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Who's No. 1? DePaul right now, but when the NCAAs start, anyone could be, so evenly distributed is the talent

For all those college basketball teams that will be left uninvited to this year's NCAA playoffs, the number to call is 966-3377. In East Lansing, Mich. and Terre Haute, Ind., call collect. That's 966-3377 or, on your telephone dial, W-O-O-F-E-R-S. Because considering the new and ridiculously overexpanded tournament field, real hounds are obviously what these pariahs will be.

By expanding from a 40- to a 48-team field, the NCAA appears to have cheapened the regular season, rendered meaningless all those conference postseason playoffs and made its spectacular March-long carnival as easy to qualify for as, well, the NBA playoffs.

Among the teams that will probably receive invitations next week are Furman, which at one time this season lost three straight games by a total of 48 points and then had a fourth canceled; UCLA, now known as Kiki and the Kollapsible Kids; and Duke, the Mike Gminski-led Gflop of the Gcentury.

Whether these semiachievers deserve the bids is another question. The Palladins of Furman—remember TV's Have Gun, Will Travel?—did dominate the Southern Conference and salted the league championship away along about Ground Hog Day. Have fun, won't travel. But the callow Bruins, despite a nice rally last month, during which Coach Larry Brown went back to basics and slept in the ticket lines, will probably finish fourth in the Pac-10. And the Blue Devils, whose coach, Bill Foster, can't seem to evacuate the scene quickly enough, may wind up sixth-best in the ACC following that league's annual postseason shenanigans.

In another sense, however, the NCAA may have been more prescient than its reputation would lead anybody to believe it could be. Given this winter's multitude of upsets, injuries, star newcomers, home-and-road reverse margins, topsy-turvyness and sheer, unadulterated balance, who's to say we don't need a year-end tournament of such enormous numbers to separate the wheat from the chaff?

In this up-and-down, surprises-all-around season, statisticians should try some of these beauties on for size:

•In one week in January, nine of the Top 20 teams in the wire-service polls were defeated.

•Two teams that at different early dates held the No. 1 ranking—Indiana and Duke—dropped all the way out of the Top 20.

•At the end of last week the brutal Big Ten had had 11 overtime games and a total of 36 games decided by five points or fewer. Indiana, back from a slump during which Coach Bobby Knight was reprimanding his home crowd and the Hoosier fans were booing him back, leads the league in average scoring margin (for conference games) with a whopping 3.5-point differential. High and mighty Ohio State has battered Big Ten opponents by an average of 2.6 points a game.

•The elite of the East—Syracuse, St. John's and Georgetown—staged a marvelous round robin, each bouncing one of the others off the loser's home court in the final seconds. Combined margin of victory: five points. The Redmen nailed the Hoyas at Washington in overtime, 71-69. Following that, Georgetown beat Syracuse to end the Orangemen's 57-game home winning streak, 52-50. And following that, the boys from Syracuse went to the Big Apple and defeated St. John's 72-71. Paper covers rock, rock breaks scissors, scissors cut paper.

•Bradley, one of the few runaway conference winners, escaped from three straight Missouri Valley home games with one-point decisions and next led a 10-7 West Texas team in Peoria, Ill. by only one with 10 seconds to go before romping 84-79. Still, the Braves, led by their superb forward, Mitchell Anderson, became the only team in the 64-year history of the Valley to go from last place to first in one season.

•In Utah, the Beehive State, things were abuzz at the top of three conferences. Big Sky champion Weber State had to go into overtime twice to sweep last-place Boise State in their home-and-home series. PCAA champion Utah State won four overtime games but lost at home to a 15-game loser, Fullerton State. WAC champion Brigham Young won seven games by a total of nine points. And perennially dangerous Utah is 8-4 in the conference, 4-11 non-league and 0-5 in forfeits.

•In the ACC the only real difference among the six top teams—four of which may end up with 20 wins—is Maryland's winning record on the road. Maryland, North Carolina, NC State, Clemson, Virginia and Duke were, collectively, 37-4 at home. But the Terps won the championship, in effect, when the remarkable Albert King deflected a Tar Heel inbounds pass with two seconds left at College Park on Feb. 7 to preserve a 70-69 victory.

