The latest news out of Bloomington, Ind. is that there is only good news in Bloomington, Ind. No Indiana player has been kicked off the team for smoking marijuana, and none has asked to transfer. And Coach Bobby Knight is still miles away from the long arm of Puerto Rican justice. So for now, at least, the Hoosiers are all present and accounted for, and assuming they remain that way, they should win the NCAA championship in March.
This is not an overpowering Indiana team like the one that blitzed through an unbeaten season to the national title in 1976. But it is considerably better than the one that won the NIT last March. Forward Mike Woodson is the best of five returning starters, and Guard Isiah Thomas leads a corps of five outstanding freshmen. Knight's pronouncements on the two players bear repeating. Woodson, he has said, is "the best player in the history of college basketball not to make even honorable mention All-America"; and Thomas, he has declared, is "the best player I've ever recruited."
Indiana has the ideal complement for these quick, active scorers in sturdy Center Ray Tolbert. Last year Tolbert was second to Woodson in scoring and the first among the Hoosiers in rebounding and he shared MVP honors in the NIT with teammate Butch Carter. Then in July Tolbert joined Woodson and Thomas on the U.S. team that Knight coached to the Pan American Games gold medal in Puerto Rico.
Knight did one of his finest coaching jobs last season, despite a roster depleted by the transfer of numerous players in recent years and his decision in December to kick out three Hoosiers, including a starter, for allegedly smoking marijuana. After 17 games Indiana had a four-game losing streak, a 9-8 record and dismal prospects. But it rallied dramatically, earning an NIT bid and winning the tournament championship with victories over conference rivals Ohio State and Purdue in the final two games. "I've never been happier for a group of kids," Knight said afterward.
Now he's happy that they are all back. The leading scorer will again be Woodson, who has never missed a game and has a 19.9-point career average. Tolbert and Landon Turner are the other frontcourt starters, and there is excellent depth in junior Steve Risley, freshman Steve Bouchie and two players coming off injuries, Ted Kitchel and Glen Grunwald.
Thomas is trying to crack a backcourt that already features Carter and Randy Wittman. Thomas should eventually replace Wittman, although Knight has cautioned, "Isiah's got a certain degree of carelessness that I don't like." As everyone knows, Knight detests carelessness almost as much as he does Puerto Rican policemen and American sportswriters.
Last year's experience will no doubt help the Hoosiers as they fight their way through a tough non-conference schedule that includes Kentucky, Toledo and North Carolina and then the treacherous Big Ten round robin. But after the finals are played in nearby Indianapolis, this team, like the 1976 Indiana squad, probably will have proved that being the best team in the Big Ten will also mean you are the best in the country. And in Bloomington, Ind. that is always the most welcome news of all.
2 OHIO STATE
Despite all the preseason talk in Columbus of a national championship, Buckeye Guard Kelvin Ransey insists that the present excitement pales compared to that of the moment two years ago when 6'10" Herb Williams decided to go to Ohio State. "Right then and there I knew the losing would stop and the winning would start," Ransey says.
Sure enough, the Buckeyes went from 9-18 before Williams to 16-11 and then 19-12 with him. Now Ohio State just may have, as Ransey says, "the best talent in the country."
The dozen or so Buckeye fans who camped outside of St. John's Arena for a week before season tickets went on sale certainly think so. And with good reason. OSU retains four starters and seven of the top eight scorers from last year's NIT semifinalists. Ransey, who poured in 21.4 points a game on 54.7% shooting in 1978-1979, is the only senior in a starting lineup that includes Williams, a dominating center, especially on defense, and two other juniors, Forward Jim Smith and Guard Carter Scott.
But it is a big man who wasn't there last season who makes the difference. He is freshman Clark Kellogg, who will step into the last starting spot. Kellogg is expected to make full use of the skills that not only made him one of the nation's best high school players but also have put him on some preseason All-America teams even before his first college game.
