TGS FINAL FOUR PREVIEW... REMEMBERING LOY-CHI '62-63
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
We again harken to a bygone era in college hoops and present Part II of “The Great Chicago Doubleheader of 1963,” focusing on the second game of that January 26 twin bill at Chicago Stadium between the first and third-ranked teams in the country, Cincinnati and Illinois...
While Santa Clara was making a hasty exit to Cincinnati (and a date vs. Xavier) from the cold and snowy Windy City, the Loyola Ramblers had a couple of other things on their minds after the 92-72 win over the Broncos. First was the condition of coach George Ireland, who became ill in the locker room following the contest vs. the Broncos. A recurrence of the kidney stones that necessitated surgery the previous September had, in combination with the tension from the first 30 minutes of the Santa Clara game, caused the coach to momentarily pass out in the dressing room before getting proper medical attention. After a few anxious moments, Ireland deemed himself fit enough to watch the Bearcats and Fighting Illini battle it out in the nightcap of the twin bill. With their coach’s condition stabilized, most of the Rambler players also made their way back to the arena floor to watch the second half of the doubleheader, each with an eye to the near future against Cincy and Illinois teams that could be on the Ramblers’ itinerary in March.
As the huge crowd that had jammed the Stadium waited the half hour between the first and second games, it was time to marvel again at Arthur Morse’s master promotion, his fourth of six Stadium doubleheaders that season, which was more than ten months in the making. As mentioned, Loyola’s involvement in such affairs was a given; the hoop cards were always built with the Ramblers as one of the attractions. Cincinnati wasn’t a terribly hard sell for Morse, either, as Bearcat coach Ed Jucker didn’t mind a chance to expose his program in the midwest’s hub city, not to mention providing a homecoming of sorts for center George Wilson, a local Chicagoland hero who had led his Marshall High School Commandoes to Illinois state titles in 1958 & ‘60.
The key to the dynamite doubleheader would turn out to be Illinois, which had already committed to an earlier twin bill at the Stadium in late December against Notre Dame. Morse, however, had yet another date in mind for the Illini, but needed some bait to convince Illinois coach Harry Combes and Athletic Director Doug Mills to make another trip upstate to the Stadium.
That bait turned out to be the Bearcats. And Illinois could not pass up an opportunity to get a shot at the defending national champs in what would likely be friendly territory in Chicago.
Morse made sure that the media realized that getting the Illini to agree was the key to completing the blockbuster evening of basketball. “The real stars of this doubleheader, administratively, are Harry Combes and Doug Mills,” Morse told a midweek meeting of the Chicago Basketball Writers Association in the Bismarck Hotel. “We suggested an Illinois-Cincinnati game to them last March when they were busy watching the final stages of the Illinois state high school tournament.
“They wanted to make a contribution to our Stadium program. They didn’t have to play this game. After all, they knew they were going to be in the midst of a tough conference race as well as semester exams. They knew Cincinnati would be the best team in the country.
“But they felt the game would be a natural, and in a 10-minute phone call we had the date all locked up.”
Securing Cincinnati wasn’t a snap for Morse, either. Mills had originally pined for an Illini-Kentucky battle in the second game of the twin bill, but Morse had his eyes on the twice defending national champion Bearcats as Illinois’ opponent as far back as the previous March’s Final Four at Louisville’s Freedom Hall, where Cincy would eventually beat Ohio State for the second year in a row in the national title game.
The only problem was that once convincing Bearcat AD (and former coach during the Oscar Robertson years) George Smith to participate, Smith subsequently balked, citing a university rule that forbade the Bearcats from playing an away game the week following semester exams. Smith said he would need a week or two to get permission from school administrators to bypass the rule, but Morse, a persuasive sort, was having none of it, and forced Smith into a phone booth to contact the athletic board members right then and there in Louisville to get their permission, or the deal was off.
Mission accomplished, and getting Illinois on board was a snap thereafter.
The appeal of the Morse doubleheaders were almost always regional in nature, with Chicagoland particularly enraptured, but interst in this particular twin-bill extended far and wide, very unique for a regular-season contest in that era. Indeed, Cincinnati had become a national brand with its back-to-back NCAA titles and 32-game win streak it brought into the Stadium. Five years prior to Eddie Einhorn’s TVS rewriting the rules on packaging college basketball on television across the country (as was Einhorn’s UCLA-Houston production at the Astrodome five years later), TV outlets from elsewhere in the country were inquiring about showing the Bearcats-Illini battle. In Cincinnati, veteran announcer Daryl Parks would be at the microphone to call the game on WKRC Channel 12, although the local Cincinnati tip-off time wasn’t scheduled until 10:30 PM EST.
