NCAA final: Louisville hunger vs. UCLA mystique

The whole state of Indiana drooped a bit when Purdue failed to move into tonight's collegiate basketball championship game, but there can't be too much lingering disappointment over the resultant matchup.

A UCLA-Louisville final should be a joy to watch for any number of reasons.

Both teams have speed, mobile 6 ft., 7 in. centers, plenty of frisky, talented underclassmen, and most important, something to prove. Louisville wants to show a packed house in Market Square Arena and millions of viewers (NBC 9:15 p.m. e.s.t.) that its underappreciated basketball program is the best in the country. UCLA, on the other hand, intends to demonstrate that the school's basketball mystique has not vanished, even if it did take a leave of absence.

The fact that these teams squared off in NCAA tournament play in 1972, 1975, and 1977 makes tonight's confrontation all the more interesting. The Bruins won each of those games, continuing on to the title after both the '72 and '75 victories -- the latter marking the school's 10th national championship in John Wooden's final season as coach.

The losing Louisville mentor on each of those occasions was transplanted Californian Denny Crum, a former assistant under Wooden and the man who is given credit for recruiting Bill Walton.

Once thought to be the heir apparent to the legendary Wooden, Crum has firmly entrenched himself in Louisville by guiding the Cardinals to nine consecutive post-season berths, seven in the NCAA and two in the National Invitation Tournament.

Crum's adversary in tonight's game is Brooklyn-born Larry Brown, the third UCLA coach in as many years (Gene Bartow and Gary Cunningham having voluntarily stepped out of the hot spot before him). A former guard and assistant coach at North Carolina, Brown became totally disillusioned with the pros during 4 1/2 seasons coaching the Denver Nuggets. "My last year there the only guy who paid any attention when I wanted a time out was a North Carolina alum," he says.

Both coaches assumed jobs with tremendous challenges. In Crum's case, the mandate was to lift Louisville out from under the long shadow cast by the neighboring University of Kentucky, a five-time national champion. Brown's unwritten task was to return UCLA's slipping program to its earlier glory.

Over the years, Kentucky has refused to play Louisville, apparently realizing it could only lose prestige in the process. A showdown nearly developed in the 1975 NCAA final, but Louisville let UCLA off the hook in a dramatic semifinal. The Cardinals lost a chance to ice a victory when Terry Howard, their best free throw shooter, missed on a one-and-one, and UCLA wound up winning 75-74 in overtime.

Following that loss, Louisville developed a penchant for late-season collapses, losing five of its final eight games last season in a slump that was all too typical.

A red flag went up this year when Iona ended the school's longest-in-history 18-game winning streak 77-60 in February. Instead of folding, though, the fourth-ranked Cards quickly put their house back in order and went on to complete the Metro Conference season unbeaten. In the NCAA tournament, they defeated both Kansas State and Texas A&M in overtime, demolished No. 2 LSU 86-66 in the regional finals, then proceeded to end the dreams of a gutsy but battered Iowa squad in Saturday's opening semifinal 80-72.

The man of the hour, as he has been all season, was guard Darrell Griffith, the only senior starter. Best noted for his incredible 48-in. vertical jump and Dr. Dunkenstein nickname, the electrifying Griffith is considered the college game's answer to Julius Erving.

Darrell never had any dunking opportunities against Iowa, so he simply rang up a game-high 34 points with an assortment of high-arching outside shots instead. Iowa countered for a while with some spectacular offense from Ronnie Lester until the all- America guard left the game for good with an injury midway through the first half.

At UCLA, Brown first faced the dilemma of what to do with the upperclassmen. Although his head told him to build with the younger players, his heart led him to play the seniors, who were in the trying position of adjusting to yet another coach. "At one point in the season," Brown confessed, "I'd look up in the stands and see a kid's parents. Then I'd think 'he hasn't played that much, let's get him in there.' That's the truth."

Furthermore, he was trying to force-feed his players too many defenses. "They didn't have enough fingers and hands to signal for all of them," he says.

When the team hit the skids, losing 6 of 11 games in one stretch, changes were made.

Brown simplified things and made a total commitment to using his freshmen. First- year men Rod Foster and Michael Holton are at the guards, while fellow freshmen Darren Daye and Cliff Pruitt are the first off the bench. The other starters are sophomore Mike Sanders in the pivot and seniors Kiki Vandeweghe (the team's leading scorer with a 19.5 average) and James Wilkes at the forwards.

Even this lineup didn't prove entirely effective as the Bruins finished the regular season with a 17-9 record, making the NCAA field as much on the school's past reputation as anything. After all, the playoffs were once jokingly referred to as the UCLA Invitational.

All the old magical invincibility seemed to return to the blue and gold jerseys once the tournament began, however, as UCLA eliminated Old Dominion, top-ranked De Paul, Ohio State, and Clemson before meeting Purdue on Saturday in its first Final Four appearance since 1976.

Known as the "gang that couldn't shoot straight" because of its poor outside marksmanship, Purdue failed to find the hot hands to open up the middle for 7-1 center Joe Barry Carroll. Consequently, the cat-quick Bruins kept the big guy shrouded inside a jungle of arms and legs, limiting his output to 17 points. Vandeweghe, meanwhile, used all the weapons in his reportoire, including a stuff over Carroll, to lead UCLA to a 67-62 victory with 24 points.

Now the question is: Can a bunch of California dreamers find lasting happiness in Indianapolis, or will that other team from Kentucky finally leap to the top? Stay tuned.

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