•In the SEC the difference has been home-court failure. Tennessee ripped off seven straight wins in the league before dropping a one-point heartbreaker to LSU at Knox-ville. The Vols lost their next four and were finished. In a series of road-game shockers, Alabama beat LSU, Kentucky and Georgia, which in a normal year would have set up the Tide for the conference title. But then 'Bama lost to the same three teams at home and fell to fourth place. Meanwhile LSU embarrassed Kentucky at Lexington, Ky., forging a tie for the regular-season lead, but then—tit for tat—the Wildcats traveled down to Baton Rouge on Sunday and returned the favor, winning the championship, 76-74.

•One day in the Big Eight—Feb. 16—saw underdogs win three games on the road by a total of eight points, while Missouri edged last-place Oklahoma State 69-64 and took undisputed possession of the league lead. Oklahoma, which lost only one starter from last season's championship team, finished 6-8 and in sixth place. Even with Jack Hartman's characteristically solid coaching, Kansas State couldn't win any league game by more than 10 points. Or lose any by more than 10, either. One evening K State, 8-2 at the time, journeyed to Iowa State, 2-8. The Cyclones played without a single head coach, Lynn Nance having resigned and been replaced by two assistants, who shared the duties. But the Wildcats were awarded only two free throws—and failed to make either of them—and Iowa State, 12 for 18 from the line, won 66-58, proving once and for all that when you've got two referees, you hardly need any head coaches.

•Even DePaul, unbeaten though it may be, isn't head and shoulders above everybody else. Of their 26 consecutive victories, the Blue Demons have won 15 by fewer than 10 points, 11 of those by six points or fewer. DePaul blasted Northern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, Lamar and Dayton by two points each; that foursome has gone on to a sparkling combined won-lost record of 51-45. The Blue Demons' strongest opponent, LSU, played a league game against Tennessee on a Saturday, then traveled to Chicago on Super Sunday without its strongest player, Durand Macklin, and outscored the home team by nine field goals. De-Paul made 28 free throws to LSU's five and won 78-73.

"I've never been through a season like this," says Las Vegas Coach Jerry Tarkanian, who has been through a few wringers, not to mention seasons. "Out of our 23 games, I bet 20 have gone to the wire. [In fact, 12 of the Rebels' games have been decided by four points or fewer.] You know, other guys get up in the morning and go to work and nothing happens. But I know every time we play a game, it's going to the wire."

The reasons for this colossal parity are not difficult to figure. One is the freshman-eligible rule, which is now seven years old. This means that the grade-schoolers of the early '70s have had plenty of time to perceive what happens when a recruit picks the right school, coach and environment—and what develops when he picks the wrong one, too. Now high school stars no longer flock to the eight or 10 "name" schools. Instead, they enroll elsewhere, at places where they know they will play a lot and play soon.

"I don't want to sit' is a common expression we hear from the top recruits if we can't show them an open position," says Purdue Coach Lee Rose.

Coaches are forever moaning and groaning about the freshman eligibility rule. The kids aren't ready. They're unprepared socially. Can't handle the study load. Get homesick. Make too many turnovers. In truth, the fact that a five-man game can be affected so dramatically by a single fellow and that that fellow can be all of 18 years old is the most important factor in the remarkable balance in college ball.

"The freshman rule that prevents red-shirting has made many kids look more carefully before they sign," says University of San Francisco Coach Dan Belluomini. "They want to play, or at least have a shot at playing, right away. You know, these kids may seem immature but they know their recent basketball history. They know that Moses Malone, Bill Willoughby and Darryl Dawkins all went directly from high school to the pros. They feel, some of them, that they're on the border of playing pro ball and they don't want to delay their chances of moving up."

Over each of the last four seasons one tall freshman center has arrived—Gminski at Duke (1976-77), Jeff Ruland at Iona (1977-78), Rudy Woods at Texas A&M (1978-79) and Ralph Sampson at Virginia (1979-80)—to completely turn the program around at his school. And this season, at least six teams have been propelled to the top of their conferences by freshmen, while a seventh has charged to the top of the country by the same means.

