Following an early spate of upsets, the feeling grew that this might be the year Upstart University would face Lost-Sight-Of City College for the NCAA college basketball championship. Things settled down quickly, though, with four certified powers muscling their way past all the would-be Cinderellas into Saturday's semifinals.
The first game, which tips off at 12:54 p.m. Eastern standard time in Philadelphia's Spectrum, matches No. 4 Louisiana State (31-3) against No. 7 Indiana (24-9). The other semifinal follows immediately, with No. 3 Virginia ( 28-3) going against No. 6 North Carolina (28-7).
In the opinion of LSU Coach Dale Brown, this may be the toughest Final Four in many years. "All four teams are potential national champions," he says.
Indiana and North Carolina have worn the championship mantle before, Carolina in 1957, IU in 1940, 1953, and 1976. The Hoosiers' 1976 contingent, which went undefeated, won the title right here in Philadelphia, a fact that Indiana's fire-breathing coach, Bobby Knight, deems of no particular significance.
"If I could bring the same team I had in 1976 back with me this year, then I'd have an advantage," he said this week. "But I can't, so there's no advantage."
The only edge Indiana might have, says Bobby Wilkerson, a member of IU's '76 team, is in the coaching department: "It comes down to coaching in the important games, and Knight is the best. That's why Indiana will win."
Not so fast, now. Knight may be as shrewd as they come, but the fellas calling the shots for those other schools are razor sharp, too.
Don't forget that North Carolina's Dean Smith guided the 1976 US Olympic team to a gold medal, and has now taken the Tar Heels to the NCAA semifinals for a sixth time. Terry Holland, exhibiting the calm, button-down look associated with Smith, coached Virginia to a National Invitation Tournament championship last year, and Brown has been the Southeastern Conference's Coach of the Year or runner-up in five of his nine years at LSU.
Coaches, of course, can only plot the "x's" and "o's"; players must carry out the battle plan. This year's Final Four seem deeper than usual in blue-chippers , with five selections from the coaches' All-America teams in action.
The biggest of these, literally, is 7 ft. 4 in. Virginia center Ralph Sampson , who reminds observers of Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) during his UCLA days. The slender sophomore has been called "the most unique individual playing college basketball" by North Carolina's Smith. "He doesn't have to score a point to be effective," the Tar Heel coach says, explaining how Sampson vacuums up rebounds, block shots, and commands special defensive attention.
Taking some of the heat off the Cavaliers' rapidly maturing pivot man is senior forward Jeff Lamp, a smooth-shooting, second team All-America and former "Mr. Basketball" as a Kentucky high schooler.
In the front court, North Carolina can counter with All-America forward Al Wood, while LSU has its own highly decorated corner man in Durand Macklin, one of the best rebounder-scorers in collegiate history.
Indiana has plenty of horses up front, but the Hoosier holding down the All-America spotlight is sophomore guard Isiah Thomas, IU's exciting playmaker. After seeing Isiah play against Maryland early in the tournament, St. Joseph Coach Jimmy Lynam said his game belonged in a time capsule.
The ability of all five of these standouts to fit into the team concept is central to the success of their schools, each of which has looked rather awesome in tournament play.
Indiana has perhaps been the most impressive down the stretch drive, recovering from a slow 7-5 early-season record to nail down the Big Ten Conference championship with a strong finishing kick. Then it buried Maryland by 35 points in IU's tourney opener and followed with 15- and 32-point victories over Alabama-Birmingham and outmanned St. Joseph's for the Mideast regional title. The two latter wins were secured on Indiana's home floor, which certainly aided the Hoosier cause.
LSU got a similar break when it moved down the road to New Orleans's Superdome after knocking off Lamar, handily eliminating Arkansas and Wichita State for the Midwest regional crown.
North Carolina sweated through a 61-56 win over Utah in Salt Lake City, but sandwiched that "white-knuckler" between comfortable victories against Pittsburg and Kansas State in the West regional.
After edging out Villanova 54-50, Virginia hit its stride in blowing past Tennessee and Brigham Young for the East crown.