Several conferences have a new look after an off-season of mergers and acquisitions, defections and divisions. The Sun Belt lost five teams, then merged with the American South. The Metro lost four teams but added three from the old Sun, Belt. The Great Midwest sprang up, comprising defectors from the Metro, the Sun Belt and the Midwestern Collegiate conferences as well as independent DePaul. The Southeastern added two teams, Arkansas and South Carolina, then split into two divisions. In all, 39 schools have new league affiliations.
Even the ACC, where tradition is king, isn't quite the same, and we're not just talking about the new uniforms that designer Alexander Julian is putting together for North Carolina. Florida State left the Metro to join the ACC, and the Seminoles' timing could not have been better. Led by junior forward Douglas Edwards, Florida State appears capable of making a run at the title this season.
Still, the top of the conference standings should look familiar, with Duke, the defending national champion, and North Carolina again occupying the first two spots. Those schools might have gotten a stronger challenge from Wake Forest if sophomore shooting guard Randolph Childress hadn't torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a summer pickup game.
But Wake Forest, coming off its first winning season (19-11) in six years, should make a second straight trip to the NCAA tournament, thanks mainly to powerful 6'7" sophomore forward Rodney Rogers. "You ever try moving that guy out of the low post?" asks North Carolina Charlotte coach Jeff Mullins. "It's just about impossible."
Georgia Tech has four starters returning, but the Yellow Jackets' success may hinge on how well freshman guard Travis Best can fill the void left by the one starter who didn't return, Kenny Anderson. Virginia had an excellent recruiting year and will need some of those freshmen, especially guard Cory Alexander and forward Thomas Burrough, to come through immediately; otherwise, senior forward Bryant Stith will be forced to carry the team by himself. North Carolina State goes from having the ACC's best backcourt, with Rodney Monroe and Chris Corchiani, to having one of the most inexperienced. The question for the Wolfpack, says coach Les Robinson, is, "Can we get the ball past midcourt?"
Maryland, which is in its last year of NCAA probation, has one of the country's best guards in 6'8" senior Walt (the Wizard) Williams, and Clemson has high hopes for freshman center Sharone Wright. But neither team has much else to boast about. They'll settle in at the bottom of the conference.
The Terrapins and the Tigers won't be buried as deep in their conference cellar as Miami will be in its in the Hurricanes' first season in the Big East. Miami's top scorer and rebounder from last year's 9-19 team, center Joe Wylie, is gone, and what's left isn't likely to cause the rest of the conference to break out in a sweat.
"We are where we are," says Miami coach Leonard Hamilton. "We can't do anything about it yet. We're just in the beginning stages of building a program, and now we're in the top league in the country. All we can do is work hard to get through it." A winless conference season is quite possible for the Hurricanes.
St. John's and Seton Hall appear to be the class of the Big East, with Connecticut the best of the rest. The Huskies bring in a fine group of recruits who should allow UConn to return to the all-out pressing defense that coach Jim Calhoun favors. That's the same kind of defense for which Georgetown is known, and the Hoyas will have to excel at it to compensate for their lack of offensive firepower. Alonzo Mourning returns to center after the departure of Dikembe Mutombo, and he should have plenty of chances for offensive rebounds because the Hoyas' shooting is still suspect.
Syracuse produced the last two conference Players of the Year—Billy Owens in 1990—91 and Derrick Coleman the year before. The Orangemen won't make it three in a row.
All five starters for Villanova are back, including junior swingman Lance Miller, the Wildcats' leading scorer last season. That should give Villanova just enough talent to reach the NCAA tournament bubble again. Providence must find a consistent scorer to compensate for the loss of guard Eric Murdock, the No. 1 pick of the Utah Jazz. No clear candidate has emerged. Pittsburgh, once a talented but underachieving team, isn't so talented anymore. Boston College has at least two things to be happy about: One is the presence of sophomore center Bill Curley; the other is the addition of Miami to the conference, which should keep the Eagles out of last place.
While most everyone focuses on the Big Ten battle shaping up between Indiana and Ohio State, Iowa hopes to sneak up on both of them. On paper, Iowa is a cut below the Hoosiers and Buckeyes. "The big difference among the three teams is that Indiana has a Calbert Cheaney, Ohio State has a Jimmy Jackson, and we don't have anything like that," says Iowa coach Tom Davis.
But the Hawkeyes do have depth and an underrated center in 6'10" junior Acie Earl, the league's top shot blocker. It was Earl's rapid development that helped Iowa finish a surprising 21-11 last season. Most of the other key players from that team are also back.
If the well-publicized freshman class at Michigan is even close to being as good as advertised (page 74), the Wolverines should rebound nicely from last year's 14-15 record. Michigan State, disappointing in its own way last season, may not be able to recover this year. After winning the conference two years ago, the Spartans struggled most of last season and lost to Utah in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Now that they've lost star guard Steve Smith, the Spartans will be lucky to get into the tournament.
Purdue, Illinois and Minnesota appear to be a year away from making any ripples in the conference race. The Boilermakers will have to go without top recruit Glenn Robinson, a blue-chip forward who is academically ineligible this season. "Robinson is the truth," says Minnesota coach Clem Haskins. "I hope he goes hardship before we ever have to play against him." Spoken like a true educator.
