Who needs the top 20? What purpose does it serve? All it does is incite a little debate and shackle one of a succession of poor ol' coaches with the burden of proving why his team deserves to be No. 1 that week. No. 1? Big deal. In college basketball the question of which team is truly tops is answered unequivocably every spring, when 64 teams embark upon a three-week journey toward the national championship. No debate is necessary—and, really, no Top 20.
The relevant number in college hoops is 16, as in Sweet 16. For many teams, reaching this prestigious plateau in the NCAA tournament has become the truest measure of a successful season. An appearance in the third round of postseason play can rejuvenate a coach's career, reduce the budgetary stresses of an athletic director (last season the payoff for making the round of 16 was $750,600) and embolden the players, who know they have a one-in-four shot of going face-to-face with Brent Musberger.
Sweet 16 teams usually come from schools with at least some basketball tradition. They have a heavyweight coach, one or two future first-round draft picks and a pinch of luck. The heavyweight coach understands how to handle the pressure of the tournament's gut-wrenching, single-elimination format. His giddy peers who pull off upsets in the opening round are usually glum observers after the second round, often because they are unaccustomed to the sudden glare of success.
Of course, part of what makes the NCAA tournament such a riveting spectacle is that this pattern occasionally doesn't hold. In the 1980s alone, such upstarts as Lamar, St. Joseph's, Louisiana Tech and Navy have advanced to the round of 16. But in every case the coaches of these teams (Billy Tubbs, Jim Lynam, Andy Russo and Paul Evans, respectively) were wooed to bigger, richer schools—or, in Lynam's case, into the NBA—the next year, after which their former teams returned to the shadows of basketball obscurity.
So which teams will play in New Orleans, Dallas, Oakland or East Rutherford, N.J., the sites of the NCAA's four regional tournaments next March? Here, if you will, is our prognosis—a Presweetened 16.
Some teams seem to have regular dates for the Sweet 16 that are more unshakable than was Caesar's appointment on the ides of March. North Carolina, Duke, Indiana and Georgetown may not be fielding their most balanced teams this season, but guided by their signature coaches, they'll have enough talent to succeed in the postseason. Twice in the 1980s, the Tar Heels' Dean Smith has lost key players to the NBA draft after their junior seasons—James Worthy in '82 and Michael Jordan in '84—and showed up in the final 16 the following season. In June, Smith lost yet another top junior, J.R. Reid, to the NBA draft, but Scott Williams, a 6'10" senior who gained 12 pounds in an off-season weightlifting program, should step forward as the Tar Heels' bellwether—if he can keep his stormy emotions under control.
Smith is under pressure to prove that Carolina, not Duke, has the league's best program and that, at 58, he's still as sharp as ever. It'll be tough because the Blue Devils have played in three of the last four Final Fours, while the Tar Heels haven't been there since 1982, the year they went all the way. While Smith was busy recruiting heralded playmaker Kenny Anderson, who ended up signing with Georgia Tech, he put another gifted schoolboy point guard, Bobby Hurley, on hold. So Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski snapped up Hurley, whose precocious court sense should relieve 6'11" sophomore center Christian Laettner of some of the leadership responsibilities and complement the scoring skills of shooting guard Phil Henderson. During the summer, Henderson wanted to transfer to Illinois but got cold feet. Humbled, Henderson crawled back to Duke, where he cut a deal with athletic director Tom Butters and was welcomed with open arms by the players, who voted to allow him to return. "I'm not God," says Coach K. "I can't affect everybody in a positive manner."
Indiana coach Bob Knight lost eight players who produced two thirds of last season's points. However, 1989-90 could be reminiscent of '83-84, when four freshmen led the Hoosiers to the round of 16. Indiana is loaded with new talent: seven freshmen, including five instaters, headed by 6'5" Pat Graham, Indiana's Mr. Basketball last season. Six of the recruits got acquainted by playing on an AAU-sanctioned team in Bloomington during the summer. The young cast will join the Big Ten's top freshman of a year ago, 6'9" Eric Anderson.
The premier Big East freshman in 1988-89, 6'10" Georgetown center Alonzo Mourning, will share the court more often with 7'2" sophomore Dikembe Mutombo. They will give coach John Thompson the most ominous shot-blocking tandem. While splitting time last season, Mourning and Mutombo accounted for 244 of the Hoyas' NCAA-record 309 blocked shots. Playing together, they could get 244 by Christmas. But Georgetown's M & M Boys will be desperate for offensive support. Thompson may have an outside threat in senior guard Dwayne Bryant or in 5'10" freshman guard David Edwards, who averaged 41 points a game last season at Andrew Jackson High in New York City.
