The two giants among the Independents, Notre Dame and DePaul, made the Sweet 16 last spring, and each has a gem of a point guard returning. David Rivers of the Irish is back up to 180 pounds, having fully recovered from his harrowing car accident in August 1986. "Rocket" Rod Strickland has promised Blue Demons coach Joey Meyer to be a more vocal team leader.
Among the secular independents, the king is Miami; a deeper backcourt should please 7'1" Tito Horford almost as much as his young son: An Alfredo Horford Growth Chart (starting point: 17 months old, 34½") has been posted in the 'Canes sports information office.
One reason why Alabama-Birmingham has qualified for seven straight NCAA tournaments is that in four of those years the Sun Belt has held its conference tournament in Birmingham. The 1988 venue will be Richmond, but the Blazers should repeat as champions on the strength of 7'1" Alan Ogg, who blossomed late last season, and 6'8" Eddie Collins. Keep an eye on North Carolina Charlotte, where fans are prepping for the arrival of the NBA Hornets by flocking to see the rejuvenated 49ers. In his first coaching job at any level, Jeff Mullins, who is beginning his third year in Charlotte, has done for the 49ers' program what he did for an ailing Chevrolet dealership in Cary, N.C.—turned it around. Mullins has gotten a lot of help from 6'2" Byron Dinkins and 6'7" Ronnie Bellamy, Walt's half-brother.
Nevada-Las Vegas coach Jerry Tarkanian has instituted 6:30 a.m. practices to whip what he says "could be the worst I've had at UNLV" into shape. But don't be fooled. All it means is that Vegas, which won the PCAA by eight games en route to the Final Four, may prevail by only a game or two. Stacey Augmon and the James gang (brothers Keith and Karl) join Jarvis Basnight and Gerald Paddio in helping the Rebels fight off San Jose State, which is rich with transfers. Four could start for the Spartans, including 6'8" Ricky Berry, the son of coach Bill Berry. Ricky, who has played every position, brings to mind another Spartan of the same size, whose magic Ricky studied when he was a Michigan State ball boy in the late '70s.
With the San Jacinto College men's (page 18) and the Texas women's programs being the most successful in the Lone Star state these days, the Southwest can only be grateful for Arkansas. The Hogs went 19-14 in 1986-87 despite the drug problems of swingman William Mills, a hellacious schedule and the death from leukemia of coach Nolan Richardson's daughter Yvonne. The current Hogs include the versatile Ron Huery and 6'11" Andrew Lang, whose rebounds and blocks should trigger Arkansas' break. Baylor coach Gene Iba has the SWC's two top returning scorers, 6'9" Darryl Middleton (18.3 ppg) and 6'2" Michael Williams (17.2). He hopes to have the spirit—it was known as Ibalieve around campus last season—that helped the Bears pull out five of their 10 league wins by three points or fewer. Houston picks up juco stud Richard Hollis, but three-point ace Tim Hobby left to play golf for Baylor. Can you imagine a Phi Slamma Jamma pledge preferring golf to basketball? Times change.
Over the summer the Midwestern Collegiate saw its congregation reduced by one when, lo and behold. Oral Roberts University decided to leave the league. No, the school president wasn't told he would be called home if the Titans didn't go independent. More likely, the Reverend Roberts wants to land a tournament bid, which would be a tall order if Oral Roberts remained in the MCC. Xavier and Evansville keep all their starters from last season; St. Louis has its nucleus; and no at-large bids figure to be offered MCC schools until at least next season, when a conference rule banning members from playing non-Division I opponents goes into effect. Along with Xavier's Byron Larkin (brother of Reds shortstop Barry), Evansville's Marty Simmons (whose numbers improved after he broke his wrist) and St. Louis's Roland Gray are the best players on the three best teams in the conference.
When three solid independents (New Orleans, Southwestern Louisiana and Pan American) and three Southland schools with high hoop profiles (Lamar, Arkansas State and Louisiana Tech) succumbed to an urge to merge, the American South was born. Its winner won't get an automatic NCAA bid for three seasons, but that won't keep New Orleans out of the tournament. The Privateers' new coach, Art Tolis, once drove a car down the steps of the Superdome, and Ledell Eackles, star of the team's gutbucket backward low-five pregame intro routine, will drive up, around or through anything between him and the basket. Says Louisiana Tech guard Kelvin Lewis, "The CIA can't cover him."
At the dawn of what North Carolina Wilmington coach Robert McPherson calls "the day after" in the Colonial, the Richmond Spiders look ready to spin their web over what David Robinson has left behind. The undersized Spiders have ten players off last season's squad, including 6'5", 230-pound forward Peter Woolfolk, center Steve Kratzer and guard Rodney Rice. If Richmond doesn't find its free throw form (last season it shot 57.2% from the line), one of two schools named for Founding Fathers could win the Colonial. James Madison features Thorn Brand, a 6'11" center from the Netherlands who writes poetry. George Mason is starting fresh under new coach Rick Barnes.
The Herd is the word in the Southern. Two of Marshall's four returning starters were the best underclassmen in the league at what they do—6'2" Skip Henderson scores (21.0 points per game last season) and 6'7" Rodney Holden rebounds (8.8 a game). Coach Rick Huckabay's brash statements and green-and-white tuxedos help fill 10,250-seat Henderson Center, which isn't named after Skip, though perhaps it should be. "I'd like to coach Marshall just once," says Furman coach Butch Estes. "I'd just like to know what it feels like." Tennessee-Chattanooga, which is flush with transfers, juco and otherwise, and is coming off coach Mack McCarthy's best recruiting year, should finish second.
The Ohio Valley will spend about $75,000 of its own money to produce five league games that ESPN will broadcast live on Fridays at midnight and on Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. (EST). The top attraction will undoubtedly be Austin Peay, whose upset of Illinois in the NCAAs forced a certain shiny-domed TV commentator to make good on a promise. As he said he would, Dick Vitale stood on his head on camera. How do the Governors, with just one returning first-stringer, figure to be better? Because of a group of transfers who are ready to play. Last-season transfers 6'11" Barry Sumpter (late of Louisville), 6'7" Andre Harris (Indiana) and 6'8" Javin Johnson (Oklahoma) were not eligible for games, but they did work out with the squad. Coach Lake Kelly had to stop using them in scrimmages because the trio, which will make up the biggest front line in Ohio Valley history, was so demoralizingly good. Now he can use them against the Govs' chief nemeses: Middle Tennessee, which still has 6'7", 260-pound Dwayne (Bam Bam) Rainey but needs smaller fry to replace guards Duane (no, not Pearl) Washington and Andrew Tunstill; and Murray State's 5'9" Don Mann, who twice beat Peay with last-second shots.