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A Golden Anniversary Celebrated With A Potentially Golden Championship Game

April 4, 2016

An old adage prescribes that “styles make fights.” At least that’s what Grantland Rice used to say. Tonight’s NCAA Men’s National Championship Game between North Carolina and Villanova (9:19 p.m. EST, TBS, Team Streams on TNT and TruTV) promises to provide a study in contrast, between the perimeter-oriented, quick but deliberate Wildcats and the uptempo, imposing, long, rebound-dominating Tar Heels.

But that contrast pales in comparison to an NCAA Title Game that happened just over 50 years ago. Last Wednesday I watched ESPN’s rebroadcast of the 1966 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Game between Kentucky & Texas Western (now known as University of Texas-El Paso, or “UTEP”). Played at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House in College Park, Maryland, Adolph Rupp’s all-white “Rupp’s Runts” staring Pat Riley (yes, THAT Pat Riley), Louie Dampier and Larry Conley faced Don Haskins’ starting five comprised of all African-American players, the first time in NCAA Tournament history that an eventual champion fielded such a lineup. Texas Western won a foul-marred affair 72-65, with all 72 of Texas Western’s points scored by their African-American players, none of whom were recognized as All-Americans by the existing media, even as the best two players on the floor in that game were Texas Western’s Bobby Joe Hill and David “Big Daddy” Lattin.

Never mind the Hollywood version of events, as the game shall forever hold its own gravitas. It was a game that involved four Basketball Hall of Famers – Rupp, Riley, Dampier for Kentucky, and Haskins for Texas Western/UTEP. It was a game that in some not-so-subtle ways would help integrate athletics in the Southeastern Conference shortly thereafter in 1967. It was a game that demonstrated both social progress and the existing divide; an overwhelmingly white audience at Cole Field House supported Kentucky throughout and (embarrassingly) booed the final result. The ESPN Broadcast used the original audio play-by-play of longtime Kentucky broadcaster Claude Sullivan, who did the game for the Standard Oil Radio Network, which also added to the pro-Kentucky slant of the watching experience.

Yet beyond all of that, it was a striking contrast of basketball philosophy and approach, as well as a time capsule showing how much basketball has changed, and yet in many ways remained the same. The rules differences from the 1966 game to current college basketball that many now either may not remember or were never aware of were stark: No shot clock, no 3-point shot (watching the game with my Dad, it was fun trying to figure out which jumpers would have been 3-point attempts, and one gets the feeling Riley in particular would have been a 3-point specialist had that line existed then), jump balls for every tied possession (which I think they should bring back, for giggles), an actual emphasis on calling “walking” (AKA travelling) and “palming” (carrying) violations, and most markedly, the difference in the fouling and bonus structure (the one-and-one bonus after seven team fouls was a true bonus shot, as all fouls before then only merited one free throw attempt) which ended up weighing in Texas Western’s favor. Lastly, in a pleasant bonus, there were no media timeouts, as the ESPN rebroadcast including interviews and commentary last 90 minutes and still showed every play and almost all the dead-ball action.

Aside from the obvious differences, Kentucky’s approach to winning basketball also differed greatly schematically – playing a 1-3-1 zone the entire game, and trying to control the tempo of the game with deliberate passing – than Texas Western’s strategy of aggressive man-to-man defense and force feeding the interior. The end result was foreshadowed throughout the game, as Texas Western led by 2-11 points most of the way, Hill’s two consecutive steals in the first half becoming the fulcrum for Texas Western’s advantage, and their edge in the lane manifested by the foul (23 Kentucky fouls to Texas Western’s 12) and free throw (Kentucky was only 11-13 from the free throw line while Texas Western shot 28-34) disparity.  Texas Western won because they were able to dictate the terms of that conflict, speeding up Kentucky and making them have to beat Texas Western at their own game, ultimately failing to do so.

Which brings us back to tonight’s tilt. Whichever team imposes their style on the game should win.  I picked North Carolina to win it all three weeks ago, and I see little reason to materially change that pick.  However, Villanova is clearly the hottest team in the NCAA Tournament, and what they did to Oklahoma in the National Semifinal might have been borderline criminal in some jurisdictions. I doubt we see a repeat historical shooting performance – Villanova made 71.4% of their field goals Saturday night, the highest percentage of any team in a Final Four game since the 1985 Champions Villanova shot 78.6% to beat Georgetown in the NCAA Final –against a much more talented North Carolina squad.  Villanova’s path to victory will likely involve two keys: 1.) attacking the rim on offense to get North Carolina’s big men Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks in foul trouble, which would enable 2.) Villanova to battle North Carolina on the boards to a standstill, creating enough of their own second-chance opportunities and preventing runouts in transition by North Carolina off of Villanova’s missed shots.  Easier said than done however, and unlike Oklahoma, I think North Carolina has the length on the perimeter to bother Villanova’s guard trio of Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson. I think Roy Williams surpasses his mentor Dean Smith and wins his 3rd National Title for the Tar Heels, but in no way would it surprise me if Villanova slayed another giant for their 2nd.

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From → Basketball, Sports

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