THE TALENT MONGERS
Every player selected first in the NBA draft in the 1980s had helped carry a team to the round of 16, and all but two—North Carolina's Brad Daugherty and Navy's David Robinson—had played in the Final Four. That's a good sign for Syracuse, which has forward Derrick Coleman, who's likely to become the No. 1 pick in the '90 draft. The 6'10" Coleman had to play center in '88-89, and he led the Big East in rebounding; now he's back at forward, the position for which his skills are more suited. With the departure of All-America playmaker Sherman Douglas, Stephen Thompson and Billy Owens will share time at point guard—unless freshman Michael Edwards blossoms quickly. The question of who will play the point has inspired so much debate in upstate New York that coach Jim Boeheim hasn't even been reminded of the Orange-men's sour free-throw shooting last season (61.1%)—until now.
Tired of coaches who poor-mouth their teams' chances? Listen to Dale Brown of Louisiana State. "We're setting our goals a little higher than the national championship this season," says Brown. "We want to let people know LSU will be the team of the '90s." Just how loaded are the Tigers? Lyle Mouton, a starting guard in 1988-89, realized that if he wanted to get any playing time, he would have to play baseball instead of basketball. Look for him on the diamond. In explosive sophomore Chris Jackson, LSU has the best guard in the country. Now Jackson has some big-time company: 7'1" Shaquille O'Neal and 7-foot Stanley Roberts, both of whom are newcomers. "All of a sudden—bingo!—I'm blessed with great talent," says Brown. "Now, the next thing to do is coach it." You said it, Dale, not us.
THE BACKCOURT BEASTS
If Kenny Anderson is a healthy fraction of the playmaker he is touted to be—his high school jersey is already displayed in the Basketball Hall of Fame—Georgia Tech may have the best backcourt in the land. Anderson will operate in the Yellowjackets' three-guard offense with senior Brian Oliver, a center of calm amid the sideline storming of Tech coach Bobby Cremins, and junior Dennis Scott, a 6'8" mad bomber who has yet to fulfill the promise that accompanied him to Atlanta two years ago. "If there was a three-on-three tournament, I think those guys would win," says Cremins. "If we had a proven front line, we'd be as good as anybody." Still, Georgia Tech will be plenty good.
Thanks to two last-second free throws by Rumeal Robinson (page 64), Michigan defeated Seton Hall 80-79 to win the NCAA title last spring. Sweet-shooting Sean Higgins, a swingman, will have to score more, now that Glen Rice, who led the Big Ten in scoring last season, is gone. But even without Rice, Michigan is packed with talent and intent on becoming the first school to repeat as national champion since UCLA did so in 1972-73. "We're ready to go down in history," says forward Loy Vaught. "I want to be immortalized."
Every now and then, a team slips into the Sweet 16 by illicit means and later winds up doing time for the NCAA (see Wichita State, UCLA, Memphis State, Cleveland State). Don't be surprised if that happens to Missouri. This fall, prize recruit Daniel Lyton left Missouri, saying that the coaching staff had mistreated him and that he didn't want to attend a school "that's going to be on probation." The Tigers are indeed under NCAA investigation for several alleged infractions, possibly including their recruitment of Lyton. Missouri's status won't be known until February at the earliest. A clean bill of health would do wonders for Norm Stewart, who has returned to coaching after being sidelined for half of last season because of cancer surgery and treatment for a diseased gallbladder. Guard Anthony Peeler, a troubled sophomore, should be the Tigers' biggest scorer. He'll get able contributions from guard Lee Coward and 6'10" center-forward Doug Smith.
In recent years junior college graduates and transfers from four-year institutions have invigorated a variety of teams, from Oklahoma to Indiana. This season, the best juco arrival appears to be UNLV forward Larry Johnson, from Odessa (Texas) College. Johnson, a 6'7" inside scorer who dominated the World University Games for the U.S. team this summer, should be the perfect complement to forward Stacey Augmon, a ferocious defender and last season's Big West Player of the Year. Sophomore Anderson Hunt will try to steady the Runnin' Rebels' usually erratic outside game. In short, if UNLV (page 56) fulfills its potential. Rebel fans might be able to forget that the program is under investigation for alleged recruiting violations, and coach Jerry Tarkanian should finally bag the big one—if the NCAA doesn't bag him first.
