In the first game of this NCAA semifinal here in Salt Lake City, we have Indiana State vs. Florida State, The Bird going against Sir Slam. And that will be followed by Magic and Michigan State colliding with Poodles and the Kentucky Wildcats.

That was the vision many hoop junkies had at almost this exact moment four years ago, the best high-school players in the country eventually leading the colleges of their choice to one final nickname-studded Passathon and Dunkfest several feet above the rim.

Larry Bird and Earvin (Magic) Johnson kept the faith; Sir Slam, Darryl Dawkins, and Poodles, Bill Willoughby, dribbled away from their apparent institutions of higher earning and into the NBA.

Had he remained a semiamateur four years, Dawkins surely would have reduced The Bird and Magic to second billing before the NCAA semifinals Saturday. And Kentucky nearly made the playoffs without Willoughby.

And with Dawkins and Willoughby, Winford Boynes, James Hardy and some others gone, the meek are inheriting the NCAA. One first-year coach has made the final four, as has somebody named Jud Heathcote. And a De Paul team dismissed after the first game of the season. And from the East comes...


Yes, college basketball is such this year that schools that make their jump-shooters learn the alphabet -- in order -- can win the national title. Or at least get in position for Magic to make them disappear in the first semifinal Saturday.

In truth, the major celebration this week ought not be be for Magic and The Bird -- or even Mr. Chips in sneakers, Ray Meyer. Let us toast the fact that the rarest of basketball animals, the scholarathlete, is not extinct after all.

Princeton and some other Ivy Leaguers will begin to snicker about now and insist that Penn gets players who would not qualify academically for their schools. Perhaps. Still, when was the last time you heard a final-four coach say, as Bob Weinhauer did today:

"There is nobody on our team on a full-ride scholarship. Every one of the kids pays part of his way, through a loan or a work-study program. Tony Price (Penn's best player) earns $800 a year in workstudy and has a $350-a-year-loan.

"And he qualifies for full need."

That is another word -- need -- the rest of major-college basketball dismisses. Scholarships in the Ivy League are based on the ability of a family to finance a college education -- and most players capable of leading a team to NCAA glory certainly opt NOT to also help pay for that chore.

Also, until this season, the Ivy League did not allow freshmen to play varsity basketball, which is yet another reason Penn should be on the sidelines this week with, say, the ACC schools and UCLA.

"Actually, I prefer the old (freshmen-play-no varsity) rule," Weinhauer said. "I think for all athletes it's better to get acclimated that first year, to blend into the program gradually and settle down."

As he added, for a "need school" whose key players knew there would be no instant attention, Penn's reaching the NCAA semifinals this week is "almost an impossible dream."

And a nice one.

Weinhauer's inner fire might be as intense as Lefty Driesell's or any of the more famous coaches, but his office suggests otherwise. On one wall is a picture of an overgrown monkey in sneakers trying to comprehend several pages of plays.

Over his desk is a painting that reads: "A bird can soar because he takes himself lightly."

That probably is what inspired Weinhauer to say, in response to how Penn would try to contain Michigan State's Magic, the 6-8 point guard Johnson: "We're going to put our 5-foot-9, 145-pound guard (James Salter) on him. How's Johnson going to cope with THAT?"

Weinhauer came to Penn as an asassistant six years ago and enjoys recalling that he was runner-up for the Drexel head-coaching job not long ago and was unable to coax even an interview when similar positions opened at Harvard and Lafayette.

And if Chuck Daly had not jumped at a chance to join the NBA 76ers last year, a few weeks after Penn's practices had started, Weinhauer still would be the loyal assistant, ambitious but anonymous.

Weinhauer is 40, the son of a Long Island milkman whose long-ago athletic dream was to be a major-league catcher. He once got the game-winning hit in a Babe Ruth League allstar game against a pitcher named Carl Yastrzemski, but turned down a minor-league contract with the Dodgers when it did not include a bonus.

From majoring in physical education at Cortland State, Weinhauer moved from two high-school jobs to Penn. And to a campus pep rally today that made a fellow tagging along all of a sudden wish Magic 40 minutes of vulnerability Saturday.

Part of the glee club was there -- and for 15 minutes several hundred students, faculty and school officials sang. The songs were robust, but with a football flavor that prompted the question of whether anyone ever wrote a college basketball tune.

There were several signs, one boasting: "ACC Champs" And another, a mock reference to the basketball factories, that read: "We'se Goin' Ta Utah."

Weinhauer remainded the crowd the team had kept its promise of two years ago, "to provide the most exciting, the most hard-nosed and most intense basketball we could play." Then with the students still singing, he walked back to his office -- and realty.

"I don't think they (Michigan State) can duplicate what they did against Notre Dame," he said. "That was an emotional high for them -- and I don't think they know who we are. They certainly won't respect us, being out of the Ivy League."

Having lost six games, the Spartans clearly are not invincible. Ironically, Weinhauer's inspiration came from Heathcoate, the State coach who said of college basketball this season: "There are no great teams, just certain teams who play great now and then."