The men's college basketball season is off and running in its most prosperous and exciting era. Nearly 1,300 schools are playing the sport this year, everyone from defending champion Indiana University to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Only about half that many schools field football teams.
Long the second most visible college sport after football, basketball has come into its own with more enthusiastic and generally larger crowds, greater media exposure, and an alluring 48-team national tournament that cries out like a carnival barker, ''Come one, come all.''
To some degree, the three-month regular season has become an Oklahoma-style land rush for berths in this tournament. Seemingly every school has a chance to qualify, if not this season, as soon as a seven-footer arrives on campus. Just look at some of the entries in last spring's tournament: Mercer, Northeastern, Creighton, Ball State, Howard, and James Madison. Most people probably don't even know the location of half these schools.
This isn't to say athletically powerful institutions take a hiatus during the winter, only that they share the stage with the small fry and less prominent. For example, North Carolina and Kentucky are among the national title contenders this season, and it seems we've heard those names before. By the same token, Wichita State, Georgetown, and San Francisco are also in the chase, as is Alabama-Birmingham, which didn't have a basketball program five years ago.
Basketball is basically a more manageable sport than football. It takes fewer players and less money. Yet that's always been the case. So why has the game made such strides in the past decade or two? TV's commitment to college basketball and the arena-building boom of the 1970s were certainly factors.
Television had its eyes opened to the the sport's untapped spectator appeal in 1968, when UCLA and Houston squared off before 52,693 fans in the Astrodome, an attendance record that still stands.
Eventually the NCAA's championship game became a prime time Monday night hit. A bold decision followed to take on the National Basketball Association by televising regular-season college games opposite the Sunday afternoon pro fare. The feedback was so positive that both NBC and CBS now televise key college matchups. Cable TV and local stations have jumped on the bandwagon, too.
With more coverage has come more money. CBS is paying $48 million for the rights to televise the next three NCAA tournaments, which explains why each team advancing to the Final Four next March will collect nearly $500,000.
Indiana Coach Bobby Knight, who advocates that all Division I (or major) schools get some part of tournament revenue, has expressed concern about large payoffs. ''We play for too much money today,'' he said. ''There's a big temptation to cheat, and we don't need any more temptations to cheat because there's enough cheating as it is.''
UCLA's Bruins were just caught with their hands in the cookie jar, prompting the NCAA to mete out a two-year probation that bars the nine-time national championships from postseason play in 1982 - a real blow to new coach, Larry Farmer.
Harvard's Frank McLaughlin echos Knight when he calls for limiting schools to tournament. ''Then the goal would be to win the national championship, not make money,'' he explains. ''In my 11 years in coaching the game has made great strides with new conferences and TV packages, but I feel it is like a balloon ready to burst.''
The only thing bursting on some campuses are the basketball arenas. Twenty-seven schools averaged better than 10,000 spectators per game last season , when Kentucky remained the attendance king by filling 23,000-seat Rupp Arena time after time. Wildcat fans are jamming the nation's largest basketball facility again this season, too, as second-ranked Kentucky rolls along, even while awaiting the return of injured seven-foot center Sam Bowie.
Kentucky, of course, is only one of many teams that have moved into gleaming new arenas in recent years. The '70s saw colleges across the country construct modern, multi-use facilities to replace sweat-saturated fieldhouses.
''The new arenas don't necessarily have more seats,'' says NCAA statistician Jim Valkenburg, ''but they are more attractive places for the public to come.'' National basketball attendance figures have been kept only since 1977, he indicates, so it's impossible to document any increase over the years, though there's little question greater numbers of people are turning out. Nearly 30 million attended games played by 273 Division I schools last season.
Because of the tremendous demand for tickets, the NCAA semifinals and final will move into the New Orleans Superdome next March, where all 60,000 seats have already been sold for both sessions.
Some experts figure No. 1 North Carolina has the best chance of winning all the marbles. Coach Dean Smith has taken the Tar Heels to the final game three times, including last season, and never won. Yet with most all its starters back, North Carolina may be the team to beat.
Individually, Virginia's 7 ft. 4 in. Ralph Sampson is generally regarded as the hardest player to stop. Last season's College Player of the Year turned down overtures to turn pro, obviously hoping he can lead the Cavaliers to a national championship in this, his junior year.