"We try and downplay freshmen here," an OSU aide says, "but there's really no way to do that in Clark's case." The 6'8", 225-pound Kellogg will start at forward, but don't be surprised if Coach Eldon Miller occasionally puts him in the backcourt, a la Magic Johnson. If so, Miller could then bring in another freshman, 6'10" Granville Waiters, whose high school team beat Kellogg's for the Ohio AAA championship last season. Also expected to make strong contributions are another freshman. Guard Larry Huggins, junior Guard Todd Penn and three-year letterman Jim Ellinghausen, a forward.
"The trick will be making all this talent work together," says Ransey. That, of course, is Miller's job, and he sure likes what he's seen at practices, which have been closed to the public "to eliminate all the distractions," he says.
"It's too early to tell about anyone's team, but we're pleased that others think so highly of ours," Miller deadpans. "We'll be good, but how good only time will tell. Talk makes no difference; sooner or later you have to go out and get it done—and that's what we'd like to do, go out and get it done."
Which is exactly what Ohio State will have to do. Besides a non-conference schedule that includes Virginia, Tennessee and Louisville, the Buckeyes' first three Big Ten games are against conference powers Indiana, Purdue and Iowa.
But Miller is not overly worried about the prospect of a rocky start in the conference. "Every team in the Big Ten will be good," he says. "You can't play favorites or worry about a particular game." Chances are Miller is right, and even if his Buckeyes are nipped for the Big Ten title, they are likely to get a rematch with the conference champ in Indianapolis.
3 NORTH CAROLINA
From the gift shops on Franklin Street to the outback dorms of South Campus, bumper stickers are popular items in Chapel Hill, N.C. Smug provincialists prefer the one that reads: IF GOD ISN'T A TAR HEEL, THEN WHY IS THE SKY CAROLINA BLUE? Scorners of North Carolina's biggest rivals favor: WAKE IS FAKE, DUKE IS PUKE, BUT THE SCHOOL I HATE IS N.C. STATE. Recently a new sticker has been vying for space on car bumpers and bulletin boards. Its message: UNC is WORTHY OF A NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP. Never mind that an NCAA championship would read better; the meaning is what matters. Observers who know basketball believe that freshman James Worthy can join four starters from last year's ACC champions and make North Carolina No. 1 in the nation.
Ordinarily, a player must wait a while before he attains bumper-sticker status, but Worthy has made it before his first game. Indeed, he has done it even though he has yet to win a starting position. But that should not take too long because the 6'8" high school All-America from Gastonia, N.C. seems to have the inside scoring and rebounding skills the Tar Heels need. "Worthy has all the tools. He's ready to go," says senior Forward Mike O'Koren. "He fits in real well."
When Worthy showed up on campus he was not your typical freshman with a map in one hand and a guidebook in the other. He had already sipped water from the Old Well, heard the chimes of the Bell Tower and played on the hardwood of Carmichael Auditorium as a three-year veteran of Coach Dean Smith's summer basketball camp.
This does not mean, of course, that Worthy is exempt from chasing loose balls with the other freshmen or that he commands immediate seating at the newly opened Four Corners Restaurant. For that matter, Smith himself was turned away both the first and second times he tried, and he's the guy who invented the four corners offense.
Worthy can ease in gradually because the Tar Heels are loaded with experience. The only starter missing from last season's 23-6 team is defensive dynamo Dudley Bradley. O'Koren, an All-America, is the best player, and junior Swingman Al Wood, the leading scorer—17.8 points a game on 57% shooting—was an All-ACC first-team selection last spring. Senior Dave Colescott is on hand to run the offense, although he is being pressed in the backcourt by sophomore Jimmy Black. The center will probably be senior Rich Yonakor, who shared the position last season with Jeff Wolf and Pete Budko, who are still around, too. If that is not enough depth and talent, throw in last season's top reserve, senior John Virgil, and freshman Guard Jim Braddock. "I think we'll be very good." says Smith, who is never one to overstate his team's chances. "We're a legitimate contender for the NCAA championship."
