| almanac | nba finals | ncaa final four | chamberlain | jordan
The best team in Ohio - 1961
By Joe Gergen
For The Sporting News
Not only had the great Oscar Robertson graduated, but he also had signed with the Cincinnati Royals of the NBA. This left the university with a two-fold problem: It had to replace a superstar, and it had to face up to constant comparison with a legend.
Many fans decided to take their business crosstown to the Big O's new home, the Cincinnati Gardens.
Even George Smith, the man who had coached Robertson, abandoned the Bearcats. He decided this was the perfect time to assume the position of athletic director at the university. Ed Jucker, his longtime assistant, inherited a team with talent but with no great expectations.
"My main concern," Jucker said, "is to make the games close. And for us to stay close, we have to change our style."
And so, from a high-scoring, free-wheeling outfit that was as entertaining as any college aggregation in the country, Cincinnati evolved into a cautious, defense-oriented team whose approach to basketball did little to attract fans. At least in the early going.
In fact, in the first month of the season, the Bearcats' average home attendance was down by thousands compared with the Robertson-era crowds. It didn't help that Cincinnati lost three of its first eight games, including wipeouts to Missouri Valley Conference rivals Saint Louis (17-point margin) and Bradley (19 points). At least one player suggested to Jucker that it might be better to let the team run.
But the coach was convinced that a pressing defense and a ball-control offense would succeed with this team, while past tactics would fail.
"None of you can be an Oscar Robertson," Jucker told the players, "but with all five working together, maybe we can do as much."
Jucker had yet to envision a trip to the Final Four.
The victory the Bearcats needed to foster a belief system and in themselves occurred against conference rival Dayton. Staging an impressive rally, Cincinnati beat the Flyers by 10 points. The team embraced Jucker's style. As the victories started to come with regularity, the fans returned.
Meanwhile, up in Columbus, the Buckeyes were proving themselves to be every bit as good as imagined. Their fast break was beautiful to behold, they had exquisite offensive balance and Jerry Lucas, their star, was utterly selfless.
The question was not whether the Buckeyes were the best team in the nation but whether they were the best team of all time. Ohio State sailed undefeated through the Big Ten Conference and arrived at the Mideast Regional in Louisville with a record of 24-0.
There, it received a real scare from hometown Louisville. Triple-teaming Lucas and daring the Buckeyes to beat them, the Cardinals led by five with three minutes remaining. Ohio State rallied to tie, and John Havlicek's long jump shot provided the Buckeyes with the winning margin in a 56-55 escape.
"I was guarded so tightly," said Lucas, who was held to nine points, "I felt like I was in jail."
Lucas broke out the following night, making 14-of-18 from the field, scoring 33 points and collecting 30 rebounds against Kentucky. The 87-74 romp by Ohio State convinced Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp.
"That team," said the Baron, "is truly great. They're going all the way."
So it appeared. And while Cincinnati raised a few eyebrows by polishing off Texas Tech and fourth-ranked Kansas State in the Midwest Regional, increasing its winning streak to 20 games, it still was regarded as nothing more than a potential victim for the Buckeyes. Far West Regional titlist Utah and East champion St. Joseph's joined the two Ohio teams in Kansas City for the Final Four.
As expected, Ohio State conducted a clinic against St. Joseph's, crushing Jack Ramsay's well-coached team, 95-69. In the other semifinal, Cincinnati hounded Utah's high-scoring center, Billy "The Hill" McGill and won, 82-67. While McGill managed 25 points, he made only 11-of-31 field-goal attempts.
There was no doubt the Bearcats could take one exceptional player out of his game, but what could they do against such a complete team as Ohio State? The Kansas City newspapers weren't optimistic.
One paper joked the Bearcats could not be found in their rooms because they had checked out of town. Given little chance to win, Jucker said his pressured by expectations that "we would be the victims of another blowout."
Fred Taylor, the Ohio State coach, was taking nothing for granted. The scouting report he delivered to his team noted Cincinnati's great strength on the backboards. Especially notable was the work of 6-foot-9 center Paul Hogue and forward Bob Wiesenhahn, whose 215 pounds appeared to have been sculpted.
The Bearcats did not have a strong bench and were particularly thin at center. Taylor underlined Hogue's name and said, "Make him foul."
In his pregame instructions, Jucker told his team to concentrate on the first 20 minutes.
"If we can stay in the game for the first half," he said, "we can beat them."
Jucker also wanted the Bearcats to send a fourth man to the boards, to stop the Ohio State fast break before it could get started. He didn't want the Buckeyes running under any circumstance.
As it happened, both teams spent a lot of time sitting in Municipal Auditorium. The consolation game between St. Joseph's and Utah went on and on and on. It wasn't until the fourth overtime that St. Joseph's secured a 127-120 victory, no triumph for the kind of defense Jucker preached.
Regardless of the long wait, the Bearcats remained calm and confident. Without a great scorer, they had developed into a team whose offense was spread among all five starters. Tom Thacker, the lithe 6-2 forward, was the most creative of the Cincinnati players, point guard Tony Yates the most steady and Carl Bouldin the best outside shooter.
Given the presence of Hogue -- a tree trunk with glasses -- and Wiesenhahn, the Bearcats had been outrebounded only once all season.
The game unfolded exactly as Jucker had planned. Cincinnati's superior rebounding denied Ohio State many fast-break opportunities. As well as Lucas was shooting, the Bearcats' defense had forced him from the low post, where his whirling moves were most effective. Neither team conceded a basket in the first half, which ended with the Buckeyes clinging to a 39-38 lead.
Cincinnati had not been blown out, and the tempo of the game was in its favor. But Ohio State had induced Hogue to foul three times. Jucker thought about sitting his pivotman down at the start of the second half, but he didn't dare risk changing the momentum. He stayed with Hogue, and the big man finished the game with the same three fouls.
Ohio State had concentrated on stopping Hogue in the first half and succeeded by dropping guard Larry Siegfried, the Buckeyes' captain, back inside. Bouldin took advantage of that tactic to make five consecutive shots in the second half and Cincinnati grabbed a six-point lead. Slowed to a shot-a-minute pace, Ohio State came back to edge five points ahead, 58-53.
The Bearcats clawed back to tie the score, 59-59, and even seized the lead on Thacker's short jump shot. But a driving layup by a brash Ohio State junior reserve named Bob Knight made it 61-61 with 1:41 left and that was the score when regulation ended.
It was fast approaching midnight when Cincinnati took its final slow steps to the title that had eluded the Bearcats during the Robertson era.
The Bearcats began the overtime with two free throws by Hogue and steadily pulled away to a stunning 70-65 victory.
In the final 25 minutes, they had held one of college basketball's most dynamic offenses to 26 points.
Lucas finished as the game's high scorer with 27 points, but he was ably assisted only by Siegfried, who had 14. The Buckeyes' stronger bench resulted in a scoring edge of only 4-0.
By contrast, Hogue was the only Cincinnati starter not to score in double figures -- and he had nine points.
Although Lucas as honored as the Final Four's outstanding player for the second consecutive year, the Bearcats had won just as Jucker had pledged, as a team. They celebrated together while Siegfried, the huge second-place trophy clutched to his chest, placed a towel over his head and cried.
© 2002 SportingNews.com