Once upon a time, with the beginning of each college basketball season, there was a No. 1 team: UCLA. And, almost as inevitably when the season ended, there was a No. 1 team: UCLA. Ten times in 12 years, and, to go a step further, 12 Final Fours in 13 years.
But since appearing in 1976, one year after John Wooden's retirement, UCLA has been to the Final Four once (1980) and has not been beyond the round of 32 since then. No one has stepped forward to take the Bruins' place. Indiana, beginning with 1976, has won three national titles under Bob Knight -- the most recent coming 230 days ago when Keith Smart broke Syracuse's heart with four seconds left in the Superdome -- but no one has dominated the way UCLA once did.
And, in all likelihood, it will be forever thus. Last season was a perfect example of what college basketball has become. Indiana, the national champion, needed a loss by Purdue on the last day of the season to tie for the Big Ten championship and trailed in five of its six NCAA tournament games. Syracuse, the runner-up, finished the regular season in a three-way tie for first in the Big East and lost the conference tournament. Providence, fourth best in the Big East during the regular season, reached the Final Four. Florida, which had never before made the NCAA tournament, was one blocked shot away from the final eight. Austin Peay would have beaten Providence if it had made one more free throw.
This season promises to be no different. There is no clear-cut No. 1 team as the season begins. Some polls like Syracuse, others like Kansas, others Purdue. There are polls that will pick Indiana to repeat or up-and-coming teams like Iowa and Missouri. Want a sleeper? Try Wyoming. Pittsburgh, before the loss of point guard Michael Goodson to academic troubles, was a team a lot of people liked. About the only thing worth betting is this: someone unexpected will be in Kansas City.
Nothing is certain in college basketball, which is what makes it so fun, the return of the short three-point shot notwithstanding. The only new rule of significance this season is a crackdown on intentional fouling, particularly at the end of games. If the officials enforce the new rule -- two shots, plus possession even if a shot goes in while the foul is occurring -- it could cut down on late-game free throw parades and tackling on breakaways.
Once again, the 64-team NCAA tournament will be a crap-shoot. The Big Ten has five teams capable of winning the whole thing: Indiana, Iowa, Purdue, Illinois and Michigan. The Big East has at least two: Syracuse and Pittsburgh and perhaps four if young players at Georgetown and St. John's develop. The ACC has contenders in North Carolina, Duke, Georgia Tech and North Carolina State. The Big Eight has Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma.
The Southeastern Conference, with Florida and Kentucky, could have two Final Four teams. Temple will dominate the Atlantic-10 again but must be tournament-tougher. It has lost in the second round three years running. Arizona is the class of the Pacific-10, Louisville should rule the Metro again and Notre Dame and De Paul again will be the class of the independents.
"November just doesn't mean anything, except maybe for the fans," said N.C. State Coach Jim Valvano, who has been to the final eight three of the last five years. "March is what the sport is all about. That and getting ready for March."
Valvano's team proved that last season. After a 17-14 regular season, the Wolfpack saved itself from an awful year by winning the ACC tournament. This season, Valvano says he plans to win just six regular-season games and then go all the way in March.
If form holds, Syracuse is the one lock for the Final Four. The Orangemen have their three best players back from last season in center Rony Seikaly, power forward Derrick Coleman and point guard Sherman Douglas. It was the emergence of Douglas as a super floor leader last winter that made the difference for Syracuse.
Even Syracuse has question marks. It lost its best three-point shooter in Greg Monroe and its best defensive stopper in Howard Triche. But there is a basketball saying that the team that returns a good point guard and a good center only gets better. That description fits Jim Boeheim's team.
It does not fit Kansas, which lost both its point guards -- Cedric Hunter and Mark Turgeon -- but is loaded everywhere else, most notably with the return of Danny Manning, the 6-foot-10 forward who may be the player of the year. The Jayhawks have athletes galore, including three junior college transfers who will give them quickness and depth.
"The key is still Danny for us," Coach Larry Brown said. "We asked him to do a lot last year, especially in terms of being a leader. He's not that kind of person by nature. But he's going to have to do that for us this year."
Manning admits he doesn't like being vocal or giving orders to teammates. He prefers to lead by example, which he is very capable of doing. The return of Archie Marshall, who sat out all of last season after tearing up a knee during the '86 Final Four, will also help Kansas.
Last season, Purdue was the team picked to emerge in March. Instead, the Boilermakers collapsed. They were 24-3 going into the last game of the regular season with a chance to win the Big Ten title outright at Michigan. But they were embarrassed by the Wolverines, 104-68, then blown out by Florida in the second round of the NCAAs.
"I really don't have an answer for what happened," Coach Gene Keady said. "The best thing about our team last year was that we were consistent. But when we needed to raise ourselves a level or two, we couldn't do it. I think this group may be able to do that, though."
Four starters are back, including sweet-shooting Troy Lewis, power forward Todd Mitchell and underrated point guard Everette Stephens. But it has been a troubled preseason for the Boilermakers. Lewis broke a foot and just when he came back, Mitchell had arthroscopic knee surgery. Both are back now, but senior center Jeff Arnold, the sixth man last season, is out until January because of academic troubles and was arrested during a loud party in October. Not the tranquil fall a coach hopes for.
The same thing is true at North Carolina. Standout sophomore forward J.R. Reid will miss the season opener because he and Steve Bucknall got into a fight in a Raleigh, N.C., nightclub. "I told them we go over there once a year to play," Coach Dean Smith said. "That should be enough." Adding to Smith's problems have been an illness (persistent nose-bleed) apparently caused by high blood pressure and too much smoking that kept him out of practice for four days, and the murder-suicide involving the parents of starting center Scott Williams.
Still, the Tar Heels, as always, are loaded with talented. They haven't won an ACC Tournament or been to the Final Four since 1982, a five-year drought that can't make Smith happy.
If Carolina does falter, Duke, Georgia Tech and N.C. State all have the talent to win the league. The Blue Devils, who surprised everyone by winning 24 games and reaching the final 16, return four starters and have a strong freshman class. Tech has the most highly touted freshman in the country in 6-7 swingman Dennis Scott and perhaps the best pair of forwards in Tommy Hammonds and Duane Ferrell. State has four guards who can play, two of them seniors and two of them freshmen, and if Valvano can reign in talented center Charles Shackleford, the Wolfpack will be excellent.
Syracuse must be the Big East favorite, especially with Pitt losing Goodson. The Panthers are still superb up front with Charles Smith and the nation's leading rebounder, Jerome Lane. If Coach Paul Evans can just get solid play from one time walk-on Mike Cavanaugh or freshman Sean Miller, Pitt could be It, or something resembling it, in March.