5 TO WATCH
Beginning with a midnight workout on the first official day of practice and continuing through two grueling weeks of twice-daily drills, the first one starting at 6:30 a.m., new Georgia Coach Hugh Durham has been trying to transform the perennially talented but usually abysmal Bulldogs from a stodgy, zone-oriented, slowdown team into the kind of speed demons that he won with at Florida State. In Walter Daniels, Durham inherits one of the two best guards in the SEC. He also has a big man in 6'10" Lavon Mercer and a sometime star in 6'9" Lucius Foster. Pressure for playing time from freshman Eric Marbury should force Foster to produce more regularly. The Bulldogs have also gotten incentive from the faculty. Last year they shot .630 from the free-throw line, and Durham recently received a letter that read, "Last Christmastime I beat my son and grandson in foul-shooting contests with an average of around 75%. If by my 70th birthday the Georgia team is not shooting 75%, I am inclined to come down there as an old man and challenge them." The letter was signed by former Secretary of State Dean Rusk, now a professor in the Georgia School of Law.
While a state court tries to decide whether his high school grades were good enough for him to merit an athletic scholarship, senior Edgar Jones is getting a degree in basketball at Nevada-Reno. Last season, the 6'10" center was inconsistent, fouled too much and still averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds. If Jones decides to go full bore, the Wolf Pack might beat San Francisco for the WCAC title. Defenses can scarcely sag on him, because guards Johnny High and Mike Gray were both 17-point scorers, while Forward Mike Stallings had 11.5 rebounds a game.
Ohio State isn't about to make anyone forget the days of Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek, but the Buckeyes were strong enough after going 16-11 last season that Coach Eldon Miller could afford to lose obstreperous Guard Kenny Page, a 12.3 scorer who transferred to New Mexico after Miller put him on a one-year probation. Kelvin Ransey, a junior who started with four freshmen last year, has already made All-Big Ten and gives Miller an outside threat to go with superior sophomore Center Herb Williams, the 6'10" Columbus native who was occasionally lackadaisical last season, but now seems ready to play.
Virginia Tech has won 59 games in the last three years but was tired of being lost in the shuffle of independents with gaudy records and no NCAA tournament bids. So Tech moved to the Metro 7, where by league tournament time the Gobblers could give Louisville a battle. It isn't that double-figure scorers Wayne Robinson, Tic Price, Les Henson and Marshall Ashford need seasoning. But freshman Dale Solomon, a 6'8½" 230-pounder, may need a little time to settle down and give Tech an edge on the boards, where it was overmatched in 18 of 27 games last year.
Iowa State has been taking on the look of a Kentucky team since former Wildcat assistant Lynn Nance arrived as head coach in Ames two years ago. Patrolling the middle for Nance is 6'11" Center Dean Uthoff, who was the nation's third-leading rebounder a year ago. Guard Andrew Parker was the Big Eight's leading scorer, averaging 22.4 points, and Forward Bob Fowler, who followed Nance from Kentucky to Iowa State, scored 15.9 a game in conference play. Nance also brought in several flashy freshmen, including Jo Jo White's cousin Chuckie White and Chicagoan Eric Davis—"a Kentucky-type shooter," says Nance—who once scored 61 points in a high school game.
The race in the ACC should be, as ever, nerve-racking, unpredictable and fairly solid evidence of the conference's overall strength. Should Duke or North Carolina State falter, Maryland, Virginia, Wake Forest, Clemson and North Carolina are waiting to pounce. The Terps, in particular, have an abundance of talent, what with four 50% or better shooters back from last season's 15-13 team. Forwards Albert King and Ernest Graham are capable of scoring almost at will, and Center Larry Gibson may be the most improved player in the league. Maryland is almost as flush in the backcourt and on the bench. In fact, this team may have as much ability as any in the country, save Duke. But all those good bodies may not do Coach Lefty Driesell much good if, like last season, they are equipped with bad heads. The Terps seldom played a brainy brand of ball, and their offcourt activities ran to locker-room shouting matches, a libel suit against a Washington newspaper and, ultimately, the dismissal of one player from the team and the transfer of another. Maryland may not be in such dire disarray this season, but it has far to go before it can fully regroup.
