Indiana may have `right stuff' to defend college basketball crown

The 93rd season of men's college basketball has begun and will continue to warm up in its usual gala way before getting down to serious business in January. There has already been a Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic (won by North Carolina) in the game's Springfield, Mass., birthplace, and the Big Apple National Invitation Tournament, won by the Florida Gators of orange-growing country. The Great Alaska Shootout, an annual tradition, just ended in Anchorage, where the University of Arizona came out sizzling in the Frost Belt, beating highly regarded Michigan in the semifinals and Syracuse in the final.

There have been ``Classics'' and mini tuneup tournaments galore, everything from the Investors Classic in Rhode Island to the Grand Rapids Baptist Thanksgiving Tournament in Michigan to the Maui Classic in Lahaina, Hawaii. And this is only the first wave, because at Christmas, the holiday tournaments proliferate.

Some teams, such as Kansas, even opened their practice sessions with a lot of fanfare. The Jayhawks held their first practice at midnight, the instant official workouts could begin. The affair was called Late Night with Larry Brown (the KU coach).

It was a night for loosening up and laughing, which doesn't mean, however, that the early season is merely fun and games. Bob Knight, coach of Indiana University's defending champions, never seems to lighten up, and totally blew a fuse in an exhibition game against the Soviet national team.

Infuriated at being assessed his third technical foul, he led his team from the floor about five minutes into the second half, forfeiting to the Soviets, who were ahead, 66-43. Knight later said he'd made a mistake, but it was the kind of mental error he doesn't tolerate from his players and hardly a fitting way for the Hoosiers to launch a promising new season.

Expectations in Bloomington are actually running higher this season than last, mainly because of the return of three starting players, a luxury Knight didn't enjoy after his teams won the 1976 and '81 national titles. Ever-cool captain Steve Alford has graduated, but guard Keith Smart, who ignited Indiana in last March's championship game and hit the shot that sank Syracuse, 74-73, is back, as are center Dean Garrett and forward Rick Calloway. Throw in junior college transfer Mark Robinson and freshmen Jay Edwards and Lyndon Jones, teammates who led Marion, Ind., to three straight state high school titles and shared Mr. Basketball honors, and you have a rich mix.

Robinson joins Garrett and Smart as a ``juco'' product, an increasingly popular breed at four-year universities. Knight once refused to go this route, but he and many other coaches are now convinced that the junior colleges form an invaluable feeder system capable of producing high-quality, already-seasoned athletes.

These players can step right in and contribute, which isn't always the case with the best freshman recruits, some of whom don't meet SAT test-score requirements and have to sit a year while proving themselves academically.

A case in point exists at Michigan, where the Wolverines could be a legitimate national contender once sophomores Rumeal Robinson and Terry Mills, a pair of newly eligible blue-chippers, gain needed varsity experience.

With Indiana, Michigan, Purdue, and Iowa all preseason Top 20 picks, the Big Ten projects as the nation's premier conference. The Big East, of course, would probably dispute that, especially after having Syracuse and surprising Providence both in last season's Final Four. Syracuse has been picked by many to return and win the title in the tournament's 50th year, an anniversary to be celebrated in Kansas City.

The Orangemen obviously haven't felt comfortable being cast in the favorite's role, but should find some of the pressure lifted after the loss to Arizona and being upset by North Carolina, which played without J.R. Reid, in the Tip-Off Classic. The talent is certainly there, with Rony Seikaly, perhaps this season's best center, joined by All-American candidates Derrick Coleman and Sherman Douglas.

Sports-wise Syracuse is on what may be an unprecedented roll. The men's basketball team, of course, nearly won last season's NCAA championship, the football team just completed a perfect 11-0 regular season and is in contention for the national title, with a Sugar Bowl date still ahead. And despite a rough start, the current hoop squad should be in the thick of things as the nation's 290 Division I teams turn for home in March.

Sustaining the momentum won't be easy, though. The Big East coaches made Pittsburgh, which has the talent but maybe not the chemistry, their preseason conference pick. Georgetown lost clutch-shooting Reggie Williams, but the Hoyas will be as deep and scrappy as ever, and the main question may be how well John Thompson can juggle his US Olympic and college coaching duties.

In the West, Wyoming, with star forward Fennis Dembo, is expected to lasso a lot of ``W's.'' The Cowboys are enjoying a sports heyday akin to Syracuse's. Last season the basketball team made the NCAA's Sweet Sixteen; the football team just won the Western Athletic Conference; and the hardcourt euphoria should continue in Laramie at least through this winter.

Who knows, Wyoming could even dribble off into the sunset with the grandest prize of all, an NCAA championship. Any number of schools, however, feel they've got a serious shot at it, including the aforementioned powers, as well as Missouri, Kentucky, Louisville, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, and Duke.

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