The underlying story in college basketball this year is not so much about which team will win the NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis come April 3 - most likely are Connecticut, Cincinnati, or Michigan State - as which won't. And why.
The textbook example of the won'ts is Duke.
In almost all seasons and for all kinds of reasons, Duke is the poster team for greatness. Coach Mike Krzyzewski is an ongoing genius, posting a record of 469-155 in 19 years as Blue Devils boss. Duke should have won the NCAA title again last season because it simply was better than UConn. But in a fluky turn of events, Duke was upset, 77-74.
It was a sobering experience for Duke fans. But they brightened by the next day when they figured out their team would be better this season and still better in 2000-2001. Therefore, back-to-back national titles looked to be ordained.
Then came horrendous speed bumps. National player of the year Elton Brand, a sophomore, became the first Duke basketball player ever to leave the Durham, N.C., campus before completing his basketball eligibility. Brand was the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. Coach K thought this might happen, since Duke could not expect to continue to be exempt from early desertions to the NBA.
But nobody thought sophomore point guard Will Avery would go pro. Or that freshman Corey Maggette would. Or that sophomore center Chris Burgess, already inked in by Coach K to replace Brand, would transfer to Utah.
Incredibly, Duke went from title heir apparent to decimated. Krzyzewski told ESPN, "It's all fine." Hardly. The team that led the nation in scoring last year abruptly lost all four of its double-figure scorers - an average of 60.5 points per game. Result: At least four freshmen will be very important to Duke this year and depending on freshmen can be hazardous.
It was all terribly un-Duke-like. Duke has won big in the past because all its stars, including Danny Ferry, Christian Laettner, and Grant Hill, completed their college eligibility. But such are college hoops as presently constituted. For any coach - or fan - to look past the current season is folly.
Duke and Krzyzewski are the last ones to be whacked by reality. Times are changing at warp speed in other ways, too, and some are having more trouble adjusting than others. Indiana is a good example, where Bob Knight, the self-appointed High Potentate and Grand Pooh Bah of college basketball, seems to have fallen and can't get up.
Clearly, he's a legend, what with a 28-year record at Indiana of 641-231, no fewer than 19 wins over the last five seasons, 12 straight NCAA tournament bids, 3 NCAA crowns, and 11 Big Ten championships.
But the last NCAA title was in 1987, and this year the Hoosiers will be fortunate to finish fifth in the Big Ten. Knight, whose personal behavior also is erratic, simply has stayed too long at the party, and things have gotten ugly. Transfers have long bedeviled Knight. The latest is star Luke Recker - from Auburn, Ind. - going to Arizona taking his 16.1 points per game with him.
Knight's in-your-face act no longer plays so well with 18-year-olds. This year, Indiana has scoring machine A.J. Guyton but not much else.
Yet, as much as things change, looking at the 20 or so teams that figure to be best this winter reveals nary a single new name. It's the good old boy's club, alive and well.
Now, some unknown likely will jump up and generate attention momentarily, as Loyola Marymount, Coppin State, and UNC-Charlotte did in recent years. Remember Bevo Francis and his Rio Grande College exploits in the early '50s? Francis once scored 113 points in a game.
And last spring it was Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash., which rang up a 28-7 record and got to the round of eight teams in the NCAA tournament. It lost, by five points, to UConn. Amazing. Then an eye blink after coach Dan Monson signed a shiny new 10-year contract with the school, he bolted for Minnesota.
Ah, yes, another weakness in the college game. But, changes and problems notwithstanding, who's most likely to rule?
Connecticut. Coach Jim Calhoun knows how to lead. His Huskies would be top-heavy favorites to repeat - if they hadn't lost their Big East scoring champ, junior Richard Hamilton, to the pros. That's 21.5 points per game to replace in a hurry. But Calhoun does have back three starters, including pudgy but wondrous guard Khalid El-Amin, whose head was almost turned by the NBA.
Cincinnati. Four returning starters, including outstanding front-line players Pete Mickeal and Kenyon Martin, give Cincy big hopes. For much of this decade, early-season talk has been it might win it all. This time, the talk may have substance.
Michigan State. The Spartans went to the Final Four last season, and they look up to the challenge again this year. Their star is senior guard Mateen Cleaves, who suffered a foot injury that will keep him absent until January. His behavior often is suspect, but never his ability. MSU likely can survive until Cleaves returns, primarily because first-rate coach Tom Izzo will insist on it.
But nobody looks dominant: Remember how easy it was when John Wooden coached UCLA and you knew the Bruins would win? There are plenty who have hopes and dreams, but even better have plans and schemes. Among those who could be hanging on the rims in glee at the end include Auburn, North Carolina, Temple, Florida, Arizona, and Ohio State.
Oh, and Duke. There is nothing like success in the past to make a team think that success in the present is its birthright, the facts notwithstanding.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society