Virginia has one of last season's outstanding ACC freshmen in Guard Jeff Lamp, who scored 17.3 points a game despite a succession of injuries. The Cavaliers are missing only one regular from the 20-8 squad of 1977-78, and Coach Terry Holland went out and got freshman Jeff Jones to run with Lamp in the backcourt. Wake Forest lost Rod Griffin and his 21.5-point average but it has one of the best freshman groups in the country to complement 6'11" Larry Harrison and 6'2" Frank Johnson. Clemson is so deep that it has nine players whom Coach Bill Foster considers equally talented, and North Carolina retains two imposing assets, the stylish playing of Forward Mike O'Koren and the astute coaching of Dean Smith.
Last year Rutgers Coach Tom Young sometimes worried that Center James Bailey was going to launch himself for one of his majestic dunks and not come down until he had reached the NBA. After a brief flirtation with the pros, the 6'9" Bailey, now a senior and one of the two or three best big men in college, is back to try to duplicate last season's numbers: 116 dunks, 72 blocked shots, 56 steals and 58.5% shooting. If Abdel Anderson pitches in 15 points a game, as expected, and if JC transfer Daryl Strickland, a 6'5½" leaper, does likewise, Rutgers could be very good.
Four regulars return at Georgetown, which was 23-8 last season, but the Hoyas will be thin on the bench except where 300-pound Coach John Thompson is sitting. Across town, George Washington has 10 players who could start and two who definitely will. Brian Magid, who prefers 30-footers to layups, will be the wing-and-a-prayer guard, and tenacious Mike Zagardo will play the middle.
If La Salle had a center to go with its crackling fast break, it might be readying for a replay of the Tom Gola era. As it is, the Explorers have Michael Brooks, who could be every bit as good as Gola was. Not only is he a 24.9-point-a-game scorer and a 12.8-a-game rebounder, but, says Coach Paul Westhead, "Michael has the tools to go baseline to baseline faster, than a speeding bullet."
Penn should once again be the class of the Ivy League, but only if Guard Bobby Willis and Forward Tony Price take command quickly. Otherwise, Princeton will sneak in behind Bob Roma and 6'11" Tom Young.
With 6'8" scorer-rebounder Jonathan Moore, Furman should win the Southern Conference race easily. Connecticut, with standout freshman Cornelius Thompson, is likely to be second best in New England to Rhode Island. Only Holy Cross and its 21.7 scorer, Ron Perry Jr., and Fairfield seem capable of disputing that.
A year ago, Kentucky was the unanimous choice to win not only its 31st Southeastern Conference championship, but also its fifth NCAA title. Now, with last season's four senior stars having accomplished the triumphs predicted for them, the Wildcats should do no better than battle Georgia and Alabama for third in the SEC. Despite all this, Coach Joe Hall's disposition is considerably brighter this season than last. "Actually, it should be more fun with this team," he says. "The pressure is still there; it always is. But this group will be more fun to work with." The group includes impeccable playmaker Kyle Macy; sophomore Chuck Aleksinas, a 6'10", 258-pound center in the mold of last year's massive star, Rick Robey; relatively inexperienced forwards LaVon Williams and Fred Cowan; and three touted freshmen, Clarence Tillman, Dwight Anderson and Chuck Verderber. Alabama could be an SEC contender once its six good homegrown recruits—the best of whom are Forward Eddie Phillips, the state's top high school player a year ago, and 6'8½" Center Phillip Lockett—learn to blend with Reggie King, the 6'6", 225-pound workhorse forward who was conference MVP in 1977-78. And the Tide can afford to wait a while to jell, because for the first time the SEC title will be determined in a postseason tournament. The site of the inaugural: Birmingham.
Minnesota, Purdue and Iowa could each mount a challenge to Big Ten favorites Michigan State, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio State. To compensate for the departure of All-America Mychal Thompson, Minnesota has turned to speed and highly regarded recruits. Coach Jim Dutcher brought in the conference's best crop of freshmen, and three of them could start. Purdue's new coach, Lee Rose, has three things going for him: Center Joe Barry Carroll, who blocked 105 shots last season and dominated the action when he felt like it; deadly outside shooter Jerry Sichting; and an easier schedule. Back at Iowa are 6'4" Clay Hargrave, the shortest player ever to lead the Big Ten in rebounding, and Guard Ronnie Lester, who was third in the conference in scoring and assists.
In the Mid-American, Miami, which upset Marquette in the NCAA tournament, lost four starters. That leaves Central Michigan, which has the league's best center in Jeff Tropf, to battle Toledo and Bowling Green for the title.
