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Poll Vaulting

There's an upsetting trend in college ball this season, and it's proving disastrous for No. 1 teams

College Basketball seasons are usually quite simple: They begin with Midnight Madness, end with March Madness and have 19 weeks of relative sanity in between. If the 1993-94 regular season walked into a psychiatrist's office, it would be fitted for a straitjacket. And if it went to the doctor, it would be told, "What you have is a case of upset stomach. Take two Alka-Seltzers and call me in the morning. Tuesday morning, April 5."

By the end of January six schools had already taken a turn atop the Associated Press's poll (chart, page 24). After North Carolina vaulted over No. 1-ranked Duke with an 89-78 victory last Thursday, the Tar Heels claimed the top spot for the third time, giving the AP six changes at No. 1 in as many weeks. The No. 1 ranking has become so meaningless that the second-ranked Tar Heels were 10-point favorites going into their meeting with the Blue Devils—and the Heels still covered the spread. "It used to be that 10 teams, maybe 15 teams, could beat Number One," says Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, whose Wildcats spent a single week at the top back in December. "Today I believe the 35th team could beat the Number One team, because there isn't a truly dominant team or player."

In Las Vegas all the chaos is bringing smiles to the sharpies who run the sports books. "When anybody can beat anybody, it's treacherous for the gambler and better for the house," says Bob Gregorka, who runs the sports book at the Sands. "There's more guesswork and less probability."

Jim O'Connell, who covers college basketball for the AP, is simply relieved that he's not dealing with college football. "Thank goodness we won't have 65 voters determining a national champion," he says. "We'll just let the NCAA's little tournament settle the whole matter."

Study the polls and you'll find that with five weeks still remaining in the regular season, 39 teams have made at least a cameo in the Top 25. Watch CNN's Headline News and the nightly score crawl will astonish you. Washington 74, Arizona 69...Notre Dame 79, UCLA 64...Kansas State 68, Kansas 64...Butler 75, Indiana 71...St. Francis (Pa.) 77, Xavier 73...Alaska-Anchorage 70, Wake Forest 68...Santa Clara 80. California 67.

Play the old score-chain parlor game—Mercer heat the College of Charleston (by 10), which heat Alabama (by 22), which beat Arkansas (by two), which beat Missouri (by 52), which beat Kansas (by 12), which beat Massachusetts (by 11), which beat North Carolina (by five)—and you can prove conclusively that the mighty Bears of Mercer. 4-15 through Sunday and No. 268 in the USA Today power ratings last week, are 114 points better than the defending NCAA champs. You can measure the zaniness every which way. The question is, How to explain it? Here are a few theories.

•The three-point shot. Bette Midler could sing the theme song for this season's NCAA highlights video: From a Distance. Coaches have finally realized that the trey is here to stay and that they might as well use it. When the rule was introduced, beginning with the 1986-87 season, about one in every six shots came from beyond the arc. Now more than one in four do. Three-point attempts are up by three a game over last season. While part of that increase is a result of shortening the shot clock from 45 to 35 seconds, the three-pointer has led to nothing less than a profound reformation of the college game.

"Teams don't run plays anymore," says Paul Baker, a former coach at Wheeling (W.Va.) College and now a scout for the Washington Bullets. "They play the line. Players today are making as many as 400 pass-or-shoot decisions a game. And the line is like Moby Dick. It represents the choice between good and evil. 'Should I? Or shouldn't I?' That's why there's parity. Coaches have no control anymore."

As Baker sees it, coaches can do little more than supplicate at the altar of the holy trey, which giveth (Santa Clara went 13 for 23 in its upset of Cal) and taketh away (in last Saturday's stumble against Notre Dame, UCLA was 0 for 16 from beyond the arc: later in the day Arizona was 4 for 28 in handing Washington its first Pac-10 win). It's not so much a question of whether you use the shot, because everyone is using it. Nowadays it's more a matter of whether the shot is going to use you.

Just ask Ohio University coach Larry Hunter how the three-pointer has affected the sports adage about "On any given night...." His Bobcats upset Connecticut on Dec. 29 largely because they sank six of nine three-pointers on an evening when the Huskies missed 14 of 18. A month later, though, Ohio found itself on the business end of the upset, losing 78-77 to Mid-American Conference rival Toledo. In that game the Rockets' Archie Fuller rebounded his own missed three-point attempt as time wound down, dribbled back behind the arc and made good on another try with one second to play.

•Lousy foul-shooting. The mighty and the meek must share the blame for the overall percentage nationwide (.663 through Jan. 31), which is on pace to be the worst since 1953-54. Free throw foul-ups, however, stand to hurt the more talented team most. Superior talent is supposed to put a defense into a position in which it must foul, but if a team can't convert the ensuing free throws, it has squandered that advantage. A case in point is Kansas, whose top-scoring inside player, Richard Scott, was shooting 47.7% from the line as of Sunday. Scott missed all live of his free throw attempts in the Jayhawks' four-point loss at home to Kansas State on Jan. 17, which bumped the Jayhawks from the top spot.

