Western Michigan, with six of its top seven players returning, should win the expanded (10 team) Mid-American Conference. In Claude (Sleepy) Taylor and Tim (The Kokomo Cruncher) Sisneros, Middle Tennessee has enough good players to contest Austin Peay for the Ohio Valley Conference title. Western Kentucky will also be in the running.
Among the independents, Detroit's promotion-minded Coach Dick Vitale spent the fall touting the Mr. Inside (Terry Tyler)-Mr. Outside ( John Long) combination that averaged 25.6 points per game and enabled the Titans to win 13 of their last 17 in an otherwise disappointing 17-9 season. DePaul, whose 15-10 record was a letdown, will come back punching with 6'11" Dave Corzine, who drew three technicals in one game, 6'6" Joe Ponsetto, who wants to be a cop, and 6'4" Guard Ron Norwood. Dayton (10-16) had its first losing season in Coach Don Donoher's 11 years; Guard Johnny Davis and a host of good recruits could bring the Flyers back.
Centenary, the smallest (800) Division I school, has one of the biggest players in 7'1" Robert Parish. Rick Sinclair and Al Gardner return to lead South Alabama, the major college scoring leader last year with a 92.8 average.
That incredible shrinking conference known as the Missouri Valley, once the toughest league in the land, has been losing members and replacing them with teams that are hardly famous names. The best of the lot should be old-member Drake, which won the Commissioners Invitational Tournament last year. Despite the loss of two 20-point scorers, accordion-playing, lay-preaching, slogan-spouting Bob Ortegel expects greater success in his second season. "Good things happen to good people," Ortegel says, but his top player, Ken Harris, has his own inspiration: "Girls want to be with a winner, not a bunch of turkeys." Wichita State challenges with five returning lettermen led by 6'10" Bob Elmore, while New Mexico State has a new coach, Ken Hayes, and the league has a badly needed new team with a classy basketball reputation, Southern Illinois.
Memphis State is one of four former Valley clubs that have joined the Metro Six conference. The Tigers have eight of the players who last season won 20 games against a padded schedule that included the likes of Montclair State and Wisconsin-Green Bay. Despite all the experienced talent on hand, Coach Wayne Yates cautions, "We've yet to prove we can beat a really good team," and he's right. Phil Hicks' 22.7-point average helped Tulane to its best record (16-10) since 1957 and the Green Wave expects to do even better this season.
After a three-year experiment during which scoring records were broken and playing tempo increased, the Big Eight is putting its 30-second clock in the closet because the idea did not catch on in any other conference. There is also a new look at Kansas, which lost five seniors from last year's league championship (19-8) team and is not likely to repeat. Missouri, led by Guard Willie Smith, was a surprising third-place finisher last season and should do at least as well again. Nebraska has Guard Jerry Fort, the school's alltime leading scorer with an 18.2 career average, but he is not expected to outshoot Iowa State's Hercle Ivy (28.3 points per game).
Houston acquires full membership in the Southwest Conference and one sign of progress in this second-rank league is that the Cougars are not favored to win the championship, which will be decided by a postseason tournament. Houston does have 24.6-point Guard Otis Bird-song, but he will not be enough to catch Texas A&M, which won the title last year with its first 20-victory season. Arkansas' Eddie Sutton, the SWC's best coach, lacks an experienced big man, but his young recruits, especially Guard Sidney Moncrief, are outstanding. Texas Tech has the best talent overall, including the league's 6'9" MVP, Rick Bullock. Coach Sonny Allen takes over at SMU in time to welcome back 6'8" all-league Forward Ira Terrell from a year's suspension.
The wraps are also off two Southland Conference teams, defending champion McNeese State, which was barred from postseason tournaments last season, and Southwestern Louisiana, which is suiting up its first club in three years. The Cajuns still must wait two seasons before participating in postseason play.
Among the independents, Pan American and Oral Roberts are capable of winning 20 games again. Guard Marshall Rogers, a 26.7-point scorer, gives the Broncs an easy ride, while Forward Anthony Roberts leads the Titans.