Heavy lies the heart of Pacific 10 basketball, survived solely now by the UCLA Bruins, whose current NIT act may well be off-off-Broadway, but at least nobody has posted any cancellation notices.
The curtain will lift again tonight at Pauley Pavilion, at 7:30, although the marquee is not exactly blazing with the name of the guest star. Welcome, please, Nebraska, a team that had lost nine of its last 11 before righting itself last week with a win over, ta-da, Canisius.
This NIT menu board can give a ticket manager heartburn. Montana last Thursday, and 4,820 in attendance; Nebraska tonight. Who's next? Valparaiso?
So this isn't the A list. Tell it to USC, Arizona, Washington and Oregon State. They proved they weren't much ready for NCAA prime time, either. At least UCLA is still showing up on printed tickets somewhere. As Bruin Coach Walt Hazzard pointed out in another episode of the Breakfast Club, "That's the NCAA. This is the NIT. We're still playing."
Hazzard's task Monday was an advance man's nightmare: Hype a game against a downtrodden team during finals week scheduled at the same time as TV's "Riptide" and everything. But give him points for perseverance.
"Nebraska is a very good team in a very good conference," Hazzard said. "They went up all year against Kansas and Oklahoma and Iowa State, teams like that. They banged all year against guys like Wayman Tisdale (Oklahoma All-American). You can't go up against competition like that if you're not a good team.
"And they have a great player in this (Dave) Hoppen (6-11 center). The guy's shooting what, 65.3%? (Actually, 65.6.) That's third in the nation. Seems like numbers like that put him in a class with (Bill) Walton and Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar.)"
A pause here for a brief moment of perspective.
Nebraska went 5-9 in the Big Eight and did not win a conference game on the road. The Huskers did go up against Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa State, but not very successfully. They lost six out of seven.
And Hoppen is a good player, yes, but let's not get swept away. Walton's shooting percentage was 65.1, for his career, not just a season. Abdul-Jabbar's was 63.9. Hoppen's is 59.8. In addition, Hoppen's rebounding is suspect and thus, may remind you of Walton by hair color only. It's red.
Still, Hazzard was dealing in silver linings Monday, and he managed to convey the impression that he really is savoring this NIT business, even if the Pauley faithful aren't equally enraptured.
"Growing up in the East (Philadelphia), the NCAA was no big deal," Hazzard said. "The NIT was the thing. I never missed any NIT games when I was a kid."
It was Hazzard's current employer, UCLA, that spelled the decline of the NIT and, consequently, caused Hazzard's current publicity headache--trying to sell a tournament that takes the 65th-best team, and down. The success of John Wooden in the NCAA tournament helped gradually reduce the NIT to a second-hand rose.
Nonetheless, Hazzard says he desires to get back to Madison Square Garden, if only to right the wrongs the Bruins were done there earlier in the year by St. John's.
"Hey, if it means going back to New York, I'll buy a spring outfit," he says. "I'll wear an Easter bonnet. Just get me back there."
But there's the rub. To return to New York, the Bruins must win tonight and again Saturday. To win Saturday, it will be helpful to play at Pauley. And since the NIT unabashedly covets large crowds, it will be helpful if plenty of warm bodies fill seats tonight. If that happens and if UCLA wins, chances are good the Bruins will be back at Pauley Saturday.
If not, Hazzard's troops must travel, an unsavory possibility. Everyone knows that for every hour of classwork missed by a Bruin, the ghost of Larry Farmer does a 360-degree spin.
"Tell 'em there's tickets available," Hazzard said. "Tell 'em to come out and support the only team in the West that's still playing.
"And, hey, tell USC fans to come out, too. We entertained them enough this year."
Bruin Notes Walt Hazzard played for Hank Iba, the father of Nebraska Coach Moe Iba, on the 1964 U.S. Olympic team, which won a gold medal in Tokyo. "Only guy I ever played for who ran three-a-days," said Hazzard, fondly. . . . Hoppen is listed at 6-11, but word is he's nearer 7-1. The big redhead apparently has a social distaste for piercing the 7-foot barrier. . . . Add shooting percentages: Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar rank 1-2 in UCLA history. The current Bruin leader in that department is Reggie Miller with a 54.8 mark, remarkable considering that Miller's range is 20 feet-plus. . . . A win tonight would be UCLA's fifth straight, the Bruins' longest run of the year.