"There is no No. 1," says North Carolina's Dean Smith, whose team looked unbeatable, even without Kenny Smith, before the Irish put that hurt on the Heels—even with J.R. Reid—at Notre Dame. "That's what makes college basketball so much fun. You don't know who's going to win, and you have to play your best every time out. It's always been true that in one game even a great team can lose to a good team. People called it an upset when Villanova beat Georgetown [for the 1985 NCAA championship]. They had already played two close games. So why is that an upset?"
The man has a point. Or maybe three. But, come on, Dean, how could ESPN's SportsCenter continue to exist without a No. 1? Never mind that No. 1 Nevada-Las Vegas lost to Oklahoma, which lost to TCU, which lost to Cal State-Fuller-ton, which lost to Pacific, which lost to Wichita State, which lost to Drake, which lost to Creighton, which lost to Oklahoma State, which lost to Missouri Southern State. Missouri Southern State, by the way, is in Joplin but might as well be in Division XVII. People seldom confuse it with Missouri, Southern, Southwest Missouri State, Sul Ross State or Diana Ross State.
The fact is there are no superpowers in college basketball anymore. There are no New York Mets, New York Giants, Boston Celtics, Ivan Lendls, Wayne Gretzkys, Dennis Conners. The sport's degree of unpredictability stands alone on the amateur level. Don't even bring up college football, in which the Penn State-Miami-Oklahoma troika has become a tediously familiar affair.
Louisville coach Denny Crum argues that parity is not exactly a new trend, pointing out that in 1980 his first national championship squad was the only league champion to qualify for the Final Four. But the NCAA tournament field was only 48-strong then. Teams like last year's March hair-raisers, Cleveland State and Arkansas-Little Rock, would not have been invited in 1980.
Moreover, the NCAA has moved more and more to keep the traditional powers from stockpiling recruits. As recently as 1975, a school could have 18 scholarship players on its roster. Cutting the scholarship limit from 15 to 13 this past January guarantees that 40 more prospects, released from the grasps of Top 20 teams, will find their way down to, and strengthen, 20 other teams. "With this rule I would have passed on recruiting Lorenzo Charles," says Valvano. As it was, V was able to watch Charles slam-dunk the NCAA title for the Wolfpack in 1983.
With so many star underclassmen leaving for the NBA (does anybody remember Chris Washington, or was it Pearl Washburn?), Bylaw 5-1-(j) deep-sixing some valuable freshmen and the three-point shot sullying the landscape, the college product couldn't help but be affected. But it hasn't necessarily been hurt. The suspicion is that UNLV, North Carolina, Indiana, Purdue, Iowa and possibly Temple (SI's current Nos. 1, 2,4, 5, 8, and 3) are all more solid than last year's champion, Louisville, which had to rally from a 12-7 record at mid-season. "Vegas is as good a college club as I've ever seen," says Marty Blake, pooh-bah of NBA scouts. "J.R. Reid is the best freshman I've ever seen. Indiana has four potential NBA first-rounders. Clemson is scary. There are probably 10 quasi-great teams."
As for player personnel, Carolina's Reid, Kentucky's Rex Chapman, Derrick Coleman of Syracuse and Lionel Simmons of LaSalle are four of the most exciting rookies to enter the college ranks in years. Junior college transfers Dean Garrett and Ledell Eackles have, in turn, given Indiana its best chance for a national title since 1981 and New Orleans its first chance.
The dearth of centers may be another myth. Isn't Navy's David Robinson really Patrick Ewing without the attitude? Put Robinson on any team in the Top 10 and the nation would have its dominant team. Reid has shown more versatility than either Ewing or Ralph Sampson did in their freshman years. And coming soon is 6'10" Alonzo Mourning, a junior at Indian River High in Chesapeake, Va., who is the nation's best prep player since Moses Malone.
St. Joseph's coach Jim Boyle put parity in another light after losing to Duke, which lost four starters from its '86 NCAA runner-up squad. "The level is the level," Boyle said. "What happens from season to season is irrelevant. Duke is almost as good as it was last year because of its level."
So while teams like Duke stay at that level, dozens of new teams join them there simply because, as Miami assistant Seth Greenberg says, "There are no bad teams, talentwise. There are just teams which, for one reason or another, haven't meshed well together."