Of course, the preseason outlook always seems bright at North Carolina. "When you're practicing, losing doesn't even cross your mind," says Wood. If the Tar Heels are genuine contenders, they will find out very early. A killer December schedule includes the Big Four tournament with Duke, North Carolina State and Wake Forest, non-conference games against Indiana and Detroit and an eight-team international tournament in London. If Carolina survives that transoceanic grind, the entire team might be worthy of a bumper sticker.
4 NOTRE DAME
The Irish have certainly had their moments during Coach Digger Phelps' eight seasons in South Bend. They've knocked off a 29-0 San Francisco team, stopped an 81-game Marquette home-court winning streak and done all sorts of mean things to UCLA. They have even made it to No. 1 a couple of times themselves. But while they've spent the better part of a decade cutting down nets, they've never won college basketball's greatest prize, an NCAA title. "It's all anybody ever asks me about anymore," says Phelps, "which is understandable, I guess, since it's the only thing we haven't won." Notre Dame seemed to have a real crack at the championship in 1975, but the NBA lured away John Shumate and Gary Brokaw just when it appeared they might team with Adrian Dantley to win it all. And ever since Shumate left, Notre Dame has been slow and mechanical in the pivot.
Things will be different this season because the center will be that notorious dunker Orlando Woolridge, a converted forward who is Willis Reed's cousin and who had better rebound like him if the Irish are to play run-and-shoot as often as Phelps would like them to. His forwards, Tracy Jackson and Kelly Tripucka, are only 6'6" but are capable of running off a string of points all by themselves. Despite what Phelps calls "a prolonged shooting slump" last February. Jackson still ended up hitting 51.5% of his tries from the field. At 230 pounds, Tripucka can maneuver for just about any kind of shot he wants. Notre Dame's starting guards. Rich Branning and Bill Hanzlik, are good at their roles: Branning's intelligence keeps the Irish under control, while Hanzlik's defensive forays wreak havoc among the opposition. Opponents will get even more confused when Stan Wilcox, a Nevada-Las Vegas-style freewheeler, comes off the bench.
Phelps has never had a regular from the state of Indiana, and none of this year's prize freshmen is a Hoosier either. Guard John Paxson, brother of Portland Trail Blazer Jim Paxson, is from Ohio; Forward Bill Varner is from Pennsylvania; and Tim Andree, another hulking Notre Dame-type center, hails from Michigan. All three were ranked among the country's top 25 high school seniors last season and. given Phelps' penchant for substitution, all three should see a fair amount of playing time. Last season Tripucka and Branning played the most, just under 28 minutes a game, while averaging 14.3 and 10.2 points, respectively.
With no superteam looming up on the horizon, Notre Dame's chances of winning the national championship are good. One key is Woolridge, who must play bigger than 6'9", which he did toward the end of last season when he scored 21 points against both Oklahoma City and La Salle and 22 against DePaul. The 6'3" Branning is up to 180 pounds, which should help his stamina. And Hanzlik should be better than ever, having improved both his offense and defense during trips to China, Argentina and Yugoslavia this past summer.
Although Phelps is a master of the pregame psych job, he isn't sure what gems he will come up with this year. But he is certain of one thing: "When you have the kind of players I do, you feel like you've got to get lucky one of these times."
At Brigham Young, where the administration keeps a careful eye out for students who indulge in such forbidden substances as tobacco and alcohol, it isn't surprising to find that the school has a computer which maintains a running tally of the transgressions of the basketball team. Known as TICOR, it is about the size of a briefcase and is operated by two students at courtside. During games Coach Frank Arnold can instantly find out who's giving up the baseline, getting faked out and not blocking out under the boards.
Unless half the squad takes off in midseason for Indochina or Central America to spread the word of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—some 9,000 of BYU's 26,000 students have gone on such missions—TICOR shouldn't get much work reporting Cougar slipups. BYU has eight former high school All-Americas and five returning starters who scored in double figures last season, so it doesn't take a computer to figure out that the team should waltz to its second straight WAC title and improve on its 20-8 record of 1978-79.
