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Virginia will be tough, but Gilmore and his hungry Colonels will consume the division like a few chunks of Kentucky fried chicken

Dismayed with coming so close to a title so many times, the Los Angeles Lakers fired Joe Mullaney at the end of last season. The coach promptly signed with the Kentucky Colonels—who are all keyed up after coming so close just once. The Colonels, who finished a distant second to Virginia in regular-season division play, beat the Squires in the playoffs and rolled on to the seventh game before losing the ABA championship to the Utah Stars. "The competitive spirit here makes us seem like a college team," Mullaney says, and what especially pleases him is the enthusiasm of his star student, 7'2" Artis Gilmore.

An unquestioned defensive standout as a collegian at Jacksonville, Gilmore demonstrated in preseason games that he can get to the basket with the ball, the evidence including a 38-point spree against Carolina and 30 more against Indiana's outmatched All-Star, Mel Daniels. Where the ABA previously made do with such smaller, outside-shooting centers as Daniels, Utah's Zelmo Beaty and the Colonels' own Dan Issel, Gilmore now symbolizes the league's coming of age, giving it at least one pivotman cut in the Russell-Chamberlain-Alcindor mold. Further, Gilmore frees the 6'9" Issel for the corner. Issel was the ABA's leading scorer as a rookie with a 29.9 average, and in his new role his defensive shortcomings will be less noticeable because of the shot-blocking big man looming up behind him.

Also equipped with sharpshooting Guards Louie Dampier and Darel Carrier, the Colonels may dispatch the rest of the division like so many pieces of Kentucky fried chicken. Virginia, pro basketball's highest-scoring team a year ago with a 123.27-point average, probably will go down with more difficulty than the others. Outstanding as Issel was, he shared rookie-of-the-year honors with Virginia's Charlie Scott, and Gilmore will get competition from exciting 6'6" Julius Erving of Massachusetts, who helps make the Squires one of the tougher teams around. "Julius is too quick for big forwards to guard and too big for the small ones," says Coach Al Bianchi. In fact, if it were not for the Squires' sick list, the future would be even brighter. But veteran Ray Scott and Doug Moe are currently down with knee miseries, and Guard Mike Barrett is lost for the year with a damaged wrist.

In New York, meanwhile, Rick Barry reported to the Nets in strong shape for a change. But more than that, Coach Lou Carnesecca, after relying on five rookies last year, also is rapidly developing a team to go with his star. In particular, the improvement of 6'11" Center Bill Paultz is most encouraging. The Nets, who sold 42 season tickets two years ago, already have peddled close to 2,800 as they prepare to move three miles down the Hempstead Turnpike into suburban Long Island's new 18,000-seat Nassau Coliseum. With a natural rivalry against the NBA Knicks likely to develop in time, the Nets suddenly seem to be a solid franchise—if they can somehow keep Barry from the clutches of the Golden State Warriors, who have a claim on his services starting next year.

The Carolina Cougars find themselves in the situation the Nets occupied last year: the team comes equipped with one truly fine veteran and a flock of rookies. And the vet, speedy Forward Guard Joe Caldwell, is ailing. But the newcomers, notably Western Kentucky's Jim McDaniels, a 7-foot forward whose deadly outside shot seems to originate in the balcony, arc of such quality that new Coach Tom Meschery can reasonably expect to avoid the club's last-place finish of a year ago and leapfrog both Pittsburgh and the Floridians. The Condors will get plenty of points from Cornerman George Carter and rugged John Brisker, while the Floridians look to Guards Mack Calvin and Larry Jones, whose combined 51.5-point average last season was the most prolific backcourt act in pro basketball history. After a housecleaning that left no players from the season before, the Florida club settled down in 1970-71 and played .500 ball the second half of the season. The Floridians go into this year with their roster virtually intact, reflecting the stability and guarded optimism that have come over the ABA in general.