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Since the glorious reign of Phi Slamma Jamma, the SOUTHWEST has been getting smaller and faster. Houston coach Pat Foster is recruiting players who can run now that some of the bruisers he inherited have left. Forwards Craig Upchurch and Richard Hollis typify the Cougs' new uptempo approach. Nowhere is the urge to run more evident than at Texas, where the Longhorns bucked under the tight rein and laconic manner of ousted coach Bob Weltlich. His successor, Penders, vows to turn loose essentially the same personnel. Success would be drawing as many fans as the Texas women.
History tells us that the host school often wins the SUN BELT tournament and hence the conference's automatic NCAA bid. That's good news for North Carolina-Charlotte, which is the conference favorite. The question is, can a second school slip into the NCAAs via the at-large route? Candidates include Western Kentucky, whose soul is guard Brett McNeal; Old Dominion, which went from 6-22 in 1986-87 to 18-12 last season and has four double-figure scorers back; and Alabama-Birmingham, which is counting on two transfers, one Jack (Kramer, from Michigan) and one Kennedy (Andy, from N.C. State).
What drove the former Pacific Coast Athletic Association even to consider calling itself the Wild West as it did last summer before settling on the BIG WEST? Frustration, no doubt, at how few people realize that three conference teams, not just Nevada-Las Vegas, went to the NCAAs last season. The other two were UC-Santa Barbara and Utah State, which has four returning starters and should make the NCAAs again.
The NBA did not draft the MID-WESTERN COLLEGIATE's dominant player of late, Xavier guard Byron Larkin, but that's no reflection of his impact on the conference. "It's like losing a main artery," says Pete Gillen, the Musketeers' coach. Questions plague Loyola of Chicago: Will Kenny Miller (box, page 84) stay in school until January, when he becomes academically eligible, or will he transfer as he has threatened to do? And will Spyros Sakellariou and Omer Buyukaycan, from Greece and Turkey, respectively, get along?
Independents Notre Dame and DePaul will undergo a changing of the guards. The Irish have lost David Rivers, and the Blue Demons must do without Rod Strickland and Kevin Edwards. Both schools now have a frontcourt focus, Notre Dame's on freshman LaPhonso Ellis, DePaul's on senior Stanley Brundy.
The two-year-old AMERICAN SOUTH, still without an automatic bid, hopes one of its six members can catch the eye of the NCAA tournament committee. The conference has few rinkydinks, so its power ratings stay high. Jeff Sagarin's USA Today computer placed the American South 13th among 32 conferences in Division I last season. Most likely to break through is Arkansas State, which has five starters back, including bullish forward John Tate.
St. Mary's coach Lynn Nance refused to shake the hand of Loyola Marymount's Paul Westhead after suffering a 17-point loss in WEST COAST ATHLETIC play last season. Nance thought the Lions had fouled gratuitously in an effort to break 100. The Gaels, led by the same starters, style themselves as an immovable object to the Lions' irresistible force: St. Mary's allowed only 58 points a game in '87-88. Against Marymount, however, the Gaels gave up 98 and 96. They will have to do better this season.
The OHIO VALLEY's five late-night telecasts on ESPN drew sluggish ratings, but the aura of national TV coverage helped make three of the games sellouts. If defending champ Murray State is the conference's Carson, Middle Tennessee is its Letterman, young and brash and encouraged by the fact that OVC teams rarely win back-to-back titles.
In the SOUTHERN, East Tennessee State should leapfrog past last season's powers, Marshall and Tennessee-Chattanooga. The Buccaneers will be led by 6'11" Greg Dennis, the conference's Freshman of the Year in 1987-88.
Dan Majerle of Central Michigan and Grant Long of Eastern Michigan, the two players who finished ahead of Ohio's Paul (Snoopy) Graham in last season's MID-AMERICAN Player of the Year balloting, were among the NBA's first 33 picks. Will Graham, a once undisciplined guard who has reined in his talents, be the next MAC draftee?