Specifically, where would Indiana and Ohio State be without Isiah Thomas and Clark Kellogg? Whither Kentucky and LSU without Sam Bowie and Howard Carter? What about Louisville without Rodney McCray? Missouri without Steve Stipanovich? Or DePaul without Terry Cummings and Teddy Grubbs?

In addition, Ruland, Woods, Sampson, Carter, Stipanovich, Cummings and Grubbs all are examples of another significant new trend: good players are staying home. They're turning down the allure of faraway places with neat-sounding names to attend the college just around the corner.

Not that the freshman rule has resulted in less mobility. To the contrary, with four years to work with, transferring is the easy way out for a player who's unhappy. Kyle Macy left Purdue for Kentucky. Bob Bender went from Indiana to Duke. Reggie Carter, Bernard Rencher and Curtis Redding came home from Hawaii, Notre Dame and Kansas State, respectively, to play at St. John's. Steve Krafcisin exited from North Carolina and wound up at Iowa.

On the other hand, it was only after Maryland's Lefty Driesell rid himself of an entire benchful of despondents—Brian Magid transferred to George Washington, Billy Bryant to Western Kentucky, Turk Tillman to Eastern Kentucky and JoJo Hunter to Colorado, where he has made a more smashing impact than Ralphie the Buffalo—that Driesell and the Terps could start roaring to their best season in years. What Driesell had done, what John Wooden used to do at UCLA, what Joe Hall and Digger Phelps, to a certain extent, can still do at Kentucky and Notre Dame, is called—as in preparation for nuclear war—stockpiling. On occasion, as it was in Driesell's case, the pile of stock discovers there is not enough playing time to go around. Usually, however, a coach would find a big stockpile to be the next-best thing to owning his own ref.

Well, stockpiling has all but ended, because of the players' increasing reluctance to sit and because of another rule, now in its third year on the books. Once the NCAA had no limit on the number of basketball scholarships a school could give. Then it restricted a team to a total of 25. The limit then was lowered to 20, to 18 and, starting in the 1977-78 season, to 15. While Wooden, for one, insists he never had more than 15 scholarship players in school at the same time—when more were permitted—there's good reason to believe that famous schools routinely enrolled bluechippers as bench-warming insurance.

"UCLA used to recruit some kids just to keep them away from schools like ours," says George Raveling of Washington State, who will never forget Swen Nater, among others.

That can't happen anymore, and, thus, the national player pool will be more evenly distributed. "The UCLAs, the Kentuckys, North Carolinas and Marquettes—people like that—are still going to get top kids," says Texas A&M Coach Shelby Metcalf, "but when they can only take 15 instead of 18 or 25, they're cutting some good people loose."

Some teams have struck a mother lode lately without going after the phenoms. The 6'11" plant lover, Roosevelt Bouie, came over the snowdrifts to Syracuse from tiny Kendall, N.Y. Slithery Billy Williams—the best guard in the ACC—quietly arrived at Clemson from Raleigh, N.C. by way of Brevard Community College in Cocoa, Fla. And if you can name the nationally unknown, two best players in the Pac-10 and Southwest conferences, respectively, you win an all-expenses-paid trip to Pullman, Wash, and Waco, Texas. That is where Don Collins of Washington State and Terry Teagle of Baylor do their stuff.

More black players performing at the big state universities in the South. Additional conferences springing up with accompanying TV exposure, especially in the East. Bigger and better arenas across the land. Players who are sophisticated enough as freshmen to handle conditions on the road. ("I recruit New York City school kids who play summer games in Utah," says Georgetown Coach John Thompson. "Washington summer programs send players to Las Vegas. Kids go overseas in the summer now. When I was in high school in D.C., we were lucky to go to Baltimore. There are no foreign courts anymore. Good players will play well wherever the game is.") All these factors have contributed to parity in college basketball. Since UCLA's Wooden retired after winning the 1975 championship, 16 different teams have made it to the final four; the last three national champions—Marquette, Kentucky and Michigan State—were defeated in the regular season a total of 15 times. The word coaches frequently use in discussing this phenomenon is "commitment."

