It's a pity that Notre Dame, the best team among the independents, HAS SO many of its marquee games in December. Sophomore forward LaPhonso Ellis, the team's leading rebounder last season, will be ineligible until first-semester grades are in, which won't happen until late December, at the earliest. Nonetheless, by season's end the Irish will boast an up-and-running style that coach Digger Phelps began to use late last season. Still, Phelps soft-sells the chances of the Irish. "Our goal is to get to the regionals this year," he says. They can do better.
In the MIDWESTERN COLLEGIATE, Evansville has lost only one starter from a club that reached the NCAAs last season. But he was the Aces' leading scorer, Scott Haffner. Taking up the slack will be center Dan Godfread, who's working on his M.B.A., and forward Mark Jewell, a transfer from Iowa and a former Indiana Mr. Basketball with a 3.53 GPA and a major in marketing.
It's axiomatic: Outright champions don't repeat in the MID-AMERICAN, or at least they haven't since the early '60s, when Nate Thurmond anchored Bowling Green. Ball State, with nine seniors, will change that. In the MID-CONTINENT, Northern Iowa has lost shooter Nick Nurse, but with four starters back, the Panthers will stay healthy.
Kit Mueller came oh so close against mighty Georgetown in the first round of last spring's NCAAs. Had he made his buzzer shot, IVY champion Princeton would have pulled off perhaps the biggest upset in tournament history. Mueller, an all-league center, and the Tigers should return to postseason play. SOUTHERN champs East Tennessee State came just as close to stunning Oklahoma in the first round. The Buccaneers, led by 5'7" guard Keith Jennings, who's so respected that he's known as Mister, should win the conference again and earn a shot at another cocky quarry.
In the WEST COAST CONFERENCE, one Philadelphian, Hank Gathers, put the NBA on hold to rejoin another, Loyola Marymount teammate Bo Kimble, who played only 18 games in 1988-89 because of a knee injury. Juco transfers and other refugees are staples in the BIG SKY, where Idaho adds seven new faces from two-year institutions to a roster led by center Riley Smith, the only nonsenior to make last season's all-conference team.
The COLONIAL may be a poor man's ACC, but don't tell that to Lefty ("I kin coach") Driesell, who's ready to win the conference in only his second season at James Madison. Bradley and Tulsa have had their way with the MISSOURI VALLEY in recent years. But Creighton, 9-19 only three years ago, won the league title last season and promises to do so again.
Texas Southern, with three returning starters fueled by lingering bitterness over a controversial call in last spring's SOUTHWESTERN ATHLETIC title game, can be expected to attend to unfinished business. Northeast Louisiana and Towson State, both second-place finishers in their conferences a season ago, have their backcourts in place and should win the SOUTHLAND and EAST COAST titles, respectively. Much of the Middle Tennessee State team that stunned Florida State in last spring's NCAA tournament is back, ready to win the OHIO VALLEY crown outright, after sharing it with Murray State last season.
Old Dominion has the best player—6'9" gun Chris Gatling—and the deepest bench in the SUN BELT; this one's no contest. Last season, North Carolina A & T failed to win the MID-EASTERN ATHLETIC championship for the first time in eight years. The Aggies won't win this season either. Look for coach Fang Mitchell's Coppin State crew to earn what could be the conference's last automatic invitation to the NCAA tournament.
Things get confusing in the Boston-to-Washington corridor The NORTHEAST CONFERENCE used to be the ECAC Metro, but the names at the top are unchanged. Fairleigh Dickinson, with eight players who can score, should outpoint defending champ Robert Morris. Don't confuse the Northeast with the NORTH ATLANTIC, which also has the usual suspects vying for supremacy. Northeastern can't seem to beat Boston University. The Terriers have won five straight games from the Huskies and should be top dogs again in 1989-90. The METRO ATLANTIC, which had only six teams seven years ago, now has a dozen entrants in two divisions. Siena, led by Marc Brown, will win the North; La Salle, behind explosive forward Lionel Simmons, will take the South and the NCAA bid.
In the WESTERN ATHLETIC, New Mexico will return to the NCAAs for the first time since 1978, with the help of four first-stringers from last season, including 7'2" Aussie Luc Longley. A second WAC team that promises to make the NCAA tournament is Texas-El Paso.
The AMERICAN SOUTH and BIG SOUTH don't receive automatic bids, and it will take some mighty politicking to squeeze their likely champions—New Orleans and North Carolina-Asheville, respectively—into the 64-team field.
Ellis won't be around for early play due to problems in the classroom, but by season's end he'll be anchoring the Irish in the paint.