'Tis the season for college basketball

Another college basketball season has sneaked up on a public engulfed in football's last big weeks. This overlap of seasons is always a bit confusing, though one ultimately realizes that UCLA couldn't have beaten Notre Dame 94-81 in football.

There are other telltale signs, such as major headlines for a Kentucky-Indiana game; national polls declaring football-less DePaul No. 1 in the nation, and game results from the Great Alaska Shootout and Peach Basket Festival.

This latter event actually kicked off, er, tipped off, the men's season by pitting Louisville, the reigning major college champion, against DePaul's impressive Blue Demons. That Louisville lost this contest, plus its next two to Tulsa and Oklahoma State, illustrates how quickly the high and mighty tumble these days.

Since fourth-ranked Maryland is up next, the Cardinals could quite easily drop to 0-4. This certainly would rank as the dreariest start ever for a defending national champion, particularly one with four returning starters. The fifth, of course, was consensus All-America Darrell Griffth, whose pro career with the Utah Jazz has begun on a high note.

Many of last season's other top teams, however, are right back up there again as the quest for 1980-81 honors begins, including Kentucky, DePaul, and Oregon State.

The team drawing the most raves right now is top-ranked, undefeated Kentucky, which draws crowds of 23,000 and regularly sets national attendance records. The Wildcats haven't had a losing season since 1927 and should turn in another victory-laden campaign. With Louisville slipping, KU expects to return to the bluegrass spotlight behind 7 ft. 1 in. sophomore center Sam Bowie.

DePaul returns Mark Aguirre, last season's College Player of the Year. The Demons learned a bitter lesson about NCAA tournament play last spring, losing to UCLA in the first round after compiling a glittering 26-1 record.

The Bruins, who continued all the way to the final before bowing to Louisville, appear to have another strong club. Other teams to watch include Maryland, with forward Albert King, and Virginia, with the nation's most visible pivot man, 7-4 Ralph Sampson.

All of the aforementioned players could have dropped out of college to turn pro, a path Michigan State's Magic Johnson chose with spectacular results last season.

Their reasons for staying in school may vary, yet none feels compelled to take the money and run. They certainly don't lack competition at the amateur level. The performance the US Olympic team turned in against a changing cast of pros last June is proof of that. Some also would say colleges play a more interesting brand of ball, where strategies vary widely and baskets don't come easy.

And for those seeking national exposure, TV is offering college players more of it than ever before -- and on prime time, too. This season, the Madison Square Garden Communications Network is syndicating a package of eight national telecasts called "Prime Time College Basketball." In recent years, NBC has even aired big games opposite the NBA's traditional Sunday afternoon offerings, confident it would win the ratings battle.

Louisville's early difficulties this season serve as a perfect reminder of how fiercely competitive college basketball is. It outdoes football not only in sheer numbers of teams, but also in balance among them.

In basketball, 264 schools play in the major college division, while in football only 139 are so categorized. And whereas the same teams generally monopolize the Top 10 in football, new faces continually surface in the NCAA's postseason tournament.

In the past four years, for example, 16 different teams have reached the Final Four, including such Cinderellas as North Carolina-Charlotte and Ivy League champion Pennsylvania.

Even during the incredible UCLA dynasty, which ended with Coach John wooden's retirement in 1975, a fresh crop of challengers usually lined up for the consolation prize. Among the runner-ups were Dayton, Jacksonville, Villanova, and Memphis State.

Because a solid team can often be built around one super player or several good ones, basketball represents something of a get-rich-quick sport. Jacksonville is a classic case, coming out of nowhere in the early 1970s, owing to the play of 7 ft. 2 in. Artis Gilmore.

Some schools lacking the budget to undertake an ambitious football program, or any at all, wind up putting all their eggs in one basket -- basketball. This isn't to say they don't have other sports; it just means their hopes for national recognition ride on the basketball team.

Oral Roberts University put itself on the map this way, and our familiarity with many urban Roman Catholic institutions has been heightened by their basketball successes.Marquette, San Francisco, Georgetown, Providence, La Salle, and DePaul come to mind in this regard.

Seemingly, everybody has a chance at basketball glory these days, a fact that assuredly stimulates interest in the sport. What really awakened basketball people to the potential of their sport, however, may have been the 1968 UCLA-Houston game, played before 52,000 spectators in the Astrodome.

This much-ballyhooed confrontation, which pitted Lew Alcindor against Elvin Hayes, possibly began the arena construction boom that followed. During the '70 s, basketball left the field-house era behind as 100 major college teams moved into gleaming new arenas. With games frequently played in spacious and attractive surroundings, the sport has been able to attract larger crowds.

National attendance hit 30 million for the first time two seasons ago, and the NCAA's four-team championship round generally sells out almost a year in advance. To accommodate the ticket demand in future years, the tournament will move into the New Orleans Superdome in 1982 and the Seattle Kingdome in 1984.

This season the championship trail will end in Philadelphia's Spectrum on March 30. The main goal for many teams, therefore, is to secure a conference crown, since 26 conferences winners automatically qualify for the NCAA's 48-team tournament. The remaining berths are filled by a special selection committee.

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