If there were such a creature as a neutral fan of college basketball and he were assigned to choose the most pleasing NCAA final four matchups, he would want Dean Smith and Bobby Knight as two of the coaches. He might not want Ray Meyer, deciding that a coach who could make the NCAA semifinals only once since he had George Mikan might not deserve it after all.
Our neutral fan would want the best big player in college basketball, the best small player and the team with the most good players. He also would want the UCLA cheerleaders, the Stanford band, Abe Lemons and the chance to pick any five famous coaches out of the audience during halftime, administer 15 minutes of truth serum to each and say: "Now, how did you really build that program of yours?"
So he'll settle for exquisite basketball Saturday afternoon and Monday evening in Philadelphia. The most intriguing coaches and players, the one who stir us as few others, will be performing. And when they finish, when a season as satisfying as any ends, the NCAA champion will be . . . LSU
Dean's dream team will beat the University of Ralph in one semifinal Saturday and LSU's eight fine players will defeat Indiana's one spectacular player, Isiah Thomas, in the other. Then, unless Leonard Mitchell hits his head on the Spectrum ceiling going for a rebound and knocks himself sillier than the NCAA rule book, the Tigers will edge North Carolina for the title. Why?
Because LSU has more experienced quality players than anyone else; has had them all season, in fact, and almost nobody paid attention. With Mitchell playing taller than he actually is and Greg Cook tougher than casual fans realize, the Tigers can overcome the appealing Carolina front court of Al Wood, James Worthy and Sam Perkins.
You might not want to mortgage every penny on this forecast. People who write letters in crayon and others might recall the last bit of analysis here, on Super Bowl eve when I suggested that the Philadelphia Eagles would tie Jim Plunkett as neatly as a hostage ribbon and whip the Oakland Raiders.
But Carolina has just about every advantage, physical and psychological, against Virginia. The Heels are faster and more versatile -- and healthier. Also, they are determined not only to grab another large lead in this third collision with the Cavaliers but also not to botch it.
That is more possible now than ever, because Smith has learned a lot about this exceptionally young team. Probably, he has realized that if it gets another decent lead he should keep attacking instead of slacking.
If Smith does decide to play stall ball, it will be with a delay game he did not use in the regular-season losses to Virginia. The new, effective, Carolina stall is not his pet four-corners but one many good teams have used for years. It features five players instead of one and drove two fine teams, Utah and Kansas State, dizzy in the West region.
Whether Carolina can shoot well enough from the outside, whether Perkins can uproot Sampson, keep him from being a one -man zone near the basket, are the important variables. If Worthy, Wood and Perkins can pass inside this week as well as they did last week, the Cavaliers are in trouble.
Virginia is that rare team that seems to play much better coming from behind than with the lead. Still, it seems less flexible than Carolina, less sure even about its natural team personality. Sampson's skills seem best suited to an uptempo, even reckless game. Some other Cavaliers seem more comfortable with a more disciplined offense.
Indiana has been terrific the last month or so. What has been largely forgotten during this blitz is that the Hoosiers have lost nine (9) games this season. This means that beyond Thomas every player has a flaw serious enough for a team such as LSU to capitalize on.
Iowa had to fold in the stretch for Indiana to win the Big Ten championship. Then the Hoosiers faced three teams, including Maryland, whose styles either emphasized what they do best or were vastly outmanned.
Simply put, LSU is better up front and fast enough to keep Thomas from dominating the game. Its backup point guard, Johnny Jones, is swifter than starter Ehtan Martin. And sixth man Willie Sims is good enough to be introduced with the regulars before home games.
Thomas emphasizes the significance of gifted lead guards in basketball, that somebody creative and mercurial is almost as necessary to achieving final-four stature as the Sampsons and Worthys. Many coaches undervalue guards, insist they are a dime a dozen. Almost always, those coaches are done coaching by this point in the playoffs.
LSU has played better longer than anyone in the final four, and in tougher environments than any of the teams except possibly North Carolina.
The Tigers won at Knoxville and outscored Kentucky in Lexington most of the game but could not overcome too many early sins. Also, they whipped Kentucky badly at home.
They are surprisingly versatile, able to beat good opponents at their best style. Against Kentucky, they used a delay game that was as efficient and fun to watch as Carolina's against Kansas State last week.
Surprisingly, or perhaps, not the best players in all the games are very likely to be the youngest. Sampson, Thomas and Worthy all are sophomores. Mitchell, Perkins, Carolina's Matt Doherty and Virginia's Othell Wilson are freshmen.
Smith has failed to win the NCAA title in five previous final four tries.
But no coach except the Wizard himself, John Wooden, with 12, has taken as many teams as far as Smith. In addition to his other advantages this time, Smith has an omen going for him. He beat Kansas State in the NCAA playoffs, and recent history says that will earn him the ultimate championship.
In their last two appearances, '77 and '80, and five times in all, the team that has gone on to win the title.Knowing this, we can hear Smith now saying: "Ah, why are we even playing these games? You know where to mail