Two top powers and two Cinderella teams battle for NCAA title
Bob Hope and Bing Crosby never took the road to Albuquerque, but the basketball teams of North Carolina State, Houston, Louisville, and Georgia are sure glad they have.
Albuquerque has been this season's most desirable destination, the spot where the Final Four will conclude the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, alias the national championship, during the next four days.
The participants will converge on ''The Pit,'' the University of New Mexico's 17,000-seat basketball arena, a much more intimate setting than last year's Final Four in New Orleans's Superdome.
CBS will televise Saturday's semifinal doubleheader starting at 3:30 EST, then carry Monday evening's final at 9 p.m.
The tournament, which began 2 1/2 weeks ago as the richest ($21.8 million to be divided up among participating schools) and largest (52 teams) in history, has produced a Final Four that is equal parts of the expected and unexpected.
Houston and Louisville represent the former; Georgia and North Carolina State the latter.
In reality, of course, there's no such thing as a certainty in the fun house world of college basketball. But at least entering the tournament, Houston and Louisville were the teams to beat.
They were ranked 1-2 in the wire service polls, had no noticeable weaknesses, and appeared physically overpowering. Some have called them a mirror image of one another - big, strong, and intimidating. Furthermore, both returned a handful of lettermen who played in last year's Final Four, when Houston lost to eventual champion North Carolina and Louisville fell to runnerup Georgetown.
For Louisville (32-3 so far this season), the top returnees are brothers Rodney and Scooter McCray. Cool headed veterans, they helped their team defeat Kentucky in the historic meeting of these schools in the Mideast regional final. Despite the proximity of the two colleges, they had not met in basketball since 1959, an oddity apparently brought on by Kentucky's efforts to duck the Cardinals.
Anyhow, the game went into overtime, whereupon Louisville monopolized the action for an 80-68 win. The victory was the school's biggest since it won its only NCAA championship four years ago.
Houston (30-2) lost a nifty pair of guards off last year's squad, but returned a lot of heavy artillery up front in the persons of Akeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and Larry Micheaux. Their prolific dunking has become the trademark of basketball's Phi Slamma Jamma fraternity.
The focal point of this outfit is Olajuwon, a seven foot sophmore whose unique story has made great copy for hordes of sports writers.
A native of Lagos, Nigeria, he took up basketball in 1979 and enrolled at Houston a year or so later. At first he was a very unrefined talent, a bull in the china shop. But he is a fast learner, and benefited from some special tutoring by pro star Moses Malone, who taught the youngster a lot in pickup games when he played for the NBA's Houston Rockets.
This season Akeem has begun to put the total package together - blocked shots , turn around jumpers, the works. The proof of the pudding, came in the Midwest regional last week, when he outshone Keith Lee and John Pinone, two of the country's premier big men, in victories over Memphis State and Villanova. Against the Wildcats he really lived up to the nickname Akeem the Dream, as he scored 20 points on 10 of 11 shots, grabbed 13 rebounds, rejected eight shots, and flew up and down the court with uncommon speed and agility for a man his size.
So now the big O and his ''fraternity brothers'' go up against Louisville in what would make a perfect championship game. But, of course, it's only a semifinal, guaranteeing a title game matchup of a clear-cut favorite and underdog. Or maybe ''underdawg'' if Georgia's Bulldogs (24-9) get past N.C. State (24-10) in Saturday's first game.
Neither of these latter teams is exactly a basketball reject, but on the other hand, hardly anyone expected them to get this far.
Led by soaring David Thompson, N. C. State won the NCAA title in 1974, but since then the school hasn't made many waves nationally. Now third year coach Jim Valvano, a colorful New Yorker with a relaxed style, has put the program back into the limelight.
Though the 14th ranked Wolfpack lost those 10 games during the regular season , it caught fire in the Atlanta Coast Conference tournament, upsetting North Carolina and Virginia enroute to the conference crown.
N.C. State kept right on winning with late game rallies, closing out Ralph Sampson's collegiate career with another victory over Virginia, this time in the West regional final.
At the same time, Georgia's 15th ranked team was diverting attention from the saddening professionalization of football's Herschel Walker. A no-star bunch short on size, the ''Dawgs'' became an even better team without last year's star , Dominique Wilkins, who turned pro early.
All of their nine regular season losses came in the Southeastern conference, but things came together in the SEC postseason tournament, with Georgia winning its first league title and grabbing the school's first NCAA berth. From there the Bulldogs toppled third ranked St. John's in Atlanta to earn passage from the East regional to Albuquerque.
Louisville's Denny Crum is the only one of the four coaches who has won this tournament before, having led the Cardinals to their 1980 triumph. Georgia's Hugh Durham came close once, taking Florida State to a surprising second place finish behind mighty UCLA back in 1972. Houston's Guy Lewis, of course, got his team to last year's Final Four, while it is the first time even that far for N.C. State's Valvano.
So the stage is set, and the curtain about to go up on a really gripping last act to the 1982-83 season.