Why we're even bothering to preview the forthcoming season, I don't know. College basketball is dead, or close enough to death that the corpse will be cold by June.
We know this because everyone says so. Kentucky coach Rick Pitino has pronounced the game "in serious trouble." Best-selling sports author John Feinstein calls it a good sport spoiled, on the brink, on the blink, or some such. CBS commentator Billy Packer says college hoops is "totally out of whack," and Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson pleads for legislation to redress what ESPN announcer Dick Vitale calls imminent "devastation." The doomsayers even include my man a few pages over in SCORECARD, Jack McCallum, who blames the events of last spring—37 collegians renounced their remaining eligibility for a chance to turn pro, and high school stars Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal bypassed college to join Kevin (the Teenage Timberwolf) Garnett in the NBA—for "ripping the heart out of the college game."
Yo, Jack: If you're searching for signs of the apocalypse, look elsewhere. And the rest of you Cassandras, put a sock in it. College basketball's heart isn't just intact, it's strong and beating.
You're trying to tell me a sport featuring both Bubba Wells and Bonzi Wells is in trouble? No, you're in trouble if you can't tell a Bonzi (he's a forward at Ball State) from a Bubba (he's a forward at Austin Peay), because each finished among the nation's top five scorers last season, and both are back (although a stress fracture will sideline Bubba until the end of December). Ditto if you can't enumerate the pierced body parts (brow, navel, tongue) of Duke's (Duke's!) Greg Newton; cite the particular skill of Wisconsin freshman Duany Duany (duaning the trey, of course); or produce the uniform number that Penn's Michael Jordan has chosen for his freshman season (23, proving conclusively that just because you attend an Ivy League school doesn't necessarily mean you're smart).
Don't know about James Price, the 25-year-old Desert Storm vet who will start at the point for Arkansas-Little Rock? Or about guard Steve Ransom, a former bare-chested, body-painted stalk in Kansas's Swaying Wheat student section who now suits up for the Jayhawks as a Walter Mitty walk-on? Or about Wes Flanigan, the Auburn guard who contracted cancer in his left arm and, after off-season chemotherapy and a bone graft, will take this season one J at a time? Your loss, gentle reader.
Coming out of high school, players like point guard Brevin Knight of Stanford, forward Anthony Parker of Bradley, center Brian Skinner of Baylor and shooting guard Dedric Willoughby of Iowa State all Hew under the radar of the scouting services and player procurers. Now tell them, their coaches or their rivals that they don't belong on preseason All-America teams, and you'd better duck. "He's salt of the earth," Bradley coach Jim Molinari says of Parker, a two-time science scholarship winner who, since adding 35 pounds to his 6'6" frame after graduating from high school, has become one of the finest small forwards in the land. A few years ago, when players didn't come and go so often, Molinari says, "he's a kid we'd have probably overlooked."
It's as if some of the game's followers resent having to study up on the new material every year. Last season's biggest canard was that the ACC faced ruination because Maryland's Joe Smith and North Carolina's Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace left school early. In fact the ACC staged perhaps its most unslackingly competitive season, and fans—real fans—got to know forward Antawn Jamison at North Carolina, center Todd Fuller at N.C. State, point guard Terrell Stokes at Maryland and forward Matt Harpring at Georgia Tech, as the Yellow Jackets rose from a 6-7 start to their first regular-season title.
Only a couple of years ago the WAC was mocked for its panty-waist style and middling power rating; now it's a 16-team bicameral behemoth that this season will feature such studhorses as Utah forward Keith Van Horn, New Mexico forward Kenny Thomas, Tulsa swingman Shea Seals, TCU forward Damion Walker and Fresno State guard Dominick Young, as well as coaches Jerry Tarkanian at Fresno State, Rick Majerus at Utah and Billy Tubbs at TCU.
You say the Big Ten has slipped? The Big Ten has slipped. But the big-city talents, juco juke-artists and Prop 48's who once found their way to Illinois, Iowa and Ohio State are now roosting with Conference USA powers like Cincinnati, Louisville and Memphis. So deal with it. As for the SEC, which last spring prematurely lost Kentucky's Antoine Walker, Mississippi State's Erick Dampier and Don-tae' Jones and LSU's Ronnie Henderson and Randy Livingston, few leagues more reliably restock themselves. "Nobody knew who Dampier or [former Alabama star Antonio) McDyess were two years ago when they came out of tiny towns in Mississippi," says South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler. "There are good players in this league that we don't know about, haven't even seen.
"Is there a guard coming into college basketball as good as [former Georgetown star and newly minted Philadelphia 76er] Allen Iverson? No. Will somebody emerge as a big-time player? Yes."