Don't wish upon stars dream won't come true

Top players turn pro and title hopes vanish

College basketball preview

November 15, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

College basketball used to be about launching legends and building dynasties, about watching freshmen grow up and teams grow together. It used to be an evolving, four-year story, not a one- or two-year whirlwind, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Now, it's a revolving-door blur.

If it was three seasons ago, we would be talking about the legend of Antoine Walker and a dynasty at the University of Kentucky. Instead, Walker will be trying to lead the Boston Celtics back from mediocrity and the Wildcats will be trying to recoup the losses from one of the most dominant college teams in memory.

When the 1996-97 season opens with tonight's Black Coaches Association Classic doubleheader in the same place where it will end with the NCAA final March 31 -- the RCA Dome in Indianapolis -- the style and substance of the game will have been noticeably changed by forces beyond the control of those coaching it and, to some extent, playing it.

"I think it's drastically changed," said Billy Packer, the television analyst who has been part of the college game since playing at Wake Forest in the early 1960s. "We will have to create a new level of appreciation, because the level of competition will never again be as high as it's been."

The impact of the NBA can be felt dramatically, most significantly in the dearth of senior and junior stars across the country. In this case, the new kid on the block doesn't stay in the neighborhood very long. That's if he gets to the neighborhood -- in this case, the college campus -- in the first place.

For that reason, the skeptics view college basketball as a watered-down version of its former self, a game in which the best teams are usually not as good as they used to be simply because they don't have a chance to grow older together. But there are those, specifically the coaches, who see something fresh and positive in all the change.

Wake Forest coach Dave Odom is smart enough to understand that his Demon Deacons are favored to win the Atlantic Coast Conference mostly on the strength of their All-America center, Tim Duncan, who, in staying four seasons, has bucked the odds and turned his back on the megabucks awaiting him in the NBA.

And he is realistic to say that Wake Forest's back-to-back ACC tournament championships came when "the league was not at its pinnacle." But that shouldn't detract from what the Demon Deacons have accomplished in becoming one of the sport's upper-crust programs.

"My mother, may she rest in peace, told me that when one door closes, another opens," said Odom. "When people leave early for the NBA for very good reasons, it opens the door for other great players to come in. We focus too much on the great players who go early, and we don't focus on other players who might be ready to step into the spotlight."

Just as much of the attention at Kentucky last spring surrounded the departure of Walker, then a sophomore, and senior shooting guard Tony Delk, the MVP of the Final Four, as well as the near-departure of coach Rick Pitino to the New Jersey Nets, the attention in Lexington has reverted to sophomore Ron Mercer, the team's star-in-waiting.

Just as the door closed on any discussion of a repeat by Kentucky, which ran through the potent Southeastern Conference as if it were the old basketball-poor Southwest Conference, the talk of the game's next champion has heated up across state lines at Cincinnati.

"I'd rather be picked to win the national championship than be picked to win nothing," Bearcats coach Bob Huggins said.

The addition of three junior college players, including Player of the Year Ruben Patterson, to a team that already featured first-team All-American Danny Fortson, has made the brawny, brawling Bearcats a favorite. The only question seems to be whether they will beat up on the opposition or beat up each other.

It seems that after Cincinnati appeared on ESPN for an intrasquad scrimmage during "Midnight Madness" last month, the Bearcats went behind the closed doors of their dressing room for an intrasquad skirmish. "A little turf war between the JC's and the veterans," is the way ESPN analyst Digger Phelps put it.

If Huggins can get his players on the same page -- OK, maybe even the same chapter will work with this team -- Cincinnati's strength could be in its strength. Just as Syracuse showed last season that blue-collar attitudes can work just as well as blue-chip talent, the Bearcats might prove that lifting weights is just as effective a training regimen as shooting free throws.

But Cincinnati will not be considered in the same vein as Kentucky was last season, as Arkansas was the season before and as Duke was in the early 1990s. A dynasty waiting to happen. A prohibitive favorite to win it all. "The competitive balance might be better around the country," said Packer.

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