Northwestern, which went 0-18 in the Big Ten last year, could move out of last, not so much because the Wildcats have improved, but because Wisconsin has lost four starters from a 15-15 team.
There are several teams in the Pac-10 that are headed in the right direction. Arizona and UCLA have Final Four aspirations, and if either of them stumbles, Arizona State might be ready to move up. Last season coach Bill Frieder took the Sun Devils to their first NCAA tournament since 1981, and he has added freshman Mario Bennett, a 6'9" forward who should help immediately. Frieder took his lumps from critics when he left Michigan during its championship season in 1988-89, but he is building a solid program at Arizona State.
California is another team on the rise, having signed guard Jason Kidd, generally considered the top high school player in the country, for next season. Cal has a highly regarded group of recruits this year as well, including guard K.J. Roberts and forward Alfred Grigsby, who should admirably complement junior forward Brian Hendrick, the Bears' top scorer. If all goes well, Cal could be dangerous by tournament time.
Most of the scoring at Washington State comes from its backcourt threesome of Terrence Lewis, Neil Derrick and Bennie Seltzer. That will be fine against such early-season cream puffs as Oklahoma Baptist, San Francisco State, Eastern Washington and Sacramento State. Come January, though, the Cougars may wish they had more size.
Stanford coach Mike Montgomery usually gets the most out of limited talent. He'll have to again this year, because center Adam Keefe is the Cardinal's only real threat. Similarly, guard Harold Miner will have to carry USC. At Oregon State, Washington and Oregon, the cupboard is bare.
It might be hard to imagine that last year's sixth-place Metro team, South Carolina, may be the closest competitor Kentucky has in the new East Division of the Southeastern Conference, but that could be the case. New Gamecock coach Steve Newton takes over a team that was 18-5 at one point last year yet blew an all-but-certain NCAA tournament bid by losing six of its last seven regular-season games. That collapse helped get coach George Felton fired, and South Carolina brought Newton in from Murray State. With four starters back, Newton hopes his team will resemble the one that beat North Carolina early last season—and not the one that fell apart at the finish.
Tennessee also had a split personality last year. The Vols won only three regular-season SEC games but reached the championship game of the conference tournament. They should be able to build on that this season, relying heavily on guard Allan Houston, who scored 23.7 points a game in 1990-91. Vanderbilt, as usual, will play smart and give more talented teams fits, but it won't make it to the NCAA tournament.
Georgia has senior guard Litterial Green, who needs 242 points to move past Alec Kessler as the school's alltime leading scorer, but the Bulldogs also have a lot of uncertainty. "This time last year I knew who four starters were, and I was looking for one," says coach Hugh Durham. "This year I know one starter for sure, and I'm looking for four others." Florida features junior Stacey Poole, a talented 6'6" swingman, but the Gators are young and out of their depth.
In the SEC's West Division, the dropoff after Arkansas and LSU is dramatic. Alabama, with guard James Robinson and athletic but moody forward Robert Horry, won't be a pushover, but the Tide will be hard-pressed to match last season's 23-10 record. Then again, Alabama often surprises people at tournament time; it has reached the Sweet 16 in five of the last seven years.
Auburn, with guards Ronnie Battle and Wesley Person, has an excellent perimeter game and should battle Alabama for third place in the West. Mississippi State had a dream season last year, finishing 20-9 and grabbing a share of the SEC title. But four starters and three reserves were seniors, and the Bulldogs now face the reality of rebuilding. They will have their neighbor Mississippi as company at the bottom of the division.
Settling for the NIT, and losing to Stanford in the championship game, was a humbling experience for Oklahoma last season. The Sooners don't like to be humbled, so it won't be too much of a surprise if they give Oklahoma State a tussle for the Big Eight title. Injuries and academic difficulties damaged Oklahoma a year ago; they shouldn't be problems this season. Forward Jeff Webster (18.3 points per game) was the conference's newcomer of the year last season, and 6'8" center Bryan Sallier seemed to find himself during the NIT. If streaky guard Brent Price gets more consistent, the Sooners will be tough to beat.
At Kansas, the Jayhawks are hoping forward Alonzo Jamison plays as well all season as he did during last year's NCAA tournament, in which he averaged 11.8 points. Kansas also has the conference's best point guard in Adonis Jordan, and Rex Walters, a 6'4" transfer from Northwestern, should be a nice complement at shooting guard. The Jayhawks don't really have any stars, but they usually don't need any.
Missouri is the conference's wild card. Senior guard Anthony Peeler has NBA potential but a history of injuries and academic problems. If he keeps his concentration, he might finally have the spectacular season Tiger fans have expected from him. Nebraska lost four starters from the team that finished a surprising 26-8 in 1990-91. Without them, the Cornhuskers will do well to finish in the middle of the Big Eight pack.
