and HC George Smith having left the sidelines to concentrate on AD duties, few expected the Bearcats to maintain their national prominence, especially competing in the ultra-tough Missouri Valley. Promoted to the head coaching job was Ed Jucker, Smith's able assistant who a few years earlier had also recruited a young Brooklyn kid named Sandy Koufax to play basketball and baseball for the Bearcats.

Almost immediately, Jucker decided that his Bearcats needed to change their Big O-influenced, run-and-gun style that had taken them to back-to-back Final Fours in 1959 & '60. Cincy then-assistant coach Tay Baker not long ago explained to us the method to Jucker's madness. "Well, if we couldn't win the national title playing uptempo with Oscar on the team," said Baker, "we sure as heck weren't going to win it playing the same way without him." Jucker, along with assistants Baker and John Powless, decided instead that slower would be better, which hardly endeared the staff to the Bearcat faithful that had become spoiled with the entertaining, full-court action that George Smith's go-go Bearcats featuring the Big O had provided in previous years. At the outset, Jucker's strategy change seemed a suicidal resolve, as Cincy lost 3 of its first 8 games post-Robertson in the 1960-61 season. Jucker's slow pace and 2-3 zone defense were boring the fans. Sports Illustrated even weighed in, likening the new Cincy style as "the tactical equivalent of making a team of bunters out of the Yankees."

For a short while, Jucker's popularity in town was only slightly better than a flood from the Ohio River, but after particularly brutal losses at St. Louis (57-40) and at Bradley (72-53) in December, "Juck" decided to junk the zone and instead employ a pressing, suffocating man-to-man defense spearheaded by Gs Tony Yates and Carl Bouldin and cobra-like 6'2 soph swingman Tom Thacker. And suddenly, the Bearcats began to win.

Also featuring a rugged interior game led by thick, bespectacled 6'9 C "Tall" Paul Hogue and a fearless, bruising bear of a PF in 6'4 Bob Wiesenhahn, Cincy caught fire, albeit at a much slower pace than the previous Big O teams. Well-drilled from practice work that spent up to 70% of its time on defense, the Bearcats, though not a particularly well-oiled offensive machine (and only 62% foul shooters), rolled off 20 straight wins to reach the Final Four.

A key to the Cincy success was meticulous preparation by Jucker and staff. When practice sessions weren't focusing on defense, they were usually spent familiarizing the Bearcats with the upcoming opponent. Each practice, assistant Tay Baker would take his scouting report of Cincy's next opponent, say Drake, and call over his reserves, whom he would drill in Drake's tactics, and assign each player a different role to duplicate the Drake team. Serious scrimmaging would commence, with the reserves acting out the roles of the Drake players as they battled the starting five. Indeed, Baker, who would eventually succeed Jucker and subsequently would make an unprecedented move across town to coach Xavier, was regarded as one of the top hoop tacticians of the day. To his credit, Jucker was always open-minded to suggestions from Baker and his other aide, John Powless, who would eventually become head coach at Wisconsin for eight years.

(Decades later, hoop aficionados were still in awe of the work done by that Cincy staff. Stan Morrison, who played on the Cal teams that faced the Big O's Cincy and who would go on to a long and distinguished college coaching and administrative career, to this day calls those Jucker Bearcats "one of the best-ever examples of coaching and team basketball.")

Following the loss at Bradley, Cincy stormed to the Valley crown and Final Four, after dispatching SWC champ Texas Tech 78-55 and Tex Winter's Big 8 champs from Kansas State 69-66 at the Midwest Regionals in Lawrence. But that 20-game win streak paled in comparison to the 31 consecutive games won by defending national champ Ohio State, which entered the Final Four unbeaten and heavily favored to win back-to-back titles.