Veteran Cincinnat Post columnist Pat Harmon might have summed up the Cincy-Illinois and Loyola-Santa Clara doubleheader hype the best. “This is like opening the World Series,” wrote Harmon during the week of the game, “with the All-Star game for a noon preliminary.”
The contrast between go-go Illinois and the defensively-robust Bearcats, allowing only 48 ppg, couldn’t have been greater, unless perhaps substituting second-ranked Loyola’s electric attack-end arsenal for the Champaign-Urbana bunch. Which indeed is what many observers were contemplating as they sized up a potential Loyola-Cincy match down the road. Illini-Bearcats would likely provide a good indicator of what might come about if Cincy and Ramblers ever got into a rumble.
For the third-ranked Illini, the game was a chance to make amends on the same a Stadium floor where they had suffered their only loss of the season, a bitter 2-point, 90-88 setback on New Year’s Eve against a Notre Dame squad led by All-American forward Walt Sahm and future big league baseball pitcher Ron Reed (the Fighting Irish would eventually qualify for that season’s NCAA Tournament). And if Illini coach Harry Combes was the least bit intimidated by the top-ranked Bearcats, he didn’t show it beforehand.
“Our boys, " Combes told the Sun-Times the week of the game, “take pride in the fact we are going to play the country’s best. I scouted Cincinnati against Bradley. It’s a real solid club. I saw the Bearcats make 13 of 19 second-half shots which proved they have an attack to go along with that great defense.
“But Illinois is in good shape, and if the ball is falling for us, we’ll be in the game.”
And “Hairbreadth Harry” had reason to like his chances. He believed his troops could impose their uptempo style on anybody. The Illini were scoring at an 88.6 ppg clip, second nationally only to Loyola 97.7 ppg. They boasted outstanding balance, with all five starters averaging double-digit scoring. They had decent size, led by 6-8 New York product Bill Burwell. In 6-4 forward Dave Downey, Combes had an All-American hopeful, scoring 18.9 ppg, followed by guard Bill Small at 17.5 ppg and Burwell‘s 15.2 ppg. Small was also the nation’s 8th-ranked free throw shooter, while the physical Burwell, a force around the bucket, ranked 11th nationally in field goal percentage. Moreover, the Illini had earlier prevailed in the prestigious Holiday Festival Classic at Madison Square Garden, and had won their first four Big Ten games, one of those in dramatic fashion over Northwestern when forward Bob Starnes allowed the Illini to avoid an overtime at Evanston when nailing a 60-foot Hail Mary at the final buzzer.
The Sun-Times sports section, not one to toss around excess hype, was impressed enough by Harry Combes’ hoopsters to provide this colorful description prior to tipoff vs. the Bearcats: “The Illinois boys move like phantoms, shooting whenever they see the whites of the basket’s eye, and once on target they are difficult to discourage.”
Bearcat coach Ed Jucker, a natural worry wort, might have seen the Sun-Times analysis of the Illini, which would have contributed further to his existing concerns about the matchup. ”Our defensive reputation is really on the spot for this one,” said Juck to the Cincinnati Enquirer the day before the game. “We’ll have to stop that Illinois fast break, or we’ll get blown off the floor.
“They have been forcing their opponents to crack under relentless offensive pressure. They bore in and bore in. They are tough physically. They have a fine bench. That, plus constant offensive pressure, grinds the opposition down.”
Bearcat assistant Tay Baker also sounded warnings about the Illini prowess. “Where we keep defensive pressure on the opposition, Illinois keeps the offensive pressure on,” said Baker. “They hit from all over, 20 feet, 25 feet, 30 feet, 35 feet or more.”
Juck was also conceding that he didn’t think his Bearcats had been as good to this point of the season as they had been in the past. It would be up to the Cincy players to fool him.
Not that the players were nearly as worried. Slithery 6-2 forward Tom “The Cobra” Thacker, who would win several national Player of the Year honors that season, had no doubt that he and his Bearcat teammates could handle the Illinois pressure. “Our games were played in practice,” said Thacker to us not long ago. “Box out, keep your hands up, make the shot difficult. We spent about 80% of our practice time on defense. Our offense would take care of itself.”
Thacker would be assigned the taller Downey, but that bothered “the Cobra” not in the least. “I almost always guarded bigger guys,” said Thacker. “We knew we could make them play our game.”
