Seems Like Everyone Has a Shot This Year

The NCAA title is up for grabs because talent is more evenly distributed, thanks to TV, higher academic standards, the lure of the pros and three-point baskets
March 02, 1987

Hi, folks, this is Don Pardo. Get a pencil and paper ready, because I'm about to tell you how you, too, can be a contestant on that fabulous new game show that, along with J.R. Reid, is sweeping college basketball: Saturday (and) Night Parity] All you need are the following:

•A three-piece suit (or a red V-neck sweater), a towel to chew on, a lucrative summer camp and a portable VCR with a few thousand scouting tapes.

•A couple of freshmen—one who can spell the word p-r-o-p-o-s-i-t-i-o-n, another who can count to at least 48.

•Some transfers from San Jalape‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±o Junior College who might go by the nicknames of Silk, Main Man and Sweet Vonette, the Dunkin' Cassette.

•A paintbrush to keep that three-point line bright, and a slow, smart, suburban-tough graduate of Our Lady of Perpetual Release and Swish to shoot a whole lot of treys. (He's far more important than your All-Hemisphere slammer-jammer who chose to leave school early anyway, flunked L.A. Clipper rookie camp and is now riding the pine for Asti Spumoni in the Italian league.)

•And finally, a schedule seasoned with refugees from a local kennel so you get your easy 25 wins. Or, alternatively, a dozen "intersectional TV clashes" against "perennial powers" so Dick Vitale can scream, "Awwwwgh, I'm tellin' ya, this team is a Rip Van WINKLE!!!" as you finish with a misleading 16-13 record and draw attention from...the Boys from Mission, Kans., who will invite you to March Madness, The Big Dance, The Party on Bourbon Street, Hoop Heaven. In other words, include you among the 64—or is it 640?—teams lucky enough to travel The Road to New Orleans and play for The Huge Enchilada, The Whole Ball of Wax, and maybe even the national championship.

Something is happening here—and actually has been for the past several seasons—to effect an equality among college basketball teams not seen since before John Wooden invented UCLA. The reasons are logical enough: freshman eligibility, the proliferation of TV games, Proposition 48—otherwise known as NCAA Bylaw 5-1-(j)—which has caused an increased reliance on juco transfers, TV, key players skipping out early for the pros, TV, the three-point basket, TV, the 64-team NCAA tournament and TV. Was anybody stunned because Drexel beat Navy and San Jose State followed up a 17-point win over New Mexico State with a 29-point loss to the same team?

Parity is the reason that best explains why last year's national champion, Louisville, has had to struggle to avoid a sub-.500 record and Kentucky is an also-ran in the SEC (see story, page 44); why the fifth-place team in the supposedly weak Metro Conference, Florida State, beat two of Kentucky's betters, Alabama and Florida; why a mediocre team in one of the worst leagues (Arkansas of the SWC) beat two of the better teams from two of the best leagues (Ohio State of the Big Ten and Kansas of the Big Eight); why Western Kentucky lost by a point in double overtime to Nevada-Las Vegas and then defeated Chaminade (Alo-HA!) by the same margin; why Michigan State went from being a dark-horse pick for the Final Four last season to being a dead nag—seventh in the Big Ten—this season; why UCLA beat North Carolina and then lost twice to Washington, which had lost to Alaska-Anchorage; why Centre College of Danville, Ky. beat Austin Peay State, Austin Peay almost beat Kentucky and Kentucky almost got chased out of Lexington after that humiliating 35-point loss to LSU; why schools like New Orleans and Southwest Missouri State have become latter-day Houstons and Marquettes; why Army and Navy have turned into scoring-machine foundries; and why a guy named Perdue did something a team like Purdue couldn't do—upset Indiana and Notre Dame. (Isn't it a shame that Vanderbilt, with star center Wil Perdue amassing 28 points and 17 rebounds in those games, doesn't play Purdue so that, as Commodore coach CM. Newton says, "We could be Indiana state champions"?)