THE CONFERENCE CALLS
From the Metro Conference, either Louisville or Memphis State is almost always around for the round of 16. While the Tigers have the more gifted guards in Elliot Perry and Cheyenne Gibson, the Cardinals are stocked with the sort of slick perimeter players who call to mind Louisville's 1980 national championship team—a.k.a. the Doctors of Dunk. Swingman Jerome Harmon, who once had nine jams in a game for Lew Wallace High in Gary, Ind., will be in the lineup after being sidelined by a ruptured disc last season. When the 6'4" Harmon reverse-stuffed in a recent pickup game, former Cardinals Kenny Payne and Darrell Griffith, renowned jammers who are both in the NBA, were absolutely awed. "That kid has got to play," said Payne. "He's unstoppable."
The Southwest Conference, which has been known to go into hibernation after football season, is strong enough this year to produce a title contender, and Arkansas figures to be it. Back from last season's 25-7 team are three starters, including conference Newcomer of the Year Todd Mayberry, a point guard who's capable of running Nolan Richardson's complex high-risk offense. Mayberry averaged only 1.56 turnovers a game in 1988-89, fewer than any other playmaker in the nation. Joining the four starters is swingman Ron Huery, who was kicked off the team last season following his second alcohol-related arrest. "They definitely have a chance to be there [in the Final Four] at the end of the season," says Texas coach Tom Penders.
Arizona has lost two-time All-America Sean Elliott to the pros, but coach Lute Olson now has 6'10" center Brian Williams, a transfer from Maryland. Williams's dad, Gene, was one of the original Platters, and Brian has already shown that he's no great pretender. As a freshman in 1987-88, he led the Terrapins into the second round of the NCAAs. Had Chris Mills, the controversial forward who's one of the reasons Kentucky is on probabtion (SI May 29), been cleared to play for the Wildcats (he's enrolled at the school and should play next season), Arizona would have been a shoo-in for the Final Four.
THE DEEP SLEEPER
The Trans America Athletic Conference is acting as a sort of guinea pig to test two new rules this season: awarding three free throws instead of two when a player is fouled while attempting a three-pointer; and, like the Big East, allowing a player six fouls, instead of five, before disqualifying him. Though no one seemed to care about this conference's radical moves, that doesn't seem to bother the teams in the TAAC because, come tournament time, league champion Arkansas-Little Rock will certainly command attention. Coach Mike Newell's disciplined system has frustrated many heavily favored opponents during his five previous seasons, and this year he has his finest crop of recruits to go with 5'10" point guard Carl Brown and a senior-dominated supporting cast. Senior center Jeff Cummings weighed in at 290 before being placed on the weight-reduction plan used by the Dallas Cowboys. His losses will be the Trojans' gain. If Arkansas-Little Rock makes the final 16, Newell might be using another conference as his lab next fall.
THE MAIN-MAN BANDS
While teams that rely too heavily on one player usually sputter in the subregionals, those that blend their lead men with a balanced cast usually have extended runs. Pitt has five juniors who started last season, including Brian Shorter, who will challenge Syracuse's Coleman for supremacy among Big East forwards, and a 6'10" transfer from Navy named Darren Morningstar. The 6'6" Shorter was second in the Big East in scoring and rebounding last season. "The sky's the limit for him," says Panther coach Paul Evans, who would be in heaven himself if not for Prop 48, which derailed all of his freshman recruits.
Thanks to a mask designed to protect his broken nose, Willie Burton lent a fierce look to Minnesota in last season's tournament. This year, Burton & Co. hope to inspire more fear in the already fearsome Big Ten. To do so, the Gophers must improve upon their 1-8 conference road record of 1988-89. At 6'7", Burton is the best inside scorer in the conference and a probable Top 10 pick in the '90 NBA draft. He will get inside support from 24-year-old forward Richard Coffey, a former paratrooper, but will need outside help. Minnesota shot just 48.1% from the field in 1988-89. Not everyone is sure the Gophers will be so formidable. "If people build them up too much," says Knight, "they could be in for a big fall." Words to remember for the Hoosiers' visit to Minneapolis on Jan. 28.
There you have it, the Sweet 16, consisting of the usual suspects and the suspected unusuals. As for the Final Four in Denver, look for one somewhat surprising team (Arkansas), one megapower (UNLV) and one up-and-coming power (LSU). For history's sake, throw in Michigan, which will meet the same fate that Georgetown did in the 1985 tournament. The Hoyas, who were also the defending champions, lost in the finals to Villanova. The Wolverines will also return to the championship game. They will lose to UNLV.