Despite the loss of its coach to Purdue and leading scorer Lew Massey to the pro draft, UNC Charlotte is favored to win its second Sun Belt title in three seasons. New Coach Mike Pratt, who is only 30 years old, has the conference's most talented player, Chad Kinch, and Forward Kevin King, the 49ers' top rebounder and third-leading scorer, back from last year's 20-7 team. Jacksonville, now coached by Tates Locke, and South Alabama, runner-up in last season's Sun Belt tournament, will be Charlotte's toughest challengers.
At Western Kentucky, another new coach, Gene Keady, will attempt to direct the Hilltoppers to a repeat of last year's performance. Despite a 13-13 regular-season record, Western won the Ohio Valley Conference postseason tournament and then upset Syracuse in the first round of the NCAAs. The OVC's other contender, Eastern Kentucky, has four starters back from last season's 15-11 team, including all-conference Forward Lovell Joiner.
With the loss of five players who helped Marquette win the 1977 national championship and took it to a 24-4 record last season, the Warriors are unlikely to have their 13th straight 20-win season. Among the starters, only senior Forward Bernard (Looney) Toone, a 9.3-point-per-game scorer, returns. But if a 6'10" local boy, freshman Dean Marquardt, matures rapidly, the Warriors could be surprisingly good. DePaul, another independent, lost its alltime scoring and rebounding leader, 7-foot Dave Corzine, as well as powerful Forward Joe Ponsetto and playmaker Randy Ramsey from last season's 27-3 squad. But Ray Meyer, who is in his 37th year of coaching the Blue Demons, retains three other good players and has added the best high-schooler from the Chicago area, 6'6½", 240-pound Mark Aguirre. Detroit, snubbed by the NCAA last season despite a 25-4 record, lost its entire front line to graduation. Senior Guard Terry Duerod, the third-leading scorer in 1977-78 with a 17.2 average, is back, and Titan Coach Dave Gaines calls freshman Forward Jerry Davis potentially the best player to come to Detroit since Spencer Haywood.
Yes, Virginia—and Carolina, California and Kansas, for that matter—they do play basketball in the Southwest Conference. In fact, last season the SWC had more teams, three, in postseason tournaments than any conference except the ACC. Houston qualified for the NCAA playoffs by winning the league tournament; 32-4 Arkansas finished third in the NCAAs; and surging Texas won the NIT. This season Texas is a heavy favorite to win the conference title, but as an indication of the new balance, neither Arkansas, despite All-America Sidney Moncrief, nor Houston, hard hit by graduation, is likely to finish second.
The team that should is Baylor. The Bears retain the services of Vinnie Johnson, who averaged 23 points a game while being double-and triple-teamed, and have added a rich harvest of freshmen, including one with a winning name, Jimmy Carter. Texas A &M, torn by dissension of late, has a new cast that should allow Aggie fans to concentrate on basketball. Center Rudy Woods, a heralded freshman, and Forward Vernon Smith, whom Arkansas Coach Eddie Sutton considers the most talented player in the conference, should hearten A & M rooters. And SMU might be the most improved team in the league, now that Coach Sonny Allen has signed his son Billy, who scored 25 points a game in high school.
Another balanced conference is the Missouri Valley, where even the decision of Indiana State's Larry Bird to stay in college did not send rivals running for cover. Though Bird is the best player in the country, the Sycamores are so weak elsewhere that they are not the Valley front-runners. That role belongs to Southern Illinois, which has nearly everyone back from a 17-10 team. Albert (Slab) Jones of New Mexico State and Lynbert (Cheese) Johnson of Wichita State give their teams more than just nicknames.
Oklahoma should round out the Big Eight's Big Four behind Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa State. Coach Dave Bliss has all his starters back from a 14-13 team and has reaped a bumper crop of freshmen. The four best are 6'5" or taller, and one of them, 6'9" Ingram Purvis, is the backup Center Al Beal so sorely needed the last two seasons.
In the Metro Conference, perennial contenders Cincinnati, Memphis State and Florida State won't be within hailing distance of favored Louisville. The best they are likely to do is produce some outstanding individual performances. Cincy's Pat Cummings, who shot a school-record 64.2% in 1977-78, is the individual most worth watching.
No, the Trans America Conference is not headquartered in a tall, pointy building in San Francisco. The new league consists of the likes of Northeast Louisiana, Houston Baptist and Pan American. Calvin Natt, who, though only 6'5", is one of the nation's top rebounders, makes Northeast Louisiana the favorite. In another unheralded conference, the Southland, defending co-champion Lamar, with four starters back, is the front-runner.