Top cat among the Cougars is All-American Danny Ainge, quite possibly the best collegiate athlete around. After leading his team in scoring (18.4 points a game), assists (122) and steals (46) last season, the versatile guard batted .237 in 87 games as a second baseman for the Toronto Bluejays. Bringing the ball up with Ainge will be senior Scott Runia, an 11.6 scorer and a second-team all-conference selection. Center Alan Taylor, BYU's only other senior, is built like the Michelin Man at 6'10", 238 pounds, and he used his bulk to average nearly 10 rebounds and 14 points. The forwards are Fred Roberts and Devin Durrant, who scored 14.3 and 1 3.2. respectively.
The supporting cast includes three players who would start for most any other team. In Guard Steve Craig, a starter before going on a two-year LDS mission in El Salvador, the Cougars have one of the most effective sixth men anywhere. He's the team's quickest player as well as its best jumper. To make room for him, Arnold will often move Ainge to forward. Should Roberts or Durrant falter, he will be spelled by Steve Trumbo. Greg Kite, one of the nation's most sought-after high school centers last year, will be the spare behind Taylor.
According to Arnold, BYU's balanced scoring is by design. "Our two main strengths are shooting [the Cougars' 52.9 field-goal percentage last season was eighth best in the country] and unselfishness. I don't teach a shake-and-bake. one-on-one type of offense."
What Arnold does teach is a "quick-thrust offense," which means that BYU runs at every opportunity and takes the first open shot. As a result, the Cougars averaged 85 points per game last season.
What Arnold calls "a lack of final-four quickness" and a frequent inability to stop the opponent's top scorer are the Cougars' only weaknesses. Last season, for example, St. John's Reggie Carter burned the Cougars for 39 points, Texas' Tyrone Branyan for 35 and San Diego State's Ken Goetz for 38. This year's schedule doesn't include as many heavyweights, and all but one of BYU's toughest non-conference games are at home, where the Cougars were 14-0 last season. That being so, the Cougars may need TICOR just to add up all their wins.
When a team ends up with a 22-8 record, ties for first place in the ACC and finishes the year ranked seventh in one wire-service poll and 11th in the other, the season can hardly be called a disaster. But Duke accomplished all of those things last year and then had to explain what went wrong.
"I heard so many questions that I started asking myself why we were a failure," says 6'11" senior Center Mike Gminski, the leading scorer and rebounder. "But then I stopped judging the team from the point of view of others and began looking at it from my own. I thought about everything we had done well. Our only problem was that we tried to live up to the expectations of others, and we put too much pressure on ourselves."
Duke disappointed a lot of people because it did not win the NCAA championship after finishing second the season before. Though the 1978-1979 roster was virtually the same as the one in 1977-1978, last season's Blue Devils did not play nearly as well. Gminski, forwards Gene Banks and Kenny Dennard and Guard Jim Spanarkel fell off in scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage. In this, Duke's year of reprieve, exciting sophomore Vince Taylor replaces Spanarkel and joins Bob Bender in the backcourt, Gminski. Banks and Dennard are back, and the starters are supported by valuable sixth man Jim Suddath and four good freshmen.
Duke's biggest advantage, however, may be that nobody favors it to win the national championship. "There's a lot of pressure in being ranked No. 1," says Banks. "We played a lot of games last year as if we were trying not to lose instead of trying to win. This year we're going back to the fun of the game. Back to the kids and the lollipops."
These lollipops will not take many lickings. Banks proclaims that "Duke is gonna be strictly awesome" and, for himself, predicts "the second coming of Tinkerbell," referring to the nickname popularized during his freshman season, when he flew with unearthly abandon. "I played too conservatively last year," he says. "To get ready for this season, I've recollected a lot of memories from high school. I want to be the leader and let it show on the court instead of just saying it with my mouth."
