LSU and Kentucky are not about to lap the rest of the SEC field, not with 38 of the league's 50 starters from last season back in action. "There isn't a cinch win in the SEC," says LSU Coach Dale Brown, and he's right. Tennessee, the surprise champion of the conference's 1979 tournament, has four of five regulars on hand, including All-SEC Forward Reggie Johnson, who scored 21.2 points a game. Another thing the Vols have going for them is the brand of defense that second-year Coach Don DeVoe learned as Bobby Knight's assistant at West Point. DeVoe is on the offensive, though, when it comes to talking about rival Georgia's schedule. "Hugh Durham will have the best winning percentage in the conference going into the month of January," he says. "I don't think he should be able to sandbag a schedule." DeVoe is upset over Georgia's non-conference games with such juggernauts as Troy State, Whittier, Eckerd, Erskine, Belmont and Lenoir Rhyne. Durham has defended the schedule on grounds that he will start three freshmen this season. One of them, Forward Dominique Wilkins, scored 51 points in the Bulldogs' first public scrimmage. Off its past performances alone, Alabama figures to be tough again: the Tide has won 22 games in six of the last seven years.
Iowa might be right up there with Indiana, Ohio State and Purdue in the Big Ten, and that's no corn. Coach Lute Olson thinks he has the best point guard in the country in Ronnie Lester, a senior who needs only 100 points to break the Hawkeye career scoring record of 1,522 set by Don Nelson. Olson can also count on Kevin Boyle, the conference's best freshman last season, and a pair of 6'10" junior centers named Steve: Waite and Krafcisin.
Illinois started out last season by going 15-0 and then went into a tailspin that the FAA couldn't have explained. The Illini finished at 19-11. Five starters are back, but no one except 6'11" Center Derek Holcomb will play the same position he did in 1978-79. Minnesota could have the biggest front line in the country if 7'2" freshman Randy Breuer comes along fast enough to join 6'11" Kevin McHale, already one of the best big men around, and 6'10" Gary Holmes. As for defending national champion Michigan State, well, the magic is gone.
The teams chasing Toledo in the Mid-American Conference can be consoled by a new postseason tournament designed to keep almost everybody happy: seven of the 10 teams will qualify.
Should Jacksonville falter, UNC at Charlotte is ready to pounce on the Sun Belt championship. The 49ers have an excellent guard in Chad Kinch, a 20.6-point scorer. The battle for the Ohio Valley Conference should be as close as it was last year when Eastern Kentucky beat Western Kentucky 78-77 in the tournament final. Eastern again has the edge with James Tillman, who has the highest scoring average (26.9) of any returning major-college player.
As for the independents, Detroit will have its third coach in four years, former NBA player Willie McCarter. He inherits three starters from last season's team that finished 22-6 and once again showed a penchant for failure in postseason tournaments. Marquette Coach Hank Raymonds must be feeling a bit like Job. After all but being shut out in the recruiting game, he lost his center, Dean Marquardt, until at least mid-January because of injuries suffered in an auto accident. Then, one of the Warrior's best forwards, Oliver Lee, broke his left foot in practice. He should miss at least a month. Raymonds ended up asking two walk-ons to come out for the team. "I really don't know what we're going to do," says Raymonds. "Probably take the air out of the ball."
Except for newcomer Georgia Tech, the ACC teams lining up behind North Carolina, Duke and Virginia are nothing to sneeze at. That's good news for the conference faithful who were chagrined after five of their representatives caught bad colds in the NCAA and NIT tournaments last March. But it's bad news for Georgia Tech (a-choo!) which picked a poor time to enter the conference. The Engineers could become the first team since 1955 to go winless in league competition.
Up north, the new Big East Conference may rival the ACC, seeing as six of its seven members were in postseason tournaments last year. Connecticut has to play the three front-runners, St. John's, Syracuse and Georgetown, on the road, but the Huskies should still have a good record. They feature two of the best sophomores anywhere in Corny Thompson and Mike McKay. Providence's chances can be expressed this way: the Friar center's name is Rich Hunger, as in strictly from.