Long before the U.S. military had its Operation Desert Shield, the NCAA was designing Operation Shark Shield. Designed to nab Coach Jerry Tarkanian of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the plan was in place for years.
Now, with Tarkanian building a dynasty, the NCAA has put an embargo on UNLV's postseason play. It couldn't come at a worse time for UNLV.
Regardless, the Rebels qualify as the best team in the country. Going on the assumption that the Rebels won't be able to prove that in the NCAA tournament, in my Top 25 preview, I select Arizona as the choice to enter the winner's circle at the Final Four in Indianapolis.
UNLV: Unless UNLV wins its appeal, probation will prevent Jerry Tarkanian and the Runnin' Rebels from pursuing a second consecutive championship. Otherwise, this UNLV team is fully capable of that rare accomplishment. It hardly seems fair to punish this group for violations that occurred years ago, but that is the asterisk that has been placed on this season. Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon, Anderson Hunt and Larry Johnson are the nucleus of a squad that could go undefeated--and might just do so to prove they are the absentee champions.
ARIZONA: Turn to Page 4 of the 1990-91 Arizona media guide and you'll find a season outlook under the headline: Wildcats have quickness, size, experience and depth -- and lofty expectations. That says it all. Kentucky transfer Chris Mills is added to an all-star roster that includes Brian Williams, Sean Rooks, Matt Othick and Matt Muehlebach. Coach Lute Olson could take the Wildcats to the Final Four for the second time in four years. A matchup with UNLV would have made for a great championship game.
MICHIGAN STATE: The Great Alaska Shootout was criticized for a weak field last year. All it did was produce the Big East co-champion, Connecticut, and the Big Ten champion, Michigan State. Coach Jud Heathcote's team should successfully defend its Big Ten title and much more. Steve Smith is one of the most versatile players in the game and Heathcote's best player since Magic. Matt Steigenga and Mike Peplowski are keys up front.
ARKANSAS: The Razorbacks were probably too young to make it to the Final Four last season, but they did it anyway. With that experience under their belts, they should be even better this season. Start with the sensational backcourt combination of Todd Day and Lee Mayberry and there is good reason for optimism among Hog fans. Coach Nolan Richardson's team will be an easy target in the Southwest Conference. Everyone will want to take one last shot at Arkansas before it moves to the Southeastern Conference. Based on the SWC talent base, the Hogs really are in a league of their own.
NORTH CAROLINA: Coach Dean Smith has the dangerous combination of youth, experience and talent. It could lead the Tar Heels to the Final Four or a rollercoaster season. Smith has brought together a recruiting class that is considered the best in a decade. Seven-footer Eric Montross leads the way. With veterans like Pete Chilcutt, Rick Fox, George Lynch and King Rice back, it's no wonder the Heels have been tabbed Atlantic Coast Conference favorites.
ALABAMA: Color the SEC plaid. Coach Wimp Sanderson will wear his sportcoats of many colors all the way to the SEC title this season. The Crimson Tide will build around veterans Robert Horry and Melvin Cheatum. Newcomer James "Hollywood" Robinson completes the championship script and could make Alabama a box-office smash.
OHIO STATE: Perry Carter is a senior and the anchor of Coach Randy Ayers' talented group of Buckeyes. Ohio State was an improved team last season and gave UNLV a decent fight in the NCAA Tournament. Jimmy Jackson, Mark Brown, Chris Jent and Jamaal Brown are also back. If Michigan State falters, the Buckeyes could be there to scoop up the Big Ten title.
SYRACUSE: The Orangemen have the Big East's preseason player of the year in Billy Owens and the league's preseason rookie of the year in Adrian Autry. Yet, many people look at Syracuse's short bench and tab the Orangemen for fourth place in the Big East. Doesn't make much sense. Coach Jim Boeheim has never endorsed the 10-player rotation anyway. A spot in the Elite Eight might be asking too much but if LeRon Ellis rebounds and Conrad McRae continues to improve, the Orangemen have a shot.
DUKE: One of these seasons Mike Krzyzewski is going to win it all. It probably won't be this season, but who's to say the Blue Devils can't make it back to the Final Four? Phil Henderson, Robert Brickey and Alaa Abdelnaby are gone but Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley are joined by another strong recruiting class led by swingman Grant Hill. It's hard to imagine Duke slipping too far under Coach K.
PITTSBURGH: The Panthers have a lineup that can do serious damage in the Big East. And for once coach Paul Evans has some depth to work with. If Sean Miller's foot holds up, if Brian Shorter's early season illness doesn't mess up the evolution of the team, and if Evans can keep everybody happy, Pitt might be going places this season. One thing to keep in mind: Evans' victory total has declined each year since he took over at Pitt.
INDIANA: Coach Bobby Knight did a masterful juggling job last season and led the youthful Hoosiers to a surprising 18-11 record. The Hoosiers are still young. Lyndon Jones is the only senior. But Eric Anderson, Calbert Cheaney and Greg Graham are ready to make an impact in the Big Ten. The long-awaited arrival of guard Damon Bailey guarantees it will be an eventful season in Bloomington.
