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Youngsters begin playing the game these days at an earlier age and at a higher level (there's that word again), have a greater selection of clinics and camps to attend, then play for better coaches, who have spread out to previously barren basketball territory. There were 67 coaching changes in Division I last off-season.
Also, the rules have changed. Since freshmen found out they could play and get early notice from pro scouts, many have chosen to stay near home where the openings are and have created new hotbeds (the Big East, Alabama-Birmingham, St. Louis). This is the first season that Bylaw 5-1-(j) has sidelined the lesser students; some teams are just beginning to dip into the junior colleges for replacements (Kansas State. New Orleans, Indiana).
Meanwhile, the three-pointer has thrown coaches for a loop. Kentucky and Providence will make the NCAA tournament because they can shoot it; Louisville and Notre Dame won't make it past the first weekend because they can't. Eastern Kentucky (third in the nation with 7.3 threes per game) has lived by the grace of its range gunners. Auburn (NCAA final eight last year, NIT this?) has died because it has none. Then there's the preeminent team of the trey, Nevada-Las Vegas, which, with its no-other-visible-means-of-support phenomenon, Gerald Paddio, could win the whole shebang, laughing. Without the three, however, the Rebs might be better suited to playing pinball.
Television. What a surprise. The networks look the game national a decade ago; cable seems to have made it into a 24-hour-a-day, four-month-long telethon. John Thompson now shows up on the tube as often as John Carson. And JT's cheery monologues are just as good. The U.S. has become a recruiter's wonderland (how do you keep 'em in L.A. after they've seen the Carrier Dome?) and the talent has spread out some more.
Just as significant, everyone gets to know everyone else through the magic of televison. Player tendencies, coaching strategies, styles of play are no longer secret. There can never be another unknown champion like Texas Western '66. Coaches now stay up all night screening tapes or tinkering with satellite dishes to hone that winning edge. "It drives me crazy," says Indiana's Bob Knight. "But I've got to do it or I feel I'm unprepared." Somewhere there is a coach who can say, a la comedian Robert Klein, "I've got every tape of every game ever played!"
Tournament expansion. TV money keeps pouring in (CBS will pay $159 million to televise the next three NCAA tournaments), arenas are going up, and high-powered "programs" are taking root in the most obscure of precincts. "When the field was 24 or 32 teams, we weren't going to get in no matter what," says Northeast Louisiana coach Mike Vining. "Now 64 gives everybody a darn good chance." And who could possibly want to go back to those elitist days of old? Last year's first round gave us the foreign legion from Marist and the foreign-looking outfits worn by coach Lafayette Stribling of Mississippi Valley State.
"You can dream in this sport," says Valvano. "You can build a gym, find a team, get in the tournament, beat another team, be somebody. It's like the old romantic musicals. 'Hey, there's a barn! Let's put on a show!' Like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland."
Or like Winston Garland, the terrific senior guard at Southwest Missouri State who scored 25 points when the Bears beat Brigham Young. Talk about parity, you should see this guy.