Most years college basketball changes just enough to stay the same. Players come and go, a mini-trend or two develops, and UCLA wins the NCAA championship. Except that it has now been three years since UCLA won the title and two years since the Bruins made the final four. It's high time people realized that UCLA isn't UCLA anymore. Now that's a harbinger of a major trend.
Granted, UCLA is ranked third in this year's SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Top 20, but its mystique is gone, and at this time next year the Bruins are likely to be gone from the rankings, too. If that happens, it will be final confirmation that a significant power shift has taken place. There is already considerable evidence that sweeping changes are under way, because many of the traditional powers that, along with UCLA, have dominated the polls for years are not ranked.
One of the new have-nots is defending NCAA champion Kentucky, four of whose top seven players were swept up in the pro draft. Other notable MIAs include: Marquette, North Carolina, Cincinnati. Nevada-Las Vegas, Alabama, Maryland. Purdue, Kansas State and Providence. In fact, in this year's SI Top 20, only Notre Dame, UCLA, Louisville, San Francisco and Syracuse are holdovers from last season.
Why didn't all those perennial powers have talent waiting in the wings as they seemed to in the past? Mainly because today's best high school seniors know that they are accomplished enough to start immediately on a good or soon-to-be-good team, such as an Iona or an LSU or a Mississippi State. Thus, they are less inclined to serve a year's apprenticeship at a Marquette or a North Carolina before getting a chance to show what they can do. This is even the case in Los Angeles, where UCLA always had a Keith Wilkes to replace a Sidney Wicks, but where the Bruins have now been outrecruited two years in a row by their resurgent neighbor, USC.
The NCAA rule restricting team scholarships to 15—there were no limits until 1975—also helps prevent the kind of stockpiling for which Kentucky was notorious during its heyday in the 1950s. Another compelling reason for the power shift is the relative decline of UCLA, which under John Wooden won 10 NCAA titles in 12 years. Wooden's adversaries were in awe of him and his teams. Despite paying lip service to the business about the Bruins putting their shorts on one leg at a time, very few coaches believed they had any chance of beating UCLA. Now the psychological barriers are down. These days every school, from a pipsqueak like Iona to a monster like Michigan State, figures it has a chance at the national title.
The only league that put up much of a fight during UCLA's reign was the Atlantic Coast Conference, whose 1974 champion, N.C. State, upset the Bruins on the way to winning the NCAA title. North Carolina and Duke also made it to the final four a total of five times during Wooden's championship years, and both have gotten there in the post-Wooden era, Carolina in '77 and Duke last year.
The surprising Blue Devils caught fire late last season under Coach Bill Foster, who put them back together after a recent history of failure and molded them into a team that has become this year's runaway choice for No. 1. In concept and technique, Foster's program has not been unlike the building and rebuilding efforts now coming to fruition at a lot of former have-nots. There's only one real difference—he has succeeded better than anyone else.
Duke finished in the wire services' Top 20 eight times during the 1960s as Coach Vic Bubas trotted out one All-America after another. But in 1969, Bubas, then 42, resigned to become a Duke vice-president, and his assistant, Bucky Waters, replaced him. Waters' strength was recruiting. Period. He didn't get along well with his players, and in the space of two years seven potential starters transferred to other schools. In September 1973 Waters resigned, and when fall practice began on Oct. 15, the athletic department still hadn't found a replacement.
Then in a move born out of panic, a press conference was scheduled for the morning of Oct. 18 in which—believe it or not—Adolph Rupp was to be introduced as the Blue Devils' new coach. Then 72 and 18 months removed from his longtime coaching job at Kentucky, Rupp was plagued by a variety of ailments. Moreover, Duke Chancellor Ken Pye and others were concerned about the effect Rupp's antebellum views on race would have on the Duke campus, which had been integrated only since the mid-1960s. Fortunately for all concerned, Rupp backed out at the last minute.
Instead of a legend, Duke settled for an interim coach, Waters' assistant Neil McGeachy, who did well to finish 10-16. Meanwhile, the search committee that ultimately hired Foster was seeking out several other prominent coaches. Their replies were harsh and to the point: " Duke doesn't have the kind of situation where a coach can be successful.... Your academic standards are ridiculous.... You require a coach to work with both hands tied behind his back."