Banks' inconsistency was typical of Duke last season. While averaging 14.3 points a game—down from 17.1 as a freshman—he scored only 12, seven, four and 12 in four of the losses. Even more inconsistent was Dennard, who had nine games in which he scored two points or less and six in which he scored in double figures. But Dennard is another Blue Devil who predicts better results. "This year I think you'll see a different Duke," he says.
Coach Bill Foster would like to see the team of two seasons ago, the one that played with unfettered verve, especially under the boards and on the fast break. "Pressure might have been the reason for the falloff," Foster says. Now the pressure is off, which is to say only one photographer showed up for the team's picture day and tour buses are no longer stopping off at Cameron Indoor Stadium to watch the Blue Devils practice. "I was proud to be No. 1 last year," Foster says, "but the demands and the attention were so great that I'm not sure I'd know how to handle it any better this year."
Foster will not get the chance to find out unless Duke plays better than it did in an early-bird opening victory over Kentucky two weeks ago. The Blue Devils won the Naismith Hall of Fame game 82-76 in overtime, but they blew a 12-point lead in the first half and had to rally from seven points back in the second. A veteran team such as Duke's should have won more easily against an inexperienced opponent, even one as talented as the Wildcats. Still, Duke pulled it out, and that was something the Blue Devils did all too infrequently last season.
For the first time in history there are no basketball tickets to be had at Louisiana State. That's indication enough of how big the sport has gotten in Cajun country, where sellouts were previously a phenomenon known only in football. Sure, fans came out to watch the Tigers during the Bob Pettit and Pete Maravich eras, but they were not nearly as lusty as the current crowd, whose ticket purchases have enriched the LSU athletic coffers by $500,000 and whose vocal support has spurred a suggestion to rename the 14,327-seat LSU arena "Death Dome." The object of their affections is a talented, deep young team that last season brought 23-6 LSU its first SEC championship in a quarter century and a seventh-place ranking in the final AP poll. While leading the conference in scoring, margin of victory and controversy, LSU beat Kentucky twice and won 10 times on the road before the season ended in an 87-71 loss to NCAA champ Michigan State in the Mideast Regional.
This season the LSU faithful expect another SEC title—and that's just for starters. They're also talking about a national championship, and Coach Dale Brown is not about to put the damper on that kind of G-E-A-U-X Tigers fervor, because he happens to share it.
A fast-break talker with no talent for poor-mouthing. Brown says,"I guess I should tell everyone why we shouldn't be ranked so high, how we lost three seniors or how Kentucky has had its best recruiting year in history, but I don't look at it that way. I think it's reasonable for us to be considered a real threat for the national championship. We could have won it last year, and I think we have an excellent chance to win it now. I don't shirk from that. It doesn't seem like pressure to me."
Brown has won himself a host of critics who call his opinions outlandish, his coaching suspect and his offense Basic Playground. However, the skeptics include none of the Tigers, who fast-break, crash the boards, dunk and run the quick-hitting "shuffle cut" offense and the full-court press with all the delicacy of tag-team wrestlers. LSU may be incapable of doing precision patterns, but its remarkable quickness makes its fast break deadlier than most, and whatever the offense, the Tigers work together unselfishly.
Brown also may have the best pair of forwards in college ball in Durand Macklin and DeWayne Scales, two juniors who can jump, shoot, rebound and play defense. Each should be better despite personal disappointments last season. Macklin, who scored 46 points and grabbed 24 rebounds in LSU's first two games, sat out the rest of the season with a broken foot. Scales, who scored 19.4 points a game and shot 56.6% on his way to earning All-SEC honors, was suspended from the team in February for talking to a self-styled NBA agent. It is to Brown's credit that Scales returned.
Greg Cook will start at center, and he has an imposing backup in Andy Campbell, a 7'2" Australian who can touch the rim without jumping. The chief playmaker is Ethan Martin, a walk-on point guard who has led the team in assists for two straight seasons. It is he who'll make the Tigers G-E-A-U-X, perhaps all the way.
