Who needs the top 20? What purpose does it serve? All it does is incite a little debate and shackle one of a succession of poor ol' coaches with the burden of proving why his team deserves to be No. 1 that week. No. 1? Big deal. In college basketball the question of which team is truly tops is answered unequivocably every spring, when 64 teams embark upon a three-week journey toward the national championship. No debate is necessary—and, really, no Top 20.
The relevant number in college hoops is 16, as in Sweet 16. For many teams, reaching this prestigious plateau in the NCAA tournament has become the truest measure of a successful season. An appearance in the third round of postseason play can rejuvenate a coach's career, reduce the budgetary stresses of an athletic director (last season the payoff for making the round of 16 was $750,600) and embolden the players, who know they have a one-in-four shot of going face-to-face with Brent Musberger.
Sweet 16 teams usually come from schools with at least some basketball tradition. They have a heavyweight coach, one or two future first-round draft picks and a pinch of luck. The heavyweight coach understands how to handle the pressure of the tournament's gut-wrenching, single-elimination format. His giddy peers who pull off upsets in the opening round are usually glum observers after the second round, often because they are unaccustomed to the sudden glare of success.
Of course, part of what makes the NCAA tournament such a riveting spectacle is that this pattern occasionally doesn't hold. In the 1980s alone, such upstarts as Lamar, St. Joseph's, Louisiana Tech and Navy have advanced to the round of 16. But in every case the coaches of these teams (Billy Tubbs, Jim Lynam, Andy Russo and Paul Evans, respectively) were wooed to bigger, richer schools—or, in Lynam's case, into the NBA—the next year, after which their former teams returned to the shadows of basketball obscurity.
So which teams will play in New Orleans, Dallas, Oakland or East Rutherford, N.J., the sites of the NCAA's four regional tournaments next March? Here, if you will, is our prognosis—a Presweetened 16.
Some teams seem to have regular dates for the Sweet 16 that are more unshakable than was Caesar's appointment on the ides of March. North Carolina, Duke, Indiana and Georgetown may not be fielding their most balanced teams this season, but guided by their signature coaches, they'll have enough talent to succeed in the postseason. Twice in the 1980s, the Tar Heels' Dean Smith has lost key players to the NBA draft after their junior seasons—James Worthy in '82 and Michael Jordan in '84—and showed up in the final 16 the following season. In June, Smith lost yet another top junior, J.R. Reid, to the NBA draft, but Scott Williams, a 6'10" senior who gained 12 pounds in an off-season weightlifting program, should step forward as the Tar Heels' bellwether—if he can keep his stormy emotions under control.
Smith is under pressure to prove that Carolina, not Duke, has the league's best program and that, at 58, he's still as sharp as ever. It'll be tough because the Blue Devils have played in three of the last four Final Fours, while the Tar Heels haven't been there since 1982, the year they went all the way. While Smith was busy recruiting heralded playmaker Kenny Anderson, who ended up signing with Georgia Tech, he put another gifted schoolboy point guard, Bobby Hurley, on hold. So Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski snapped up Hurley, whose precocious court sense should relieve 6'11" sophomore center Christian Laettner of some of the leadership responsibilities and complement the scoring skills of shooting guard Phil Henderson. During the summer, Henderson wanted to transfer to Illinois but got cold feet. Humbled, Henderson crawled back to Duke, where he cut a deal with athletic director Tom Butters and was welcomed with open arms by the players, who voted to allow him to return. "I'm not God," says Coach K. "I can't affect everybody in a positive manner."
Indiana coach Bob Knight lost eight players who produced two thirds of last season's points. However, 1989-90 could be reminiscent of '83-84, when four freshmen led the Hoosiers to the round of 16. Indiana is loaded with new talent: seven freshmen, including five instaters, headed by 6'5" Pat Graham, Indiana's Mr. Basketball last season. Six of the recruits got acquainted by playing on an AAU-sanctioned team in Bloomington during the summer. The young cast will join the Big Ten's top freshman of a year ago, 6'9" Eric Anderson.
The premier Big East freshman in 1988-89, 6'10" Georgetown center Alonzo Mourning, will share the court more often with 7'2" sophomore Dikembe Mutombo. They will give coach John Thompson the most ominous shot-blocking tandem. While splitting time last season, Mourning and Mutombo accounted for 244 of the Hoyas' NCAA-record 309 blocked shots. Playing together, they could get 244 by Christmas. But Georgetown's M & M Boys will be desperate for offensive support. Thompson may have an outside threat in senior guard Dwayne Bryant or in 5'10" freshman guard David Edwards, who averaged 41 points a game last season at Andrew Jackson High in New York City.