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Ten For The Final Four

April 1, 1988

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ Picture yourself in a candy store, surrounded by sweets, a celebration of sugar for your taste buds to savor. The temptation is to dip into all of them and enjoy. But life has limits and that means you must be selective, choosing only a few and leaving the rest for someone else.

That job is very much like picking an all-time Final Four team. You will be forced to pass over some tasty candidates, but what you come away with should more than satisfy your basketball sweet tooth.

On the 50th anniversary of the NCAA Division I tournament, it seemed appropriate to pick a squad of the best Final Four players in history. The team goes 10 players deep, because nobody can play a full game without substitutes and because there’s simply too much talent to stop at five. There may be too much talent to stop at 10.

Because basketball has evolved into a big man’s game, we start in the middle with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was known as Lew Alcindor when he led UCLA to three straight championships in 1967-68-69.

Alcindor set no tournament records but was unquestionably the catalyst for those championships and was named Most Valuable Player in each of those Final Fours, a feat unmatched in the history of the event.

His uncanny ability to consistently play over the rim forced the NCAA to temporarily bar dunking because he was so efficient at the maneuver. Forcing a rule change makes you an automatic choice on this team.

If the big man needs a rest, we have plenty of backup talent. You might want to go with Bill Walton, who succeeded Alcindor at UCLA and was the MVP of the Bruins’ 1972 and 1973 championships. In the ’73 title game, he scored 44 points, missing just one of 22 field goal attempts against Memphis State. It ranks as the most efficient championship game any player has ever played.

Or, if you prefer a little defense, how about Bill Russell, who led San Francisco to consecutive titles in 1955-56?

Russell merely revolutionized the center position, casually swatting away enemy shots one end of the court and gently guiding teammates’ attempts into the basket at the other end. He was MVP of the 1955 tournament and, like Alcindor later, forced rule changes with the coaches widening the three-second lane from six feet to 12 and outlawing offensive goaltending. Another automatic pick.

Our team needs experience, so from the Final Four’s first decade, 7-footer Bob Kurland gets the call. He also was a two-time MVP, helping Oklahoma State to consecutive championships in 1945-46.

Except for Walton’s 44-point outburst against Memphis State, these four centers did not have big scoring games. However, points on this team could come from other sources.

For firepower, there’s Princeton’s Bill Bradley, who set a record with 58 points against Wichita State in the third place game at the 1965 tournament. He was 22-for-29 from the field that night and no Final Four player ever scored more points in a single game.

At the other forward, you could use Elvin Hayes of Houston, who led the tournament in total points for two straight years, 1967-68. His 167 points for five games in 1968 remain the total points record for a single tournament. And his 24 rebounds in the semifinal game against UCLA a year earlier is another record that still stands, two decades later.

If you prefer to get your points from the backcourt, you could go with Gail Goodrich of UCLA and Hal Lear of Temple.

In the 1965 title game against Michigan, Goodrich scored 42 points, including a record 18 free throws. A decade before that in 1956, Lear had 48 for Temple in the consolation third place game against SMU.

To complement Lear and Goodrich at the guards, swing back to the modern era and complete the 10-man team with two of the game’s most innovative players, Magic Johnson from Michigan State’s 1979 champions and Isiah Thomas from Indiana’s 1981 winners.

Both Johnson and Thomas appeared just once in the Final Four, each in their sophomore years, and each won the MVP award before moving on to stardom in the NBA.

The reserve list - for emergency injury replacements - can include Jerry Lucas, a consecutive MVP winner with Ohio State in 1960-61, and Alex Groza, who did the same thing for Kentucky in 1948-49.

No team can win without a coach and no coach has won as many Final Fours as the legendary John Wooden of UCLA. From 1964-75, a span of 12 years, Wooden’s Bruins captured the national title 10 times, including seven in a row.

UCLA’s string of championships was interrupted only by Texas-El Paso in 1966 and North Carolina State in 1974. Four of Wooden’s title teams completed their seasons undefeated at 30-0 and three others went 29-1.

Since the end of UCLA’s dynasty with Wooden’s retirement in 1975, nine teams have won the NCAA title with only Indiana (3) and Louisville (2) capturing more than one crown. For that achievement, their coaches - Bobby Knight and Denny Crum - can flank Wooden on the bench as assistants, a job Crum once actually held at UCLA.

This all-time team is necessarily flawed because it ignores the vast basketball talents of other stars who have turned the Final Four into one of the major sports events of the year. All were MVPs, who have been squeezed out in a numbers game on this squad.

There is no room on the roster for Wyoming’s Ken Sailors, credited with introducing the jump shot, or Seattle’s Elgin Baylor, a master of body control. There is no place to put Tom Gola of La Salle or Clyde Lovellette of Kansas.

What do you do with Jerry West of West Virginia and Wilt Chamberlain of Kansas?

Just put them all gently back on the candy shop counter, sweet pickings for the next customer.

End Adv Sun April 3

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