The appearance at the '61 Final Four was completely unexpected from Cincy, whose fans were beyond satisfied that their Bearcats had somehow made it back to the final weekend for a third straight season. The major storyline in Kansas City continued to be Ohio State, which didn't disappoint in the semifinal win over St. Joe's. Meanwhile, the Bearcats continued their surprising run by taking care of Jack Gardner's go-go Utah team 82-67. Remarkably, Cincy had progressed further in the NCAAs without Oscar Robertson than it had ever done with him, as the Bearcats found themselves in the title game vs. state rival, all-powerful Ohio State!

It hardly helped thaw Cincy-OSU relations that Taylor, and not Jucker, was voted as the 1961 Coach of the Year before the title game, and that the Buckeyes were voted the top team in the country in the final polls that were also tabulated before the Final Four. Moreover, on the morning of the title game, Ohio State won the coin flip to determine the ceremonial "home" team for the game, yet Taylor opted for his Buckeyes to wear their road scarlet uniforms, not only because OSU had worn the same colors the year before when winning the title game over Cal at San Francisco's Cow Palace, but also because Taylor knew the Bearcats considered their own black uniforms to be their "lucky" ones. Instead, Taylor thought it would be a psychological ploy to make Cincy wear its white outfits for the title game. And few experts, most of whom still unconvinced the Bearcats could possibly be as good without the Big O, gave Cincy much of a chance in the finale.

It took longer than usual for the Buckeyes and Bearcats to tip things off at the regal Kansas City Municipal Auditorium, with its ornate decorations, massive walls, and vaulted roof that contributed to its supposed rank as the building with the highest percentage of concrete in the world. In these elegant surroundings, the consolation game between St. Joe's and Utah simply refused to end, requiring not one, not two, not three, but four overtime periods before the Hawks finally prevailed, 127-120.

Jucker's fear was not being able to keep the potent Buckeyes within earshot in the first half. "If we allow Ohio State to get a big lead--jump out ahead by 10 or 15 at the half--we'll never catch up," said Juck. "But if we can hang in there in the first half, stay even with them, we can win it." Which looked unlikely midway in the opening half, when the Bearcats became saddled with early foul trouble (Bouldin picked up his third penalty after barely six minutes were played) and temporarily called off their pressing defense. The referees were especially calling the charging foul tightly; Cincy was guilty of four of those in the early going before making adjustments. Lucas and Siegfried temporarily took advantage of Jucker pulling back the defense, and with 11:30 to play in the half the Buckeyes were playing at their pace and extending the margin to 20-13. An early knockout looked likely, and Jucker's greatest fears were about to be realized if the Bearcats, no great comeback team, were going to dig themselves such a hole.

But Thacker, playing brilliantly, hit a jump shot, and after a stop on the defensive end, the burly Wiesenhahn converted a three-point play to put Cincy back in business. Wiesenhahn continued his assault thereafter en route to 13 first-half points as the game became a back-and-forth affair, with OSU taking a 39-38 lead into halftime.

Jucker's team had faced adversity and not blinked. Could the mighty Buckeyes be in some real trouble?

Perhaps, as OSU seemed to be rattled by the scrappy Bearcats and their aggressive defense, which would often switch assignments early in Buckeye possessions, throwing Fred Taylor's team off kilter. Lucas, with 18 first-half points, was hitting shots from outside but was not getting much room to work in the paint against the bruising Hogue and Wiesenhahn, and OSU was subsequently looking strained on the attack end as other Buckeyes, suddenly unnerved, were not getting involved in any consistent offensive flow. In the sidelines chess match, Jucker seemed to be check-mating Taylor, who couldn't push the right buttons to ignite the OSU transition game once the Bearcats began to control the tempo. Cincy was now dictating the pace of the game, and had Ed Jucker's team done better than 4 of 10 from the charity stripe in the first twenty minutes, it would have taken a lead into halftime.

Soon enough after action resumed, however, the Bearcats, who had taken command of the backboards midway in the first half, would gain control. With Siegfried "cheating" defensively on the perimeter and dropping down low to help Lucas contain the rugged Hogue, Cincy's Carl Bouldin took advantage from the outside and triggered a spurt with a series of jumpers that put the Bearcats ahead 52-46 with 11:45 to play. The Buckeyes and their blooming dynasty were wavering.