8 TEXAS A&M
It is somewhat ironic that Texas A&M, a team that succeeds on its height, is singularly cursed by a lack of depth. Or so it seems to Head Coach Shelby Metcalf, who never had enough players at preseason practices to stage a full-scale, first-team-vs.-second-team scrimmage. "A lot this season is going to depend on us staying happy and healthy," Metcalf says. "We're not going to go anywhere if we get one of our key people hurt."
But if the A&M roster is short on bodies, the Aggies themselves aren't worried. Their ambition remains as tall as their re-bounders, one of whom recently told a visitor departing College Station, "If we miss you during the regular season, we'll see you in Indianapolis. Count on us being there."
A&M's achievements probably will fall somewhere between Metcalf's vision of disaster and his players' lofty expectations. Barring a bunch of injuries, the Aggies at the very least should win the Southwest Conference title.
A&M's talent is impressive. The Aggies set a school record with 24 victories last season, beating San Francisco and Kentucky on the road, knocking off Indiana and New Mexico and winning at least one game from every conference opponent except Texas. They finished third in their conference and advanced to the third round of the NIT.
Five starters are back, headed by 6'8" junior Vernon Smith, an All Southwest Conference forward who was A&M's top scorer, and 6'11" Center Rudy Woods, who led the Aggies in rebounds and blocked 65 shots and was named the conference's Freshman of the Year. With burly Rynn Wright, a 6'6" junior who plays the high post, Smith and Woods form what Metcalf fondly refers to as "the wall."
"When you're talking about A&M basketball," Metcalf says, "you're talking about that front line. Every one of them is a good rebounder."
The Aggie attack is triggered by the deft playmaking of Dave Goff, a point guard who sharpens his ball handling by dribbling two basketballs simultaneously. Goff led the Aggies in assists last season. "We've got an adaptable team." he says. "We can press, run and score 100 points or slow it down, score 60 and still win."
Uncharacteristically, the Aggies will frequently employ a zone defense this season in an effort to keep Woods under the basket and everyone from fouling out. The new defense may be easier for the players to accept than their coach. Metcalf is a disciple of former Oklahoma State Coach Hank Iba, who believed that any defense that wasn't a man-to-man was no D at all.
Whatever the defense, the Aggies will be strong on both boards and may make up for their deficiencies in outside shooting, depth and speed with tip-ins, rebounds and high-percentage shots. They will be formidable in College Station, where their 7,500-seat gym is not so much an athletic facility as an echo chamber. Officially known as G. Rollie White Coliseum, it is the "Holler House of the Brazos" to A&M fans and opponents alike.
"Last season should have been better," says the precocious Woods. "This year we can be very strong. I expect more from this team than the coach does." So does just about everyone else.
9 ST. JOHN'S
"Some who are last will be first, and some who are first will be last."
And now, it would seem, St. John's has an opportunity to be first. All five starters return from last season's 21-11 team, which twice defeated Duke—once when the Blue Devils were ranked first in both wire service polls—and came within a jump shot of the NCAA finals after having been the 40th, and last, team selected for the tournament. Add to that an excellent crop of recruits and an outstanding transfer player, and it appears that the Redmen deserve the lofty title most experts have conferred on them during the preseason: "Best team in the East." Earning that honor on the court will not be easy. Both Georgetown and Syracuse, teams St. John's must defeat to win the championship of the new Big East Conference, seem to have improved, though each must compensate for the absence of a key starter. The Red-men also suffered losses, though only from their reserve strength: Guard Tommy Calabrese and swingmen Gordon Thomas and Rudy Wright had each participated in three NCAA tournaments. "We have to go on the assumption that everybody else is improved," says Coach Lou Carnesecca, who practically willed St. John's to its sixth straight 20-victory season after the Redmen had gotten off to a 9-8 start. 'We are going to have to remember how we left off, try to capture that intensity and build on it."