Another who would definitely feel comfy on the Stadium floor would be local product George Wilson. Remember, “Jiff” was coming home for the doubleheader, having played and won all four times he played at the Stadium while a decorated member of the great Marshall High teams. And Big George’s homecoming was headline news that week in Chicagoland. Jucker made sure that the Chicago scribes were aware of what Wilson was doing in Cincinnati, although in true Juck fashion, he made sure to note Big George’s defensive prowess rather than talk about his field goal shooting accuracy, which had hovered in the 60% range for much of the campaign and stood at 57% entering the Saturday doubleheader.
“Wilson had to learn to play defense,” said Juck, “but by the end of his sophomore year, he was mastering it.
“We thought he did a brilliant defensive job against Bradley’s Chet Walker in the season finale (a Missouri Valley playoff game won by the Bearcats). We were also proud of the way he boxed up Creighton’s Paul Silas in the Midwest regional tournament.
“Silas went into that game with a reputation of being college basketball best rebounder, and he had more than a 20 point per game average. Wilson held him to seven.”
Jucker also praised Wilson for his seamless adjustment from the forward position he played as a sophomore, when “Tall” Paul Hogue anchored Cincy’s frontline, to the pivot position he occupied as a junior. “It is the position around which our deliberate, pattern type offense is built,” said Jucker regarding Wilson playing in the post. “Almost everything depends on the way George runs the patterns, sets screens and rolls to the basket. We think he proved himelf in our win over Wichita earlier this month. Playimg against their 6-10 center (Nate Bowman), Wilson got 20 points, 17 rebounds, and blocked two shots. He has played just as well since.”
Jucker had another concern heading into Chicago. He worried that the Bearcats, who would be off for a full week by the time the Illini game would tip off, could be a bit rusty.
“The big battle before Illinois is semester exams. They come first,” said Juck. “We’ve had only two real workouts since the Bradley game. I gave them plenty of time off to study for exams.
“I also thought the vacation from the floor would do them good. Now I’m beginning to wonder if I didn’t overdo it by a day.”
Combes and Loyola’s Ireland, both devotees of fast-break basketball and in stark contrast to Jucker’s deliberate style, couldn’t resist needling the Cincy coach in a press conference the day before the game. “I saw a column in the paper today,” said Loyola’s Ireland. “The writer says that Cincinnati’s style of play is as attractive as kissing a wet mop.” The assembled onlookers, including Combes and Jucker, got a good chuckle, although Jucker’s smile was accompanied by an icy glare.
The pressure leading up to the game had begun to wear on Combes, who had developed a nasty sore throat the morning of the doubleheader and was downing liquid-filled cough drops to soothe the pain.
Combes also couldn’t have been made to feel much better on the way to the game, when the same bus that took the Illini from its downtown hotel to the Stadium was to stop by the Cincy hotel to pick up the Bearcats, who were not quite ready when their ride appeared. It took nearly a half-hour for the Bearcats to load, while the Illini and sore-throated Combes sat inside the bus and shivered, only the foggy windows protecting them from the arctic-like, zero-degree cold outside.
Gamesmanship, perhaps, by the Bearcats? No way, said Jucker. “We appeared when we were told to appear,” said Jucker. “We had no idea we were sharing the bus with Illinois or that they were waiting for us.”
Which was about the only thing that didn’t go right for Arthur Morse in an otherwise smashing evening at the Stadium.
With the Santa Clara-Loyola game running a bit late, they didn’t get around to tipping off Cincy-Illinois until 9:55 p.m. Central Time. And though Illinois temporarily took early leads on jump shots by Burwell and Downey, the Bearcats almost immediately assumed command.
The tone was usually set in Cincy games by its dynamic senior duo of guard Tony Yates and Thacker, whose defensive prowess unnerved the opposition, and whose five consecutive points midway through the first half staked the Bearcats to an early 21-11 advantage that twice grew to fourteen points at 31-17 and 33-19 before the Iliini trimmed the gap to 33-23 at intermission. Cincy also seemed to be getting the shots it wanted, when it wanted, with deadeye Bearcat F Ron Bonham, always the first option on the attack end, leading all scorers with 12 points at the break.
How good of a shooter was Bonham? “The best I’ve ever seen at the college level,” said then-Cincy assistant John Powless to us not long ago. Better than Indiana’s machine-gun like Jimmy Rayl? “Heck yes,” said Powless, who would move on to Wisconsin the following season and eventually become head coach of the Badgers. Better than Purdue’s Rick Mount, the best pure shooter this writer thought he had ever seen? “Mount shot a lot,” opined Powless. “But he was not as great a shooter as Bonham.”