But wavering or not, OSU rallied behind jumpers by Richie Hoyt and Mel Nowell to cut the deficit to 2, and the spurt continued with baskets by Siegfried and Nowell again, plus a couple of free throws by Lucas. A 10-0 run had put the Bucks back in front, a lead that would grow to 58-53 before Thacker broke Cincy's field goal drought with a layup. Bouldin's success from the perimeter, however, had forced Siegfried to stop cheating defensively on Hogue in the post, and the Bearcats were now consistently feeding "Tall Paul" in the paint. This resulted in the sort of trench warfare in which the Bearcats did their best work, and the remaining minutes of regulation were a test of wills, with Cincy seeming to regain control. Leading 61-59 with under two minutes to play, a momentary Cincy lapse on defense allowed none other than Bob Knight to tie the game on a layup before the Bearcats decided to hold the ball for the last 1:40 and try for a final shot at victory in regulation time. Thacker missed a 10-foot jumper that was rebounded with two seconds to play by Lucas, who immediately called timeout. Siegfried's inbounds pass was caught downcourt by Havlicek, who also called a quick timeout with one second to play. The extended drama over the interminable final two seconds concluded uneventfully as Hogue intercepted an inbounds lob intended for Lucas, and overtime beckoned.

Jucker's tactics, however, had taken Ohio State out of its preferred uptempo style, as the potent Buckeyes took less than one shot per minute in the second half. Unable to get into their normal flow and rhythm, OSU was never again able to grab the lead. Free throws by Hogue and Yates, sandwiched around a layup by the bruising Wiesenhahn, put Cincy in front to stay, and its effective "outside weave" delay tactics kept OSU at bay. Up by 3 and with the clock running out, Thacker decided to throw an extra dagger at the final horn, burying a jump shot that pushed the final score to 70-65 in Cincy's favor. Ohio State's supposed dynasty had ended before it began, while incredibly, a Cincinnati team, in its first season post-Oscar Robertson, became national champion!

College hoops fans were not the only ones shocked by the result. Siegfried was so disconsolate that he threw a towel over his head during post-game ceremonies so no one could see him crying. After getting dressed, Knight and Havlicek were so perturbed that they didn't even bother going back to the team hotel, instead spending the rest of the night walking the streets of downtown Kansas City, wondering how the Buckeyes could have let the game slip away. (We wonder if any poor soul on the street ran into the angry young Knight that evening.) Meanwhile, the Cincy band oompahed its way into the night, cheerleaders hugged the players, and Bearcat fans finally had a chance to celebrate a title they had thought might have been theirs the two previous years, but hadn't dared dream would come about this season.

Such a thrilling match demanded an encore, but it would have to wait until the title game in 1962, when the Final Four was held at Louisville's Freedom Hall. This might have been Jucker's best team, adding sophomores 6-8 George Wilson and 6-4 sharpshooter Ron Bonham to the mix that included Hogue, Yates, and Thacker. But just getting back to the Big Dance in '62 was a chore for the Bearcats, which lost twice early in Valley play vs. Wichita and Bradley and needed somebody to beat Chuck Orsborn's Braves to have a chance at forcing a playoff game for the conference title and a bid to the NCAA Tourney. But when Wichita obliged, the Bearcats won the regular-season rematch vs. Bradley and forced a one-game playoff, which Cincy won over Chet Walker and the Braves, paving its way for a return to the Final Four.

Meanwhile, the Buckeyes, with Lucas and Havlicek (and Knight) still in tow, had plotted their revenge all season. The animosity between the schools remained palpable ("Hate State" buttons being popular with Bearcat backers), although Cincy almost missed a chance at proving '61 was no fluke by barely surviving a national semifinal game vs. John Wooden's first UCLA Final Four team. Thacker, who had endured a horrid shooting night when missing his first six field-goal attempts, hit a desperation 25-foot bomb in the final seconds to get the Bearcats into the final by a 72-70 score. "The play was designed to go through Paul (Hogue), but they shut off that option, and I just kind of flung it up there," said Thacker to us not long ago. But it was good enough to set the stage for the title game rematch vs. OSU, which had pounded a Wake Forest side led by F Len Chappell and a G named...Billy Packer, by an 84-68 count.

