One year ago, when college basketball teams began their annual quest for the Final Four, one team loomed above all others. That was Georgetown. The Hoyas did not win a second straight national championship, but it took the most extraordinary shooting performance in NCAA tournament history to stop them.
On Thursday, when play begins in the first preseason Big Apple National Invitation Tournament, there will be no Georgetown. Villanova, the team that shot 78.6 percent last April in Lexington, Ky., to win the national championship, isn't even ranked. Georgetown, without Patrick Ewing, is ranked, but is not the preseason favorite to win the Big East.
Who will succeed Villanova? Throw 20 names into a hat, draw one and you might pick the winner. "No one out there has the true dominator," said Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps. "There is no Sampson, no Olajuwon, no Ewing. There are going to be a lot of very close games in March."
It is March, when the 64-team NCAA tournament field will begin its march to the Final Four in Dallas, that concerns Phelps and most of the top coaches in the country.
The favorites? A lot of people have picked Georgia Tech, with four starters back and one top freshman, to pick up from its ACC title and 27-8 record and go on to the championship. Others like North Carolina, 27-9 a year ago with everyone back and a strong freshman class. Some pick Duke, 23-8 last year, another team with four starters returning and a superb freshman.
Does that sound like an ACC monopoly? Perhaps. But it isn't likely that the ACC -- or any league -- will soon match the feat of the Big East, which last year placed Georgetown, Villanova and St. John's in the Final Four. Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Duke are legitimate contenders, though.
But so is Kansas, which returns everybody from a team that was 26-8 a year ago and is led by Danny Manning. So is Michigan, 26-4 a year ago and another team with everyone back, most notably center Roy Tarpley, the MVP in the Big Ten. So is Illinois, which despite injuries galore was 26-9 last season. Efrem Winters is back for one more year and freshman Lowell Hamilton makes an already superb front court even better.
Others? Auburn, which played as well as any team in the country down the stretch; Georgetown, with Reggie Williams, David Wingate and Michael Jackson all back; Syracuse, if Dwayne (Pearl) Washington ever becomes consistent; Alabama-Birmingham, another 25-victory team with everyone back; Louisville, which had its worst season under Denny Crum (19-18) but returns injured guards Milt Wagner and Kevin Walls and adds probably the best freshman class in the country, and Notre Dame, which came back from three years of mediocrity last year with the leadership of freshman guard David Rivers.
Want a dark horse? Try Navy. The Midshipmen were 26-6 last season. They crushed Louisiana State in the first round of the NCAA tournament and had Maryland nearly down for the count before losing in the second round. All five starters are back and two solid freshmen add depth. Most important, 6-11 center David Robinson has "improved considerably," according to Coach Paul Evans. If so, Navy can play with anybody.
Georgetown and Navy begin the season as top 20 (at least) teams. Another fixture in the top 20 usually is Maryland, and the Terrapins could land there before the season is over. But Coach Charles G. (Don't Call Me Lefty) Driesell may find out how much Adrian Branch meant last season.
With Branch and his lefty lasers gone, Len Bias, the ACC player of the year, is going to find himself surrounded every time he touches the ball. That means Keith Gatlin has to gain consistency from outside, Derrick Lewis has to score, and one of two freshmen, 6-4 John Johnson or 6-9 Tony Massenburg, must be a factor.
A lot of ifs. The Terrapins were 8-6 in the ACC last year, tied for fourth place and were annihilated in the first round of the conference tournament. A fourth-place finish this season would be a good showing.
At George Washington, first-year Coach John Kuester must put together the pieces left by Gerry Gimelstob's stormy final (14-14) season. Kuester has a lot of experienced players (seven seniors), but doesn't have Mike Brown in the middle. That probably will leave the Colonials somewhere in the middle of the pack in the Atlantic 10, behind perennial powers Temple, St. Joseph's and West Virginia.
If Navy is going to be challenged in the newly named Colonial Athletic Association (formerly the ECAC South), the team to do it may be George Mason. Carlos Yates is gone from the team that finished 18-11, but four starters and the peripatetic Kenny Sanders (George Mason-Oklahoma-George Mason) are back and there is a solid freshman class. What's more, the league tournament will be held in GMU's new 10,000-seat arena.
American (9-19) will have no such edge. Coach Ed Tapscott had a tough offseason, running around in circles in the strange saga of Tito Horford, who may become the best player since Moses Malone never to play college basketball.
Horford is without a team and Tapscott is without any height and will depend largely on guards Frank Ross, Mike Sampson and Chuck West to provide enough points to improve after two straight losing seasons. It could be another tough season at Fort Myer.
The same should not be true in Burr Gym. Howard (16-12) has been the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference runner-up four seasons in a row, losing the tournament final to North Carolina A&T each year. But this season, Coach A.B. Williamson has all his starters back and high hopes for a conference title and his second NCAA bid in 11 years at Howard.
Other players and teams to watch around the country?
*Kentucky has a new coach (Eddie Sutton), a potential player of the year (6-8 Kenny Walker) and lots of problems. Twenty-six former players recently admitted to the Lexington Herald-Leader that they took money from alumni while at Kentucky during the 13-year reign of recently resigned Coach Joe B. Hall. There could be more embarrassment for Kentucky before this is over.
*Can Indiana, which had its worst season in 14 years under Bob Knight (19-14, 7-11 in the Big Ten) rebound with the help of junior college transfer Andre Harris, a rejuvenated Steve Alford (the only member of Knight's 1984 Olympic team still in college) and a calmer Knight?
*UCLA, which began horribly under Walt Hazzard last season, ended up winning the NIT but lost its senior nucleus. Nonetheless, Hazzard had an excellent recruiting year, landing Philadelphia guard Jerome (Pooh) Richardson, a leader to build around. In the still-weak Pacific-10, UCLA could land back on top.
*LSU. The never-ending saga of Coach Dale Brown continues. Brown, who is constantly preaching tighter NCAA recruiting rules, may be in trouble because of Horford. If not, the simpler question arises: Can the perennially talented Tigers ever win a postseason game? They are 0-10 since 1981, including last season's embarrassment against Navy.
*Finally: Will Digger Phelps announce that he wants now to be known only as Richard F. Phelps? Perhaps, on Feb. 3, when he coaches against Charles G. Driesell, we will learn the answer.