COLLEGE BASKETBALL NATIONAL PREVIEW : A 64-Team Question: Who Will Make Tournament?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What goes around, comes around . . .

True story: Last March, Steve Kirschner, North Carolina's assistant sports information director, called his Duke counterparts for exact directions to a building on the Durham campus. As usual, good-natured insults were exchanged.

Near the end of the conversation, one of the Dookies reminded Kirschner about the Blue Devils' recent national championship run. The same Dookie also made sure to mention North Carolina's status as title banner has-beens.

Kirschner had heard enough.

"Aw, why don't you go shine your rings," he said, smiling.

Now look who's pulling out their NCAA jewelry for a quick wax and buff: none other than the Tar Heels, who left Duke in the tournament dust last season. Now then, will they do it again?

A season's worth of predictions awaits.

THE WEST

Ten teams you'll see in the NCAA tournament: UCLA, California, Arizona, Arizona State, Washington State, New Mexico State, Brigham Young, Pepperdine, Nevada Las Vegas, Idaho.

At last, the West will rise again.

Bubble teams: USC, Santa Clara, Pacific, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado State.

No smirking allowed: The Pacific 10 Conference could have as many as six invitations if the Trojans are half as good as Coach George Raveling says they are.

Final Four candidates: UCLA, California.

The Bruins still don't have much of an inside game, but they have everything else to start asking for preliminary directions to Charlotte, N.C., site of this year's Final Four. Cal has two great players--Jason Kidd and Lamond Murray--and sometimes two are enough.

Final Four longshot: Arizona State.

Disregard this prediction if Sun Devil forward Mario Bennett and his surgically repaired knee aren't 100% by February.

Team most likely to fade: Cal.

The Golden Bears have enough talent to go long and far . . . and enough egos to crash and burn. If Kidd and Murray are thinking more about the NBA than the Pac-10, Cal's potential might never be realized. Then there's the Lou Campanelli factor. The deposed coach was a convenient source of motivation during Cal's 11-2 post-Campanelli run. Now that's gone, as is All-Pac-10 center Brian Hendrick.

The five best players: guard Jason Kidd, California; guard Stevin Smith, Arizona State; forward Lamond Murray, California; forward Lorenzo Orr, USC; forward Ed O'Bannon, UCLA.

Coach of the year: Tom Asbury, Pepperdine.

Asbury, who has endured personal tragedy in recent months--the deaths of a daughter and his father--will lead the Waves past Santa Clara for the West Coast Conference championship and an NCAA bid.

Coach for a year: Jim Anderson, Oregon State.

Impatient Oregon State fans will be thrilled when the Beavers, who finished 13-14 last season, struggle to win 10 games this time around. Guard Brent Barry is a Pac-10 star, but unless he learns to shoot and play center, Oregon State and Anderson are doomed.

Best rumor: Kidd and Murray are counting the minutes until the NBA draft.

Two seasons from now you'll be talking about this team: UNLV.

Rollie Massimino didn't leave Villanova for Vegas just so he could get a deal on show tickets. Little by little, Massimino has distanced his program from the Jerry Tarkanian era and the NCAA probation that went with it. His recruiting classes have been solid and his work ethic impressive. Two years sounds about right until people are asking, "Jerry, who?"

THE SOUTHWEST

Three teams you'll see in the NCAA tournament: Texas, Texas A&M;, Baylor.

Bubble team: Houston.

New Cougar Coach Alvin Brooks has point guard Anthony Goldwire and, according to the early reports, his share of junior college ringers. A team to watch.

Final Four candidate: Texas.

Last season's 11-17 record was about as ugly as Bevo the longhorn. At one point last year, Coach Tom Penders was down to eight scholarship players and three walk-ons. This season he can go 12 deep and choose from a roster that includes the conference's three best players. The Longhorns will have to do without star guard B.J. Tyler for their first four games, but it won't matter. This is Penders' best team since he arrived in Austin six years ago.

Final Four longshot: Baylor.

The Bears have four starters back from a 16-11 team and have added a handful of star junior college players. Second-year coach Darrel Johnson actually has people in Waco talking about Baylor basketball. Don't be surprised if the Bears are still playing in late March. Southwest Conference coaches swear that Baylor is loaded with talent.

Team most likely to fade: Texas Tech.

The Red Raiders had a chance until point guard Lenny Holly transferred to a junior college.