Lucas, however, had strained his knee with six minutes left to play vs. the Demon Deacons, and speculation regarding his availability the next night in the title game vs. Cincy (the Final Four was held on back-to-back nights, Friday and Saturday, in those days) ran rampant for the next 24 hours. Using all sorts of medical techniques of the day, Lucas was readied as best he could for battle, but was the not the same.

The final, on Saturday the 24th of March, was played on what would be a dark sports day in America. That very night, most of the nation would be tuned into ABC-TV and Don Dunphy describing the welterweight title fight at Madison Square Garden between Emile Griffith and Benny "Kid" Paret in the rubber match of their three-bout series. Catching Paret helpless on the ropes in the 12th round, Griffith savagely beat the Cuban senseless as referee Ruby Goldstein was slow to intervene, waving the fight stopped but not jumping in between Griffith and the dazed Paret until it was too late. Slumping to the canvas, Paret would never awaken and would die ten days later.

At the same time in Louisville, the Buckeyes and Bearcats would be going at it again, but, with Lucas limited, Cincy was home clear. Where the Bearcats really capitalized was when Lucas played defense; unable to move, the OSU pivot was unable to contain Hogue, who scored 22 points and grabbed 19 rebounds the night after pouring in 36 vs. UCLA. Hogue was thus an easy winner of the Final Four MVP (now "Most Outstanding Player") as the Bearcats won more comfy than the 71-59 final indicated, stretching the lead to 18 points in the second half. The Buckeyes at least made the score more respectable when Lucas' backup, 6-8 Gary Bradds, got hot late in the game, but it was too little, too late.

Cincy would be back again to try for the three-peat the next season, reaching the finale (again at Louisville's Freedom Hall) against Loyola-Chicago. A story we know of intimately, referred to in past editorial pieces, but one we can revisit in more detail on another day.

Meanwhile, let's not get ahead of ourselves as we make sure to enjoy Sweet Sixteen action this week. As you see, there's plenty of history in a pair of these matchups. Even if we have to make the equivalent of a hoops archaeological dig to recall when the college hoops world last stopped in its tracks for Ohio State vs. Cincinnati.

SWEET 16 & ELITE EIGHT ON DECK!


We'd love to keep talking about college hoops history, but it's time to review recent Sweet 16 and Elite Eight action. And there have been a few trends worth noting, especially some changes a year ago.

Overall, the Sweet 16 results breakdown between favorites and underdogs is remarkably balanced since 1998; the chalk has covered 55 times, and the "short" 53 times, over the past fourteen seasons. Although Sweet 16 favorites had been in control during the three-year period between 2008-10, covering 17 of 24 chances, the underdogs finally showed some bite last season when covering 5 of 8 matchups. Those results, however, merely continued a pattern that has see-sawed over past decade; the dogs held the advantage in the Sweet 16 from 2005-97, standing 15-8-1 vs. the line, while the chalk performed better in the previous 4-season span between 2001-04, with favorites 19-12-1 against the number in those years. Among conference pointspread trends, note the Big East's historical pointspread shortcomings in this round (just 13-22-2 since 1998).

More illuminating trends appear in the Elite Eight, where underdogs have recorded a notable 34-20 spread mark since '98 (with two pick'ems). Each of the past two seasons, three of the four underdogs covered in this round. Conference-wise, note that Big Ten teams (four of which are still alive heading into this weekend) stand 11-4 vs. the line in the Elite Eight since '98, while the Big XII reps are only 4-15 in this round against the number over the same span, losing and failing to cover four times the past three seasons. Shorter-priced Elite Eight chalk (laying 3½ or fewer) is just 5-13 vs. the line in that 14-season span since 1998.



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