College basketball truly turned a corner last March. UCLA was a Cinderella team. That, as much as anything, provided evidence to how much the college game has changed since the Bruins won their last national title under John Wooden.
In the five years since Wooden last ruled college basketball, the talent has been spread out and on one dominates the way the Bruins once did.
Now, as each season starts, a minimum of 10 teams have legitimate national championship ambitions. Louisville, the 1980 champion, was mentioned by almost no one as a national contender before last season. In fact, three of the four teams that reached the final four would not have been there if the NCAA field had not been expanded to 48 teams last year.
Nothing could be healthier for a sport, or for its television ratings. As the 1980-81 season begins, college basketball is healthy and rich with teams that think they have a shot at winning it all in Philadelphia come March.
Put together a top 10, then invert it and you won't look crazy. That's how balanced things have become. UCLA was the NCAA runner-up a year ago and returns six of tis first eight players and may be only the third-best team in its own conference.
Three teams appear to be at the top of the heap: De Paul, Kentucky and Maryland. All three had legitimate shots at winning it all last season and should be better this year. UCLA, Indiana, Ohio State, Oregon State, Louisville, Virginia, North Carolina, Iowa, St. John's, LSU and Missouri all have tremendous talent and at least a dozen other teams are right behind them.
In the end, luck and coaching probably will separate the teams. Trying to predict a final four in November is like trying to guess what Charlie Finley will do next. It is impossible.
Trying to predict conference finishes is almost as hard, but here is a try.
ACC: Maryland has to be the favorite because everyone is back from the team that dominated the conference in regular season a year ago. But Virginia, wiht Ralph Sampson, has the potential to play with anyone and North Carolina has finished first or second 14 years in a row. Clemson could be a sleeper and Duke has Eugene Banks, but no center. North Carolina State and Wake Forest have talent but little depth and Georgia Tech has neither.
BIG EAST: This could be the most-balanced league in the country with Georgetown, St. John's, Villanova, Connecticut, Boston College and Syracuse all legitimate contenders. Syracuse all legitimate contenders. Syracuse could be one of the 30 best teams in the country and finish sixth in its own conference. Connecticut is a sleeper team to watch.
EASTERN EIGHT; Villanova is gone but Rutgers, Pittsburgh and Duquesne remain. These are not national contenders, but good teams. George Washington will have to work to crack the top four.
BIG TEN: Indiana, Iowa and Ohio State all lost key players from last season, but should again be the conenders for league and national honors in what in recent years has been the best conference in the country.
SEC: If talent alone decided basketball games, Kentucky never would lose a game. The Wildcats, as usual, had a superb recruiting year. They now have two stud centers, enough forwards to stock an NBA expansion team and 14 point guards. If Joe Hall uses the talent right, the Wildcats will beat anybody. LSU is not that far behind with Durand Macklin back; then there is a drop, although Tennessee's Don DeVoe can coach with anybody and Alabama has four starters back.
METRO: Louisville, even without Darrell Griffith, is the team to beat with four starters back and Scooter McCray, older brother of center Rodney, back after a year on the shelf with a bad knee. Virginia Tech will again be around for postseason action and Florida State also is solid. After that, rebuilding is the story.
SOUTHWEST: Texas, and Arkansas, Arkansas and Texas. Eddie Sutton and Abe Lemons.That was the story here the last few years. Now, Texas A&M must be added to the list. SMU hired Dave Bliss from Oklahoma but he needs time. Houston is rebuilding but still okay. Baylor, Rice and Texas Tech play good football. Texas Christian doesn't even do that.
PAC 10: Oregon State won the conference a year ago and added Charles Sitton, one of the five best high-school seniors in the country a year ago. UCLA still needs a center but has three fine freshmen to go with the four sophomores who played so well last year, and 6-6 Mike Sanders, forced to play center last year but an excellent forward. Washington State won 23 a year ago; Southern California, Oregon and California should all do better.
IVY: Pennsylvania and Princeton have dominated the last 10 years, especially Penn, and nothing should change this year. The Quakers lose just one starter off last year's league champions and should repeat.
INDEPENDENTS: De Paul is the best, led by Mark Aguirre, but Nortre Dame has about 12 guys who can play and it has the mystique. The Irish will win 23 again and upset someone at home. Nevada-Las Vegas has Sid Green and will win 20 games.