Kansas State is hoping that a group of highly regarded junior college transfers, including 6'3" guard Gaylon Nickerson and 6'6" swingman Trasel Rone, will make the difference in close games. Last season, the Wildcats lost six games by seven points or less. Guard Justus Thigpen was the only sure starter youthful Iowa State had heading into this year's preseason practice. Coach Johnny Orr may spend much of the season trying to settle on a consistent lineup. The same could be true of Colorado coach Joe Harrington, who has only one player who scored in double figures last year, guard James Hunter.
With the departure of three-time defending conference champ Arkansas, the Southwest Conference will have a hard time convincing anyone it has much to offer. Says Houston coach Pat Foster, a five-year SWC veteran, "From one to six, it will be the toughest it's been since I have been here, but not from one to three. There won't be any team as good as Arkansas was the last three years."
Texas will probably come out on top. Even though they lost four starters, the Longhorns are about 10 players deep, with senior forwards Dexter Cambridge and Benford Williams among the most important. Point guard B.J. Tyler, a transfer from DePaul, and freshman guard Terrence Rencher, the New York City high school player of the year, give the Longhorns the makings of a solid back-court. "With so many new elements, we could be great or up-and-down all year," says coach Tom Penders. Houston is also trying to piece together a unit out of several new parts. Senior forward Craig Up-church, a former all-conference choice, is back after missing all of last year because of back surgery, and 6'8" junior college transfer Charles Outlaw is expected to help on the boards. The Cougars also welcome much-traveled 6'7" senior Sam Mack, who is with his fourth school—Iowa State, Arizona State and Tyler (Texas) Junior College were the first three—in five years.
This could be the year that Rice actually challenges for the conference title. The Owls probably have the league's best big man in 6'10" center Brent Scott, who led the SWC with 10.1 rebounds per game last year. It may come as a surprise that Texas Christian has had three straight winning seasons. With 6'11" senior center Reggie Smith (17.5 points, 9.9 rebounds a game), the Horned Frogs should make it four in a row.
At Baylor, forward Kelvin Chalmers has recovered from surgery for an irregular heartbeat and guard Dennis Lindsey is over his back surgery, which should enable the Bears to win a conference game at home, something they failed to do last season. Even the departure of Arkansas from the league won't help SMU and Texas Tech much. The Mustangs need someone to provide more offense (they shot a league-worst 41.9% last year), and new Texas Tech coach James Dickey needs a healthy season from forward Will Flemons, who missed most of last year with a broken foot.
Texas A&M faces a long climb in the SWC. "It's an old story," says first-year coach Tony Barone. "We may be short, but we're also slow and very young."
A great deal has changed in the Metro Conference, but there should be at least one reminder of the old days: Louisville will be atop the league standings. Last season's 14-16 record gave the Cardinals their first losing season in 49 years. On top of that, coach Denny Crum, a former UCLA assistant under John Wooden, drew criticism for the poor graduation rate of his teams.
"Coach Wooden always told me that you learn and prosper through adversity," Crum says. "Well, after that season, we should be rich."
The Cards' riches include swingman Everick Sullivan (15.6 points a game), forward Cornelius Holden (12.5) and four good-looking newcomers—center Brian Hopgood, forwards Greg Minor and Dwayne Morton, and guard Keith LeGree. Louisville looks like its old self.
Southern Mississippi will remain a contender, if only because of the presence of 6'7", 240-pound forward Clarence Weatherspoon, who is likely to pick up his third straight conference Player of the Year Award. The Golden Eagles lost three starters, but coach M.K. Turk has called freshman Glen Whisby, a 6'8" forward, the best player he ever recruited, including Weatherspoon.
Tulane coach Perry Clark could give a seminar on how to rebuild a program. In its third season back in competition after a point-shaving scandal in the 1984-85 season, the Green Wave is a contender for the conference title, thanks largely to center Anthony Reed (16.0 points, 7.9 rebounds a game last season).
North Carolina Charlotte would probably be better if it could play in two-on-two games. Guard Henry Williams (21.6 points a game) and forward Jarvis Lang (19.6 points, 10.6 rebounds) are the best inside-outside tandem in the league. South Florida has underrated 6'7" guard Radenko Dobras, but the Bulls are undersized up front. Virginia Commonwealth is the opposite—strong up front with 6'8" forward Kendrick Warren, but suspect in the backcourt.
The focus at Virginia Tech is on new coach Bill Foster, the former Clemson and Miami coach who came out of retirement at age 55 to rebuild the Hokies. He has some talent to work with, including forward John Rivers, who doubles as a tight end on the football team. But Foster's task will take more than one year.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Excluding schools on NCAA probation, here are the other 25 teams that figure to emerge as conference champions. All but the Great Midwest, the Metro and the East Coast champs are guaranteed NCAA tournament bids.
1. Atlantic 10
2. Big Sky
3. Big South
4. Big West
UC Santa Barbara
6. East Coast
7. Great Midwest
8. Ivy League
9. Metro Atlantic Athletic
12. Mid-Eastern Athletic
13. Midwestern Collegiate
14. Missouri Valley
15. North Atlantic
17. Ohio Valley
East Tennessee State
21. Southwestern Athletic
22. Sun Belt
23. Trans America Athletic
24. West Coast
25. Western Athletic