The main challenge for college basketball this season is to come up with an encore. Something that can compare to the sound and the fury that ended the 1981-82 campaign, when North Carolina beat Georgetown 63-62 in a rare white-knuckle championship game.
Some feel that encore will come this Saturday, when top-ranked Virginia, No. 3 Georgetown, and their seven-foot centers collide in one of the most ballyhooed regular season games ever. Others expect it may come in the form of another scintillating playoff, culminating in Albuquerque, N.M., next April.
Wherever and whenever the excitement crests, college basketball during the next few months should be anything but dull. More teams than ever before appear to have legitimate title aspirations, big intersectional games have become a weekend staple; and rules (i.e. shot clocks and three-point baskets) aimed at making the game more interesting are getting a tryout.
For the moment, all the talk swirls around the Titanic struggle set for the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., Saturday night. The game occurs too early in the season to be particularly significant in the overall sense. What makes it such a compelling event are the principals - Virginia's 7 ft. 4 in. Ralph Sampson and Georgetown's 7 ft. Pat Ewing. The matchup inaugurates what many believe will develop into a Russell-Chamberlain type rivalry that will extend throughout future professional careers.
The only other regular-season contest to receive as much pre-game hype was a 1968 showdown between Houston and UCLA in the Astrodome, which pitted Elvin Hayes against Lew Alcindor before 52,000 spectators.
A difference in styles and experience lends the Sampson-Ewing duel much of its interest. Sampson, a senior and two-time College Player of the Year, possesses uncommon agility for someone his size. Ewing, a sophomore who plays with tremendous emotion and power, has become the game's Smack Man with his intimidating shot blocking.
What these two share is their decision to stay in school despite the lure of pro basketball. At the end of last season, James Worthy, Terry Cummings, and Dominique Wilkins, a trio of All-Americans, passed up their final year of college eligibility to enter the National Basketball Association. Sampson and Ewing could have jumped ship for even more money, but they remain in school for any number of reasons, one of which may be the desire to lead their schools to national championships.
Ewing, who worked as a Congressional page over the summer, nearly turned the trick as a freshman a year ago, but now is challenged by reaching the top without three starters from last year's runnerup squad. Sampson's closest brush with NCAA history occurred during his sophomore year, when the Cavaliers reached the Final Four, but lost to North Carolina. Last season, the absence of injured guard Othell Wilson was a key factor in Virginia's second-round tournament loss to Alabama-Birmingham.
Despite being the two major individual forces at the college level, Sampson and Ewing don't have the stage to themselves. There's plenty of high-rise talent such as 6-10 sophomore Keith Lee of No. 4 Memphis State and seven-foot Akeem Olajuwon of Houston, plus a flock of smaller guys with spring-loaded sneakers. And they all are grasping for the brass ring, or, in this case, the steel rim at the end of the NCAA rainbow.
Kentucky, which always seems to have a stable of blue-chippers, may actually have a better team than it did in 1978, when the Wildcats won their fifth collegiate crown. Last year Kentucky played the entire season without injured seven-footer Sam Bowie and bowed disgracefully out of the NCAA tournament by losing to Middle Tennessee. Having already knocked off highly regarded Villanova, the second-ranked Wildcats seemingly have adjusted to life without Sam, who could return later this season.
Another traditional power making early waves is fifth-ranked UCLA, which served a one-year probation for recruiting violations last year and was ineligible for post-season play. Even so, Larry Farmer completed his shakedown cruise as the Bruins' coach by leading them to 15 victories in their last 16 games. The current squad is deep and hungry. Two players, Rod Foster and Darren Daye, played in the NCAA championship game three years ago, and Stuart Gray, a seven-foot sophomore, possesses great potential based on the way he outplayed Ewing at the National Sports Festival before his disappointing freshman season.
There's even a seven-footer with the unlikely name of Uwe Blab at Indiana. The Munich, Germany native adds a little more polish each day playing under demanding taskmaster Bobby Knight, who's been selected as the 1984 US Olympic coach. Knight's teams always seem to come on strong toward the end of the season, and this one is building with a solid nucleus. Ted Kitchel and Randy Wittman were starters on the 1981 championship team, and Jim Thomas was an All-Final Four selection that year.
North Carolina, the defending national champion, certainly isn't hiding under a stone.The Tar Heels opened their season on the road with nationally televised games against powerful St. John's and Missouri, losing both, one in double overtime, for the school's worst start since 1919. The Heels have evened the ledger with two wins, but the fact they needed three overtimes to beat Tulane at home is a good indication that every opponent is aiming for them.
Considering North Carolina's rigorous schedule, which includes a full slate of Atlantic Coast Conference games, including at least two games with Virginia, Coach Dean Smith's squad is sure to be well-seasoned by tournament time. But whether such returning starters as Sam Perkins, Michael Jordan, and Matt Dougherty will be more rung out than anything remains to be seen.
One thing's for sure: the Tar Heels won't be able to go to their delay game quite the way they once did. That's because the ACC is experimenting this season with a 30-second shooting clock that will be used for all but a game's final four minutes.
A major factor prompting the ACC clock trial, and similar ones ranging from 30 to 45 seconds by other conferences, was last season's North Carolina-Virginia game, in which the Tar Heels froze the ball for nearly the last eight minutes. A national TV audience witnessed this boring display and was not pleased.
Officials and coaches realize the college game must be kept entertaining and moved quickly to remedy the problem.