LSU's runnin', gunnin', joltin', often revoltin' Tigers are the most recent circus to tone down their act and master the slowdown. "A year ago we'd have had to hire an armed guard to get our guys to play a delay," says Coach Dale Brown. "Now they love it." They should. With point man Ethan Martin and Carter directing the flow, LSU won nine of the 10 times it went to the delay game.
Injuries are also a contributing factor. Indiana, ranked No. 1 at the start of the campaign, lost Randy Wittman and the peerless Mike Woodson, and there went the Hoosiers' national championship. But, wait, Woodson recovered from disc surgery two months ahead of schedule and is back in the lineup and playing better than ever. Hello title? North Carolina lost freshman Forward James Worthy, already perhaps the Tar Heels' best player, and there went UNC's championship. Iowa lost All-America Guard Ronnie Lester for two weeks, got him back and then lost him again. Say good night, Hawkeyes. Kenny Dennard, the hustling heart and guts of Duke's team, went down, and so did the Blue Devils, especially after Foster admitted interest in the South Carolina coaching job. Center Scooter McCray tore the cartilage in his right knee and sat out the season at Louisville. Defensive stopper Bill Hanzlik dislocated his left index finger and missed several games for Notre Dame. Dwight (the Blur) Anderson contracted a bad case of the attitudes and departed Kentucky. And Joe Barry Carroll, the man with so many names and so little to say, caught the "hang-dunking disease," and Purdue foundered.
What all of this means is that an already wide-open season was opened up even wider, most notably in the conference races. Into the breach stepped the likes of an unbeaten DePaul, an impressive Syracuse and a rejuvenated Louisville, whose Coach Denny Crum, after bidding farewell to one McCray, simply inserted a substitute McCray—Scooter's younger brother Rodney—in his place and won 18 straight games.
All year the ratings have mirrored the season's only imbalance, which is a geographical one. Among the 20 teams ranked in last week's two wire-service polls, 13 were from the NCAA's Eastern and Mideastern regions. This means that a lot of powerful strangers could be playing in the Midwest and West regions when the NCAA tournament begins. The selection committee has promised to send any of the 48 teams anywhere in the interest of equal competition and four balanced regionals.
Traditionally, the NCAA has permitted conference champions and the best independents to remain in their own regions. But this time that would result in an overload at the Mideast at Lexington, Ky. DePaul, Notre Dame, probably Indiana and either LSU or Kentucky would be fighting it out on the home court of Kentucky, which, of course, wouldn't be quite fair.
Other questions remain. Who from the Western half can win anything? Arizona State and Oregon State are too passive, Brigham Young too white, Missouri too slow and Texas A&M too unintelligent. How many teams will be chosen from each of the two strongest conferences, the Big Ten and ACC? Three? Four? Five? Georgia Tech? All 18? And finally, who will be this tournament's Idaho State, UNC-Charlotte, Pennsylvania, Cinderella?
It's interesting to note that the three favorites—DePaul, Louisville and Syracuse—have shared an inclination to coast and play only as hard as the opponent might happen to dictate. Oh, sometimes the Orangemen blow out the competition—if you consider the likes of Siena competition—but even with that, the Louie (Orr) and Bouie Show lost its only two games by dying on the vines of a 16-point lead against Georgetown and a 13-point margin at Old Dominion.
While Louisville's former Doctors of Dunk turned into Medics of Moderation and seemed bored through most of their play in the weak Metro Conference, they did exhibit a tenacious full-court press and some bodacious offensive rebounding all season long. But once having reached the top rung, after impressive road victories over UCLA and Missouri, DePaul also evinced ennui and appeared to be going through the motions, trying to discover just which member of the starting team could rile up 66-year-old Coach Ray Meyer the most.
These two talented teams may have been busy watching the conference battles across the nation. Or they may have been waiting to see which of their stars—the Demons' doughboy, Mark Aguirre, or the Cardinals' sky-dancing guard, Darrell Griffith—wins player of the year. Or they may have been merely marking time until the tournament.
Last week, this insouciance nailed Louisville when the Cardinals came into Madison Square Garden to play Iona in the midst of one of their end-of-the-season swoon songs. While the second-ranked Redbirds were trying to figure out how many bows to take, Ruland, the muscular pivotman of unranked (at least until this week) Iona, proceeded to do some awesome rear-end kicking. Ruland bulled his way to 30 points and 21 rebounds, exposing Louisville's vulnerability to an inside game.