Have you checked the computer rankings that Jeff Sagarin, the numbers whiz, divines for USA Today? See where he has Pittsburgh rated 11th and Brigham Young 52nd? BYU beat Pitt 93-73. When North Carolina played Notre Dame, Sagarin had the Tar Heels No. 1 and the Irish No. 51. Think the Heels' Kenny Smith, who sat out his team's 60-58 loss with a knee injury, is worth a full 50 spots on the hit parade?

"There's no Top 20 anymore, only a Top 100," says North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano. "I scheduled a road game at Tampa, a Division II school. You think I'm dumb? I stayed home with the flu." Tampa won 67-62. "That wasn't an upset. I got a few games left I may stay home from, too," says V, whose team at one point in the season led Iowa by 14 points (before losing 90-89) and at another dropped six games in a row.

"There is no No. 1," says North Carolina's Dean Smith, whose team looked unbeatable, even without Kenny Smith, before the Irish put that hurt on the Heels—even with J.R. Reid—at Notre Dame. "That's what makes college basketball so much fun. You don't know who's going to win, and you have to play your best every time out. It's always been true that in one game even a great team can lose to a good team. People called it an upset when Villanova beat Georgetown [for the 1985 NCAA championship]. They had already played two close games. So why is that an upset?"

The man has a point. Or maybe three. But, come on, Dean, how could ESPN's SportsCenter continue to exist without a No. 1? Never mind that No. 1 Nevada-Las Vegas lost to Oklahoma, which lost to TCU, which lost to Cal State-Fuller-ton, which lost to Pacific, which lost to Wichita State, which lost to Drake, which lost to Creighton, which lost to Oklahoma State, which lost to Missouri Southern State. Missouri Southern State, by the way, is in Joplin but might as well be in Division XVII. People seldom confuse it with Missouri, Southern, Southwest Missouri State, Sul Ross State or Diana Ross State.

The fact is there are no superpowers in college basketball anymore. There are no New York Mets, New York Giants, Boston Celtics, Ivan Lendls, Wayne Gretzkys, Dennis Conners. The sport's degree of unpredictability stands alone on the amateur level. Don't even bring up college football, in which the Penn State-Miami-Oklahoma troika has become a tediously familiar affair.

Louisville coach Denny Crum argues that parity is not exactly a new trend, pointing out that in 1980 his first national championship squad was the only league champion to qualify for the Final Four. But the NCAA tournament field was only 48-strong then. Teams like last year's March hair-raisers, Cleveland State and Arkansas-Little Rock, would not have been invited in 1980.

Moreover, the NCAA has moved more and more to keep the traditional powers from stockpiling recruits. As recently as 1975, a school could have 18 scholarship players on its roster. Cutting the scholarship limit from 15 to 13 this past January guarantees that 40 more prospects, released from the grasps of Top 20 teams, will find their way down to, and strengthen, 20 other teams. "With this rule I would have passed on recruiting Lorenzo Charles," says Valvano. As it was, V was able to watch Charles slam-dunk the NCAA title for the Wolfpack in 1983.

With so many star underclassmen leaving for the NBA (does anybody remember Chris Washington, or was it Pearl Washburn?), Bylaw 5-1-(j) deep-sixing some valuable freshmen and the three-point shot sullying the landscape, the college product couldn't help but be affected. But it hasn't necessarily been hurt. The suspicion is that UNLV, North Carolina, Indiana, Purdue, Iowa and possibly Temple (SI's current Nos. 1, 2,4, 5, 8, and 3) are all more solid than last year's champion, Louisville, which had to rally from a 12-7 record at mid-season. "Vegas is as good a college club as I've ever seen," says Marty Blake, pooh-bah of NBA scouts. "J.R. Reid is the best freshman I've ever seen. Indiana has four potential NBA first-rounders. Clemson is scary. There are probably 10 quasi-great teams."

As for player personnel, Carolina's Reid, Kentucky's Rex Chapman, Derrick Coleman of Syracuse and Lionel Simmons of LaSalle are four of the most exciting rookies to enter the college ranks in years. Junior college transfers Dean Garrett and Ledell Eackles have, in turn, given Indiana its best chance for a national title since 1981 and New Orleans its first chance.