"Everyone has made a strong commitment to the big time," says Alabama's C. M. Newton. "You have to look long and hard to find a Division I school that has not said it wanted championship basketball. Just look around our league. Everyone has a nice, new place to play. [Florida is building one.] There have been 19 coaching turnovers in the last 12 years, and only three of them were voluntary. There is a hunger everywhere."

Alabama is not the only football school to have finally accepted round ball. In his six years at Arkansas, Eddie Sutton has built a program and reputation that rival those of North Carolina's Dean Smith. That is, no matter whom he recruits or where he plays, Sutton is expected to coach his team to respectability—on the court and at the box office. Since 1974 Arkansas' basketball revenues have climbed from $40,000 a season to about $1 million. "It can be done anywhere," says Sutton. "We just did it faster than most schools could."

Radio and TV have made basketball an attractive financial proposition for schools from coast to coast. When Hugh Durham took the coaching position at Georgia last year, a priority was the Bulldog radio network, which he increased from five stations to 35. San Francisco, even with Bill Russell, never had anything more than FM broadcasts from a school station. But for the last five seasons the Dons' games have been on major radio and television stations in the Bay Area.

College games on cable TV have proliferated at a stunning rate. If you can't catch about 10 or 20 games a night on the tube, you're either unplugged or unaware of the all-night charms of something called ESPN-TV.

The openhanded beneficence of NBC and TVS have made the NCAA tournament a gold mine, even for first-round losing teams, one of which is said to have received $60,000 for a defeat last March. "I remember back in 1959 when we played five games, went to the NCAA finals and won it all, we only got $16,000," says former California Coach Pete Newell. "Has the dollar depreciated that much?"

Well, maybe. But the sport has changed and is being appreciated more—even by those who formerly loathed stalls, delays, four corners and the other tactics used to freeze the action. Such stratagems have proliferated throughout the college game; they constitute the single most important technical factor in evening up the competition.

"Everybody's going back to holding the ball," says Abe Lemons, coach of the Texas Longhorns. "You've got a better chance to win if you keep the score low—that's a proven fact. If the other team's got better material, just don't turn 'em loose. You'll notice most of the upsets involve very low scores."

Wyoming let the air out and upset Brigham Young 56-53. Princeton, young and not overly talented, passes the ball around all night, keeps scores in the 50s and has won enough on frustration alone to be going into the season's final week with a crack at the Ivy League title. Stanford virtually came to a complete halt against Oregon State before the Beavers responded in kind and won 18-16.

Then, of course, there is the ACC where everybody has a copy of North Carolina's four corners—the latest being Clemson's Tiger Pause. And at Tennessee, 5'7" Ralph Parton has gone from walk-on to hero as the designated dribbler in the Vol stall. "I can't play up there with the 7-footer," says Parton, "but he can't play down here with me, either."

LSU's runnin', gunnin', joltin', often revoltin' Tigers are the most recent circus to tone down their act and master the slowdown. "A year ago we'd have had to hire an armed guard to get our guys to play a delay," says Coach Dale Brown. "Now they love it." They should. With point man Ethan Martin and Carter directing the flow, LSU won nine of the 10 times it went to the delay game.

Injuries are also a contributing factor. Indiana, ranked No. 1 at the start of the campaign, lost Randy Wittman and the peerless Mike Woodson, and there went the Hoosiers' national championship. But, wait, Woodson recovered from disc surgery two months ahead of schedule and is back in the lineup and playing better than ever. Hello title? North Carolina lost freshman Forward James Worthy, already perhaps the Tar Heels' best player, and there went UNC's championship. Iowa lost All-America Guard Ronnie Lester for two weeks, got him back and then lost him again. Say good night, Hawkeyes. Kenny Dennard, the hustling heart and guts of Duke's team, went down, and so did the Blue Devils, especially after Foster admitted interest in the South Carolina coaching job. Center Scooter McCray tore the cartilage in his right knee and sat out the season at Louisville. Defensive stopper Bill Hanzlik dislocated his left index finger and missed several games for Notre Dame. Dwight (the Blur) Anderson contracted a bad case of the attitudes and departed Kentucky. And Joe Barry Carroll, the man with so many names and so little to say, caught the "hang-dunking disease," and Purdue foundered.

