College basketball suspense, thrills, capture new fans

College basketball is a game millions are sinking their teeth into. That's because the ball is inflated, but the value of the sport's entertainment dollar is not.

Each year the collegians find a way to infuse the game with a little more suspense and excitement, and each year the siege on ticket windows becomes a little more intense. Not surprisingly, therefore, a lottery had to be held last April to determine whose ticket orders would be filled for the National Collegiate Athletic Association semifinal and final tournament rounds beginning here Saturday afternoon.

Overall national attendance has been on the rise during the past decade, breaking the 30 million mark for the first time ever last season. The healthy state of the game is also reflected in construction of a hundred new major college arenas during the 1970s and a willingness to go head-to-head with the pros on Sunday afternoon telecasts.

College basketball can tick off a number of reasons for its popularity, but chief among them are:

* A variety of playing styles and strategies, encompassing racehorse fast breaks and tension-building stalls.

* Built-in school and geographic loyalties

* And balanced competition, which finds smaller schools with smaller sports budgets knocking off the collegiate superpowers, unheard of in big-time football.

Building a strong basketball program requires far fewer players than football , and sometimes just one dominating seven-footer will do the trick. Consequently schools like DePaul, Iona, LaSalle, and Virginia Commonwealth, which don't even have football, appeared in the 48-team field of this season's NCAA basketball tourney.

Competitive balance, always a calling card of the college game, has been further enhanced in recent years by limiting the number of basketball scholarships any school can offer to 15 (down from 25) and allowing freshmen to play on the varsity.

The first of these measures prevents a coach from stockpiling talent, while the latter encourages high school prospects to shop around for a college where they can play and have an impact right away. For example, 7 ft. 4 in. Ralph Sampson enrolled at Virginia and immediately helped the Cavaliers to a triumph in the National Invitation Tournament.

Another trend that has increased competition is a commitment by the traditionally strong football schools such as Alabama, Texas, and Arkansas to basketball, considered essential to a well-rounded and financially sound athletic program. The influx of black athletes on Southern campuses has also elevated schools from this region into the basketball mainstream.

To get an idea of just how delightfully unpredictable college play is these days, just look at the four teams who made it to the NCAA's Final Four -- Louisville, Iowa, Purdue, and UCLA.

They have survived the "primaries" to converge here, but not with unsoiled records. Louisville, in fact, is the only member of the quartet to finish among the nation's top 20 (as determined by a board of coaches). And though the Cardinals sport a rather nifty 31-3 mark, Iona handed them an embarrassing 77-60 defeat during the regular season.

Together the other three finalists own 26 defeats. UCLA, once the giant of the game, ironically turned in its worst record (17-9) in a decade and finished a disappointing fourth in the Pacific-10 Conference. Purdue and Iowa, meanwhile , were the third- and fourth-place teams in the Big Ten. If the NCAA hadn't enlarged the playoff field by 16 teams in the last two years, these schools would be sitting at home now.

As it is, Louisville and Iowa are scheduled to meet in Saturday's opening semifinal (1:24 EST), followed by the Purdue-UCLA matchup. Then the winners vie for the title Monday night at 9:15.

UCLA, a 10-time national champ under John Wooden, will go for an 11th title under new coach Larry Brown. The other schools are seeking their first crowns. Purdue's hopes rest on the towering shoulders of 7 ft. 1 in. center Joe Barry Carroll. Iowa, an injury-riddled Cinderella, depends on guard Ronnie Lester, and Louisville on the high- leaping backcourt man Darrell Griffith, nicknamed Dr. Dunkenstein.

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