More than any other sport, college basketball is a game dominated by its coaches. The last four national champions have been teams whose biggest star was their coach: Bob Knight of Indiana in 1981, Dean Smith of North Carolina in 1982, Jim Valvano of N.C. State in 1983 and John Thompson of Georgetown in 1984.

When UCLA dominated the sport in the 1960s and 1970s, it had great players. But the one constant was the coach: John Wooden.

The power that college coaches wield, both real and perceived, may best be put into perspective by a story Valvano likes to tell.

"My first week as coach at State, I went to the barber," Valvano says. "I sat down and the barber says to me, 'So, you're the new coach at State. You took Norm (Sloan)'s place.'

"I introduced myself and he says, 'Well, I sure hope you have better luck than old Norm did.'

"I say, "Didn't Norm win a national championship?'

"And, he says, 'Yeah, that's true, but he was no Dean Smith.'

"I say, 'Dean Smith is certainly a great coach, but didn't Sloan go 57-1 at one point?'

"And he says, 'You're right. But just think what Dean Smith could have done with that team.' "

Valvano, who has done the seemingly impossible -- compete with Smith and remain friends with him at the same time -- swears the story is true. Whether true or apocryphal, it illustrates the coaching influence on the college game. This year should be no different.

Patrick Ewing will be the key for Georgetown as it defends the national championship it won so convincingly last season, but Thompson will be the biggest star. He is the program's builder and its mouthpiece and he will be the one in the spotlight.

The same is true at most of the schools expected to challenge the Hoyas, ranked first in the preseason in both the Associated Press and United Press International polls. When one thinks of Indiana, one name comes to mind immediately: Knight. The Hoosiers, who made the final eight last year and have everybody back, will be excellent.

So will De Paul. And there, the coach again will be a focal point in the story. Ray Meyer is gone after 42 years and his son, Joey, a key man in De Paul's revival, takes over.

Marv Harshman, retiring at Washington after 40 years in coaching, will get a lot of attention with one last very good team.

Then there is the Atlantic Coast Conference. For the first time since 1980, there is no dominant team in the league. But North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke, Maryland and Georgia Tech are all ranked by somebody.

The coaching tales in the ACC go on forever: Carolina might be unranked if anybody other than Smith were coaching (ask Valvano's barber); Maryland is synonymous with Lefty Driesell, and State with Valvano. Duke and Tech have come through rebuilding programs and now their young coaches, Mike Krzyzewski and Bobby Cremins, think their teams are ready for prime time.

Of course, coaches are not the whole story. At Oklahoma, Wayman Tisdale is back, probably for one last (junior) season; Illinois has Efrem Winters and Bruce Douglas back from the group that reached the final eight last spring; Chris Mullin, maybe the best scorer in the country, is back at St. John's and the dazzling Dwayne (Pearl) Washington, returns to Syracuse.

Notice, that with the exception of Harshman and Washington, all the players and coaches are from the Eastern half of the country. Basketball in the West in recent years has been much like the sun: steadily sinking.

UCLA has gradually gone backward, bottoming out last season with a middle-of-the-pack finish in the Pacific-10, the bizarre resignation of Coach Larry Farmer and the equally bizarre hiring of Walt Hazzard. UCLA will be UCLA in name only this year. The Pac-10 will be back with coaches like Lute Olson at Arizona, Don Monson at Oregon, Tom Davis at Stanford and Bob Weinhauer at Arizona State, all of them rebuilding programs.

But any great success is unlikely this year and Eastern teams will be lined up at the NCAA's door, begging for a trip to the Western Regional. The last four representatives from that regional to the Final Four have been North Carolina, Georgetown, N.C. State and Georgetown.

The tournament will again be expanded this year, going from 53 to 64 teams. This means several things: First, it means no more first-round byes, so highly rated teams that lose early will no longer be able to say they were simply rusty.

It should also mean that teams will stop loading up on early season pushovers to pad their record. Virginia's bid last season with a 17-11 record -- when 23 teams with 20 victories or more were ignored -- was based on its tough schedule. This year, Lefty Driesell has his toughest schedule ever and more teams than ever are playing tough nonconference schedules.

The exception continues to be Thompson, who insists on loading up with teams like Hawaii-whomever, St. Leo and Morgan State. De Paul, Arkansas and Nevada-Las Vegas sneak onto the schedule, bringing TV dollars.

Thompson answers critics of the schedule by pointing at his record. So be it. It still doesn't produce exciting matchups.

Elsewhere in the area, the coaching influence can again be seen. Season tickets are going faster than ever at George Washington, where Coach Gerry Gimelstob has gone from 13 wins to 14 wins to 17 wins. With Mike Brown a senior and the Colonials combining depth and experience plus a terrific nonconference schedule that includes home games with Kansas and Michigan State, there is a lot of basketball talk at GW.

The same is true at George Mason -- 21-7 a year ago -- and Navy -- 24-8. Both were snubbed by the NIT last season, but believe the expanded NCAA tournament will help them. Joining them in the ECAC South, one of the most underrated leagues in the country, will be American. Tough times will probably continue for the Eagles. They were 6-22 a year ago and the new conference is tougher than the old. Howard and UDC are young teams, but A.B. Williamson always finds a way to be competitive with the Bison and Wil Jones will find a way at UDC.

Williamson and Jones both, by the way, are coaches.

Last year, the sleeper team picked here was Wake Forest. The Deacons won a school-record 23 games and reached the final eight, beating De Paul along the way. This year's sleeper? How about Southern Methodist? Outside of Ewing and, perhaps, GW's Brown, Jon Koncak may be the best center in the country. And Dave Bliss can coach.

The story in the women's game will not be coaching. It will be the new, smaller and lighter basketball. Coming off the publicity received by the success of the gold medal U.S. women's team at the Olympics, officials are hoping this will be the year the women's game will become more than a game noticed only in a few selected areas.

The smaller ball is designed to give women a chance to better show off their athletic skills. It may give some women -- especially USC's Cheryl Miller -- a chance to dunk and should give them far better control of the ball in the open court.

Miller's team is the two-time defending national champion, but with the McGee twins gone, teams like Georgia, Texas and Tennessee -- coached by Olympic Coach Pat Head Summitt -- may surpass the Trojans.

Summitt and Knight have a chance to accomplish a unique double: win the Olympics and the NCAA championship in less than 12 months. Quite a feat -- coaching feat, that is.