•The glut of games. Coaches still do their darnedest to get players motivated. But with game following game following game through the dog days of January and February, players are liable to go canine themselves—and then it's an underdog-eat-dog world. "Highly ranked teams think they're invincible," says George Washington coach Mike Jarvis. "There are only a couple of teams in the country that play hard all the time."

Adds Seth Greenberg, coach at Long Beach State: "You see upsets when teams start playing multiple games within a week—two league games followed by an intersectional game. The made-for-TV games create a logjam, which creates fatigue and complacency, which create the opportunity for an upset."

•Early exits. No one expects to establish a dynasty anymore, not since John Wooden unrolled his program. But it used to be that when a school recruited a high school All-America or two, it counted on getting things going for at least three, perhaps four years. Now most premier collegians check out early. Seven underclassmen were chosen in the first round of the NBA draft last spring, rather than the three or four of recent years. Kentucky, Michigan and Wake Forest would be nigh unbeatable if they still had Jamal Mashburn, Chris Webber and Rodney Rogers, respectively. Give Anfernee Hardaway, James (Hollywood) Robinson, Shawn Bradley and, yes, even the enigmatic Luther Wright back to Memphis State, Alabama, Brigham Young and Seton Hall, respectively, and those schools wouldn't be adrift right now somewhere south of the Top 25.

•Rule changes. The 35-second clock was supposed to penalize underdogs everywhere by injecting extra possessions into a game and allowing raw talent to prevail. And it has worked, at least against teams that want to slow down the game, like Princeton. In many cases, though, the shorter shot clock has resulted in more three-pointers being taken over the course of a game, which gives the shot a better chance to work its mischief. This season's other major change, the elimination of the five-second-closely-guarded rule, has proved to be a pebble for the slingshot too. If a team has one rugged, intrepid guard, he can dominate the ball. Radford went into Baton Rouge on Dec. 30 and entrusted its fortunes to a freshman playmaker named Anthony Walker. He guided the Highlanders to a 73-72 shocker over LSU. "Before that rule you were often playing three on five when you faced a team with much more talent," says Radford coach Ron Bradley. "Now if you have a guy who can handle it for 25 or 30 seconds, you can turn it into a one-on-one game on big possessions."

•Academic barriers. The ACC and the SEC, two leagues that have long had the pick of the talent from New York to New Orleans, don't accept Prop 48 academic nonqualifiers anymore. As a result, more and more terrific players are winding up at schools in the Atlantic-10 and the Great Midwest Conference. (So far this season four schools from each conference have spent at least some time in the Top 25.) New academic rules, says Wake Forest coach Dave Odom, "carved a niche for those kinds of teams. They don't have to compete [with the ACC and the SEC] for those recruits."

•Scholarship reductions. For years schools were allowed to have 15 players on scholarship, then in 1992 the number was reduced to 14, and now it's down to 13. That has opened up opportunities for rough-cut diamonds to find more-obscure settings in which to sparkle. "Out of the top 100 programs in the country there are now 200 more players available," Nevada coach Pat Foster said before this season began, explaining how he intended to rebuild in his first season in Reno. Sure enough, when the Wolf Pack beat No. 23 New Mexico State last Thursday for its first victory over a ranked team in 10 years, Nevada's star, with 25 points and 14 rebounds, turned out to be juco transfer Jimmy Moore—a guy who might well have gone to UNLV this season if the Rebels had had another scholarship to give.

You can see this trickle-down effect everywhere. Take Maryland's Joe Smith. As a high-schooler in Norfolk, Va., he desperately wanted to go to North Carolina. And he might be wearing Carolina blue today if the Tar Heels had a 14th and 15th scholarship. But instead of being practice fodder for Eric Montross, Kevin Salvadori and Rasheed Wallace, Smith is at a school that had a spot for him—and lots of playing time, too—and he's making a name as the best freshman in the nation.

Some coaches believe the lost scholarships and tighter academic requirements have hurt the quality of the college game. "I don't think any league has ever been better than ours was in 1986," says Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "The sixth-best team in the ACC that year was Maryland, with Len Bias." However, that quality may still be there, only more equitably spread out. Perhaps it's because the best athletes aren't concentrated on the same teams and because a coach doesn't have the same influence over what those players do that the game has become so enormously crowd-pleasing.

And the real madness doesn't start for another month. In 1982-83, the last time the AP poll was so discombobulated during a regular season, seven teams did a stint as No. 1. The postseason delivered an unforgettable tournament. That year the NCAA crowned arguably its unlikeliest champion ever, North Carolina State. All of which suggests that this March might be clinically insane.