The best of the Midwest independents is Illinois State, even though Forward Billy Lewis, the Redbirds' leading scorer and rebounder, has graduated; the schedule is tough; and this is Bob Donewald's first college head-coaching job. Donewald has four starters returning from a 24-4 team, and they all had double-digit scoring averages. The Red-birds also have a freshman, Dale White, who shot 69.1% in three high school seasons. That is not a typographical error. An Illinois State record of 25-5 won't be, either.
The top seven scorers from last year's injury-riddled Brigham Young team, which finished 12-18, are back, the brightest of them being Guard Danny Ainge, who made the all-WAC squad and led the nation's freshmen in scoring for most of the season. In addition, Coach Frank Arnold has two good players returning from two-year stints as Mormon missionaries and a promising local freshman, Devin Durrant. Durrant played for the U.S. High School All-Stars against the Kentucky-Indiana All-Stars last summer and was not only MVP of that contest but also won the one-on-one contest held in conjunction with the game.
Unless Durrant turns out to be even better than his credentials indicate, the Cougars will have only the slightest edge over their WAC rivals. Utah lost Jeff Judkins and Buster Matheney but will still be tough. Coach Jerry Pimm can turn to sophomore leaper Danny Vranes, senior Greg Deane and some good newcomers, notably Curt Clawson, the leading high school scorer in Indiana last season. The NCAA finals will be on the Utes' home court, but it is doubtful that any Utah school will make the final four.
Elsewhere in the WAC, New Mexico will be rebuilding—perhaps rapidly, as it has in the past—with junior college transfers, and sophomore-dominated UTEP, led by Center Anthony Burns, should be ready to contend now that the Miners' best players have a season's experience.
In the Big Sky, Weber State figures to win again; it was first on 34 of 38 ballots in a preseason poll. One good reason is Guard Bruce Collins, the league's best player. Another is that the Wildcats won the league's postseason tournament last March and all the starters are back.
The big news at Las Vegas is still the hassling between the NCAA and Coach Jerry Tarkanian. That doesn't mean UNLV will not be worth a bulletin or two, mainly because some Angelenos left home. Returning starters Earl Evans, a transfer from USC, and Tony Smith will be joined by two redshirts, Center Brett Vroman, a transfer from UCLA, and Guard Flintie Ray Williams, a transfer from Pepperdine.
Oregon State could be the surprise team of the Pac-10 now that Center Steve Johnson, who had a broken foot last year, has fully recuperated. The Beavers were last in rebounding in 1977-78, but Johnson should change that. The addition of Arizona and, especially, Arizona State to the league will change things, too. The Sun Devils have Guard Blake Taylor and Forward Tony Zeno back, but the State player who figures to really give opposing coaches fits is freshman Greg Goorjian, who scored 43.4 points a game at California's Crescenta Valley High. Washington State, which has seven veterans returning from its third-place team, again will be muscular, with 7'2", 275-pound Center James Donaldson and 6'11" Stuart House. But State will also be oh so slow.
In the PCAA, Cal State-Fullerton may win the championship again, but Fresno State is also a strong contender. The Bulldogs had the best defense in the nation last year, allowing 52.3 points a game, and should be about as stingy this time around.
Santa Clara won 17 of 20 games during a summer tour of Australia and New Zealand, and the experience the young Broncos gained might have given them just the edge they need to overtake archrival USF and Nevada-Reno in the WCAC. Santa Clara will miss Point Guard Eddie Joe Chavez but is solid at three positions: center, with last season's WCAC Freshman of the Year, 6'10" Mark McNamara; forward, with two-year scoring and rebounding leader Kurt Rambis; and guard, with Londale Theus, a cousin of former Las Vegas star Reggie. The Broncos almost certainly would have finished better than 21-8 last year had not Rambis gotten the flu in February. The dark horse of the WCAC is Portland. Coach Jack Avina has recruited two promising freshmen, Guard Jose Slaughter, who was the MVP of Pittsburgh's Dapper Dan high school all-star game, and 6'10" Bryan Beard. The Pilots also have an exceptional shooter in Reggie Logan, Portland's top scorer the past two years as sixth man. Loyola Marymount, St. Mary's and Seattle don't figure to threaten the WCAC leaders, but Pepper-dine might, especially if its Brazilian imports, Cesar Cavalcante and Evaristo Soares, come through. The Waves also have muscular 7-foot Center Ray Ellis and Forward Ollie Matson, who missed last season because of injury.