The dearth of centers may be another myth. Isn't Navy's David Robinson really Patrick Ewing without the attitude? Put Robinson on any team in the Top 10 and the nation would have its dominant team. Reid has shown more versatility than either Ewing or Ralph Sampson did in their freshman years. And coming soon is 6'10" Alonzo Mourning, a junior at Indian River High in Chesapeake, Va., who is the nation's best prep player since Moses Malone.

St. Joseph's coach Jim Boyle put parity in another light after losing to Duke, which lost four starters from its '86 NCAA runner-up squad. "The level is the level," Boyle said. "What happens from season to season is irrelevant. Duke is almost as good as it was last year because of its level."

So while teams like Duke stay at that level, dozens of new teams join them there simply because, as Miami assistant Seth Greenberg says, "There are no bad teams, talentwise. There are just teams which, for one reason or another, haven't meshed well together."

Youngsters begin playing the game these days at an earlier age and at a higher level (there's that word again), have a greater selection of clinics and camps to attend, then play for better coaches, who have spread out to previously barren basketball territory. There were 67 coaching changes in Division I last off-season.

Also, the rules have changed. Since freshmen found out they could play and get early notice from pro scouts, many have chosen to stay near home where the openings are and have created new hotbeds (the Big East, Alabama-Birmingham, St. Louis). This is the first season that Bylaw 5-1-(j) has sidelined the lesser students; some teams are just beginning to dip into the junior colleges for replacements (Kansas State. New Orleans, Indiana).

Meanwhile, the three-pointer has thrown coaches for a loop. Kentucky and Providence will make the NCAA tournament because they can shoot it; Louisville and Notre Dame won't make it past the first weekend because they can't. Eastern Kentucky (third in the nation with 7.3 threes per game) has lived by the grace of its range gunners. Auburn (NCAA final eight last year, NIT this?) has died because it has none. Then there's the preeminent team of the trey, Nevada-Las Vegas, which, with its no-other-visible-means-of-support phenomenon, Gerald Paddio, could win the whole shebang, laughing. Without the three, however, the Rebs might be better suited to playing pinball.

Television. What a surprise. The networks look the game national a decade ago; cable seems to have made it into a 24-hour-a-day, four-month-long telethon. John Thompson now shows up on the tube as often as John Carson. And JT's cheery monologues are just as good. The U.S. has become a recruiter's wonderland (how do you keep 'em in L.A. after they've seen the Carrier Dome?) and the talent has spread out some more.

Just as significant, everyone gets to know everyone else through the magic of televison. Player tendencies, coaching strategies, styles of play are no longer secret. There can never be another unknown champion like Texas Western '66. Coaches now stay up all night screening tapes or tinkering with satellite dishes to hone that winning edge. "It drives me crazy," says Indiana's Bob Knight. "But I've got to do it or I feel I'm unprepared." Somewhere there is a coach who can say, a la comedian Robert Klein, "I've got every tape of every game ever played!"

Tournament expansion. TV money keeps pouring in (CBS will pay $159 million to televise the next three NCAA tournaments), arenas are going up, and high-powered "programs" are taking root in the most obscure of precincts. "When the field was 24 or 32 teams, we weren't going to get in no matter what," says Northeast Louisiana coach Mike Vining. "Now 64 gives everybody a darn good chance." And who could possibly want to go back to those elitist days of old? Last year's first round gave us the foreign legion from Marist and the foreign-looking outfits worn by coach Lafayette Stribling of Mississippi Valley State.

"You can dream in this sport," says Valvano. "You can build a gym, find a team, get in the tournament, beat another team, be somebody. It's like the old romantic musicals. 'Hey, there's a barn! Let's put on a show!' Like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland."

Or like Winston Garland, the terrific senior guard at Southwest Missouri State who scored 25 points when the Bears beat Brigham Young. Talk about parity, you should see this guy.

ILLUSTRATIONJEAN-FRANCOIS ALLAUX ILLUSTRATIONJEAN-FRANCOIS ALLAUXMany freshmen failed to realize that ABCs come before Xs and Os. ILLUSTRATIONJEAN-FRANCOIS ALLAUXA team can be a power by arming itself with a three-point gunner.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)