UCLA: The Bruins will have to push aside the emotional setback of losing prize freshman Ed O'Bannon, who is out for the season after injuring his knee in an October pickup game. But coach Jim Harrick has the Bruins on the rise. Don MacLean, Darrick Martin and Tracy Murray figure to be improved players after an impressive NCAA Tournament showing that included an upset of Kansas.
GEORGIA TECH: The Yellow Jackets will be two-thirds less lethal without Dennis Scott and Brian Oliver. But any team that includes point guard Kenny Anderson will be fun to watch and tough to beat. Anderson reportedly wants to impress the NBA scouts and turn pro after his sophomore season. When he's dishing off inside, he'll have a big target to hit in Matt Geiger, a 7-foot transfer from Auburn. Geiger will give Coach Bobby Cremins the inside scoring he has missed in the past.
LSU: Shaquille O'Neal. Enough said? O'Neal is college basketball's big man of the 1990s. He will be in a class with Patrick Ewing and Akeem Olajuwon when he is finished. Unfortunately for coach Dale Brown, guard Chris Jackson and big man Stanley Roberts decided they were finished before their eligibility ran out. If the Tigers had their complete cast, they would be Final Four material. With O'Neal, they are simply dangerous and good.
GEORGIA: Hugh Durham's team surprised everyone by winning 20 games and the SEC title before bowing to Texas in the NCAA Tournament last season. Alec Kessler's power will be missed but there is excellent depth in the backcourt and some new blood, including 7-1 freshman Charles Claxton, to keep the Bulldogs growling. Guard Litterial Green is a budding superstar.
VIRGINIA: Coach Terry Holland always gave the impression of being a gentleman when he coached the Cavaliers. When he left Virginia to become athletic director at Davidson, he did the gentlemanly thing and left his successor, Jeff Jones, a well-stocked roster. Bryant Stith and John Crotty return in the backcourt and Kenny Turner will have a chance to sparkle on the front line. Jones should make a successful debut.
CONNECTICUT: If Nadav Henefeld had stayed around for his second season, the Huskies undoubtedly would be ranked in the top five of every preseason poll. Instead, the expectations have dropped. Some think the Huskies aren't Top 25 material at all. But UConn may end up missing Tate George more than Henefeld. If the point guard situation straightens itself out and Toraino Walker is eligible to compete, the Huskie s should enjoy a successful season.
SOUTHERN MISS: The Golden Eagles are the new power in the Metro Conference. Louisville, Memphis State and Florida State are all down and Southern Miss has Clarence Weatherspoon. Despite a quick exit from the NCAA Tournament last season, Weatherspoon and the Eagles are ready for more prime time exposure.
GEORGETOWN: Logic says the Hoyas should blow away the competition because of the Twin Towers, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. Playing the Hoyas certainly won't be a stroll through the park. But inexperience in the backcourt is an enormous problem for John Thompson's team and backcourt play is the key in the college game. This is as close as it gets to a down year.
MISSOURI: The Tigers aren't going to postseason play, thanks to NCAA sanctions stemming from one of the longest investigations in history. But look for Norm Stewart's team to use that as a rallying point. They were already the favorites in the weak Big Eight. Lee Coward and Travis Ford are gone. Doug Smith probably should have left and turned pro, but his presence will be enough to carry the Tigers to a respectable season.
DEPAUL: The Blue Demons have all five starters and 92 percent of their scoring back from last season. Coach Joey Meyer has plenty of depth and a positive feeling heading into this season. Forward David Booth and center Stephen Howard lead the way. The Demons must shoot better if they are going to survive a tough schedule that includes Georgetown, St. John's, UCLA and Notre Dame.
TEMPLE: Temple has had a hard time following up its 32-2 record of three seasons ago. This is Mark Macon's final chance at a return to glory and, if he is on top of his game, he could carry the Owls a long way. Donald Hodge is a power inside. Point guard Victor Carstarphen, a transfer from Cincinnati, could be a big help.
KANSAS: Everyone overlooked the Jayhawks in the preseason polls last season and they responded by jumping to the top after winning the preseason NIT. The way coach Roy Williams approaches the game, it masy be a mistake to overlook the Jayhawks again, even if they have lost four starters. Mark Randall is capable of carrying the Jayhawks at times but teamwork will again be Kansas' strength.
NEW MEXICO STATE: If any team will benefit from UNLV's probation, it will be the Aggies. They tied UNLV for the Big West championship last season and will likely get the league's bid to the NCAA Tournament in place of the Rebels this season. Guard Randy Brown is an offensive machine. Coach Neil McCarthy has built his depth with junior college transfers.
RUTGERS: The Scarlet Knights are just one or two transfers from certification that will rename the school Syracuse University, New Jersey campus. If nothing else, they should change the nickname to the Orange Knights. Coach Bob Wenzel already has Syracuse transfers Earl Duncan and Keith Hughes. This year he adds Brent Dabbs, the former Mattatuck Community College star who began his career at Virginia.