Realistically, the class of 1976 will not set the world on fire right away; furthermore, there is a suspicion that it is not even one of the more talented classes of the last few years. But as a barometer of things to come in college basketball, it will do. This freshman group (not all of whom will play this year) does include a potential Davis Cup tennis player at Maryland, a singer who can wail the national anthem before games at Butler, Paul Arizin's son at William & Mary and a quartet of youngsters whose splendid monikers have earned them automatic entry into the mythical Hall of Names: Utah's Luther (Ticky) Burden, Oklahoma State's Lafayette Threatt, Iowa State's Hercle (Poison) Ivy and Colgate's Indrek Kongats. Match those, football.
The freshmen aren't the only new faces appearing in starting lineups next week. Sophomores are there, too, and many coaches have expressed their sorrow that the rule declaring everybody eligible did not come one year earlier.
It would have caused some major changes in the top ten ratings if it had. For Norm Sloan at North Carolina State, it would have meant the services of David Thompson. For Johnny Orr at Michigan, it would have meant Campanella Russell. Las Vegas would have had Jimmy Baker, Jacksonville Ricky Coleman, and at Marquette Al McGuire would have been able to replace Jim (The Deserter) Chones on the spur of the moment with Maurice Lucas. This is just to name five players who, frankly, have the potential to be as good as anyone in the game. And this is not to mention a sixth, Raymond Lewis, whom Los Angeles State is said to have coveted as a freshman, too, a high school freshman. Lewis, a 6'2" guard, should—not could, should—lead the country in scoring. This sophomore class—with Thompson and the rest—should become the best ever to enter college together.
If two different herds of brand new players weren't enough to foretell the radical shifts about to transform the sport, other evidence does. Oh, there are the token changes in the rules of the game, of course. (Don't get excited. The dunk has not been returned; basketball committees are still rather Cro-Magnon for such a good piece of work as that.) But the "common foul rule," eliminating free throws for the first six common fouls of each half, will both speed up the game and give hatchet artists a nice excuse with which to perform their mayhem.
More indicative of an unmistakable kind of conversion in the game are the prospects of some schools that before the last census scarcely were known to exist, much less to be able to contend.
On the following pages can be noticed their rise and the inevitable result: the absence from the Top 20 of several teams heretofore synonymous with such ratings and indeed with college basketball itself. Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio State, Pennsylvania, Southern California and St. John's are in no way on the decline. They seem only to have been caught up with and, in many cases, passed by funny names somebody must have picked out of the small print in Lovejoy's College Guide.
Everybody knows that Alabama and SMU, for example, are football dens; that Southwestern Louisiana and Illinois State sound like institutions for indigent sharecroppers, that Oral Roberts is a TV special, Furman a vacuum cleaner, and that Canisius is one of those guys the Mafia takes for a swim in concrete Guccis. But there all of them are, right up alongside the giants. The truth is that overnight Alabama and SMU, riding herd with the University of Texas, have become national contenders in basketball with the addition of—right on—freshmen. Furman has arrived with towering sophomores. Southwestern Louisiana and Illinois State boast two of the most exciting players in America, Dwight Lamar and Doug Collins. Oral Roberts has recruited everybody but Marjoe, is big, strong, fast, quick and, of course, without sin. And Canisius has Mel Montgomery.
The further truth is that there are more really good college teams in every nook and cranny than ever before, a lot of them even with a chance at the NCAA championship. As UCLA's John Wooden says, "It is now almost inexcusable for a major school not to have a strong basketball team."
Wooden's team probably is again the strongest one—according to Xavier's Dick Campbell, UCLA is in such good recruiting shape "Wooden calls his high school prospects collect"—but there is wonderful balance everywhere. The Big Ten, Atlantic Coast, Southeast and Southwest conferences undoubtedly are stronger, top to bottom, than at any time in history. And there are other obscure leagues—typically, something called the Pacific Coast Athletic Association, which includes Long Beach, Pacific. San Diego State and Raymond Lewis—that nobody in his right mind would care to mess with.
More and better athletes are responsible for all this, naturally, but the biggest factor is the economic realization that any tiny school or obscure university can get a couple of what the coaches like to call "supers," put a team out there and make a sure name for itself. In the last several years most of these new teams have entered the scene from the college-division ranks ( Jacksonville, which has come the furthest, started in a church) and their clout has been on the upswing. Last season the three highest-scoring teams in the land were Oral Roberts, Southwestern Louisiana and Northern Illinois, the first two in their first years as university division teams, Northern Illinois in its fifth. Moreover, every single individual title was won by a player representing the new generation of major colleges. Lamar at USL was the scoring champion. Kent Martens, the field-goal percentage leader, was from Abilene Christian (two years a major school). Greg Starrick, who set a career record while winning the free-throw title, was from Southern Illinois (live years as a major). Kermit Washington, the rebound champion, was from American U. (six years). In fact, Washington can become only the seventh man to average more than 20 points and 20 rebounds for a career, joining a handful of gentlemen named Russell, Baylor, Silas, Dukes, Gilmore and Erving.