What all of this means is that an already wide-open season was opened up even wider, most notably in the conference races. Into the breach stepped the likes of an unbeaten DePaul, an impressive Syracuse and a rejuvenated Louisville, whose Coach Denny Crum, after bidding farewell to one McCray, simply inserted a substitute McCray—Scooter's younger brother Rodney—in his place and won 18 straight games.

All year the ratings have mirrored the season's only imbalance, which is a geographical one. Among the 20 teams ranked in last week's two wire-service polls, 13 were from the NCAA's Eastern and Mideastern regions. This means that a lot of powerful strangers could be playing in the Midwest and West regions when the NCAA tournament begins. The selection committee has promised to send any of the 48 teams anywhere in the interest of equal competition and four balanced regionals.

Traditionally, the NCAA has permitted conference champions and the best independents to remain in their own regions. But this time that would result in an overload at the Mideast at Lexington, Ky. DePaul, Notre Dame, probably Indiana and either LSU or Kentucky would be fighting it out on the home court of Kentucky, which, of course, wouldn't be quite fair.

Other questions remain. Who from the Western half can win anything? Arizona State and Oregon State are too passive, Brigham Young too white, Missouri too slow and Texas A&M too unintelligent. How many teams will be chosen from each of the two strongest conferences, the Big Ten and ACC? Three? Four? Five? Georgia Tech? All 18? And finally, who will be this tournament's Idaho State, UNC-Charlotte, Pennsylvania, Cinderella?

It's interesting to note that the three favorites—DePaul, Louisville and Syracuse—have shared an inclination to coast and play only as hard as the opponent might happen to dictate. Oh, sometimes the Orangemen blow out the competition—if you consider the likes of Siena competition—but even with that, the Louie (Orr) and Bouie Show lost its only two games by dying on the vines of a 16-point lead against Georgetown and a 13-point margin at Old Dominion.

While Louisville's former Doctors of Dunk turned into Medics of Moderation and seemed bored through most of their play in the weak Metro Conference, they did exhibit a tenacious full-court press and some bodacious offensive rebounding all season long. But once having reached the top rung, after impressive road victories over UCLA and Missouri, DePaul also evinced ennui and appeared to be going through the motions, trying to discover just which member of the starting team could rile up 66-year-old Coach Ray Meyer the most.

These two talented teams may have been busy watching the conference battles across the nation. Or they may have been waiting to see which of their stars—the Demons' doughboy, Mark Aguirre, or the Cardinals' sky-dancing guard, Darrell Griffith—wins player of the year. Or they may have been merely marking time until the tournament.

Last week, this insouciance nailed Louisville when the Cardinals came into Madison Square Garden to play Iona in the midst of one of their end-of-the-season swoon songs. While the second-ranked Redbirds were trying to figure out how many bows to take, Ruland, the muscular pivotman of unranked (at least until this week) Iona, proceeded to do some awesome rear-end kicking. Ruland bulled his way to 30 points and 21 rebounds, exposing Louisville's vulnerability to an inside game.

After Coach Jimmy "V" Valvano's well-drilled, vastly underrated team had dealt the Cards right out of Manhattan, 77-60—before the very eyes of DePaul's Blue Demons, who had just yawned their way past Wagner in the opening game of the doubleheader—Valvano said that this was his most stunning "V," a "dream come true." What it also happened to be was another example of parity come full circle in college hoops.

"On any given night we can beat the best 50 teams in America," says Louisville's Crum. "On any other night, they can beat us."



Last week unheralded Iona stuffed Louisville.


Jet lag? Today's freshmen know how to handle it.


TV coverage has meant big bucks to more schools.


No babes in the woods, freshmen want to play!


Limiting scholarships aids the have-nots.


Potential giants have been cut down by injuries.