And the Illini were certainly not great shooters in the first half. Unable to find any clear looks, and its transition game stalled, Illinois kept firing anyway in its halfcourt sets duiring the first twenty minutes. But cold as the weather, the Illini missed 26 of 35 first-half field goal tries.
The style clash was clearly being dominated by the Bearcats; if Illinois were to prevail, it would have to do so playing at Cincy’s deliberate tempo.
Trailing at intermission, however, was something at which the Illini were very familiar, having already done so eight previous times in the season. Baskets by Burwell and Small, and a free throw by Downey, quickly pulled the Illini within four points at 34-30. The big Stadium, quiet for much of the first half, finally shook.
Though labored on attack, Jucker could still call on sharpshooting Bonham and slithery Thacker when Cincy needed a bucket, and time and time again the duo would convert in the second half just when the Illini seemd to get within touching distance. When the smoke cleared, the pair had combined for all but three of the Bearcats’ 29 points in the second half.
Up by nine points with under six minutes left, Jucker’s team abandoned its deliberate tempo for a deep freeze, simply refusing to shoot, maintaining its advantage. Then, with just under two minutes to play, the Illini made a last futile run, scoring five points in three seconds on a pair of Downey free throws, followed by a steal and a quick layup-and-one for Starnes that cut the margin to 55-51. The big pro-Illinois crowd at the Stadium, which had been lustily booing Jucker’s decision to take the air out of the ball, suddenly came to life one last time and rocked the big arena to its foundation. The roar was suddenly deafening as the game looked as if it might come down to a dramatic finish after all.
Bonham, however, provided the final dagger, shaking his overplaying defender while running Jucker’s “outside weave” delay game and springing for a layup while being fouled, converting a three-point play for a 58-51 lead with 1:08 to play. Game, set, and match; Cincy ended up a 62-53 winner, its win streak at 33 games. Bonham ended with a game-high 26 points, and Thacker added 20 more. Meanwhile, the feared Illinois offense had converted only 18 of its 59 shots from the floor, and the Illini had been outrebounded by a 49-30 margin. Big George Wilson, tasked with locking down on Burwell, had succeeded, as the big Illinois center managed to convert just 4 of his 14 shots from the floor.
Jucker was nonetheless a big indignant at all of the booing, wondering why the fans didn’t realize the method to his madness. “What are we supposed to do?” said Juck after the game, defending his deep freeze tactics. “Give them the ball?” Jucker, however, played keepaway not just to run out the clock...he was also worried about Yates’ four fouls. “We didn’t want to risk losing him,” said Jucker. “I thought the best way was to keep him from having to play defense, because you know how Tony plays it...all out.”
The fact is that Jucker’s team won while not playing its best, hitting only 36% of its own shots. And Chicago fans, used to nearby Loyola, Illinois, DePaul, Bradley and Notre Dame pushing the pace, hasn’t seen this sort of deliberate basketball in years. Jucker’s team simply refused to fast break, lumbering downcourt with each possession and patiently waiting for openings, literally strangling the life out of the Illini.
Although some fans left the Stadium that night wondering if the Bearcats might have been a bit too patient for their own good, and if that sort of caution might cost the team somewhere down the road. (Another story on these pages for another day.)
Watching in another part of the Stadium were the Loyola players, all of whom knowing that both Cincy and Illinois could both be on the Ramblers’ itinerary in March. Justifiably curious, the Loyola players wanted to have a look for themselves, something Ireland welcomed.
After a while watching the Bearcats and Illini, however, Rambler star Jerry Harkness wondered if it was such a good idea after all. “I was watching Cincinnati, and got scared to death,” admitted Harkness when recalling the second half of the twin bill to us not long ago. “lllinois couldn’t do anything, and Cincinnati just controlled that game. And Illinois had a style similar to ours.
“It got me thinking how we were going to be able to beat these guys, that’s for sure. I was looking for some weaknesses in Cincinnati, but I couldn’t find any.”
Meanwhile, just as the case when motoring to the Stadium, the Bearcats and Illini were forced to share the same bus back to their respective hotels after the game. “It was a pretty long ride and it was pretty quiet in that bus,” said Cincy’s scoring hero Bonham. “They sat in the back and didn’t say very much. They weren’t feeling much like talking. And we sat up front feeling sort of silly about it ourselves.”
Silly, except for the fact the Bearcats had cemented their case as the nation’s top-ranked team. For the time being, at least.
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