The five best players: guard Terrence Rencher, Texas; guard B.J. Tyler, Texas; guard Anthony Goldwire, Houston; forward Damon Johnson, Texas A&M; center Albert Burditt, Texas.

Coach of the year: Tony Barone, Texas A&M.;

In each of his two seasons at A&M;, Barone has recruited two or three gifted players and slowly rebuilt a sagging Aggie program. Now he has five returning starters, some depth on the bench and opportunity to lead A&M; to a rare NCAA tournament appearance.

"Barone is a hell of a coach," said Texas' Penders.

Coach for a year: For now, everyone is as safe as a kitten.

Best rumor: Memphis State, Louisville, Cincinnati and Tulane have expressed interest in joining the SWC if the beleaguered league chooses to expand.

Two seasons from now you'll be talking about this team: Texas A&M.;

Barone's recruiting classes get better every year.

THE SOUTH

Twenty-two teams you'll see in the NCAA tournament: North Carolina, Duke, Virginia, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Clemson, Tulane, Old Dominion, Tennessee Chattanooga, Tennessee State, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Louisiana State, Georgia, Northeast Louisiana, Alabama State, New Orleans, Western Kentucky, Coastal Carolina, Florida International.

Bubble teams: Auburn, South Alabama, Florida, Maryland, Virginia Commonwealth, Mississippi State.

If Georgia falters, Florida, Auburn or Mississippi State will happily take its place.

Final Four candidates: North Carolina, Duke, Louisville, Arkansas, Kentucky.

Barring the improbable, reserve a place for the Tar Heels right now. How good is North Carolina? Good enough that Coach Dean Smith hardly can think of a single criticism. Other than center Eric Montross' unsightly Sgt. Carter hairdo, the Tar Heels are a sight to behold. So deep is North Carolina that senior forward Pat Sullivan, who got quality playing time during last season's NCAA championship run, volunteered to red-shirt this year. Sullivan saw the writing on the wall. It said: Jerry Stackhouse.

Final Four longshot: Georgia Tech.

Is this the year that point guard Travis Best plays up to his last name?

Team most likely to fade: Florida State.

The Seminoles are eagerly awaiting the return of point guard-quarterback Charlie Ward. But unlike previous seasons, Ward says he won't hurry back to the lineup. That isn't good news for Coach Pat Kennedy, whose team is without backup guard Scott Shepherd until Jan. 1.

The five best players: center Eric Montross, North Carolina; forward Grant Hill, Duke; forward James Forrest, Georgia Tech; guard Billy McCaffrey, Vanderbilt; guard Derrick Phelps, North Carolina.

Each of them is a first-round pick waiting to happen.

Coach of the year: Cliff Ellis, Clemson.

Ellis had to campaign to keep his job last year. This season he will show Clemson athletic department officials why he wanted to stay. The Tigers have four starters back, including center Sharone Wright, and are a cinch to do well in the tournament.

Coach for a year: Wade Houston, Tennessee.

Houston is a nice guy who doesn't compromise his standards and integrity for victories. But unless the Volunteers start challenging for a Southeastern Conference title soon, it will be only a matter of time before he receives a pink slip.

Best rumor: Freshman guard Jeff McInnis is worried about his playing time and might transfer from North Carolina. Tennessee's Houston has a suggestion.

Two seasons from now you'll be talking about this team: Maryland.

The Terrapins are starting three sophomores and two freshmen. You figure it out. Gary Williams is too talented a coach not to turn this program around.

THE MIDWEST

Seventeen teams you'll see in the NCAA tournament: Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Missouri, Kansas State, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Purdue, Cincinnati, Marquette, Memphis State, Xavier, Western Michigan, Illinois Chicago, Bradley.

Bubble teams: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Nebraska, DePaul, Alabama Birmingham, Notre Dame, Southern Illinois, Northwestern.

Now that Notre Dame has softened its schedule slightly, the Irish actually have a chance to earn an NCAA invitation. If it happens, Coach John MacLeod deserves a raise.

Final Four candidates: Michigan, Minnesota, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Indiana.

Thanks to Chris Webber's early defection to the NBA, the Wolverines have been reduced to the Fab Four. There are worse fates. Minnesota's Clem Haskins spends at least half his seasons pleading for respect. This year he will get it. Kansas Coach Roy Williams canceled most of his off-season gigs and concentrated on family and team. You'll see why in late March. Oklahoma State has the ideal Final Four combination, a star center and two experienced guards. Indiana has Bob Knight, but will it have center Alan Henderson?

Team most likely to fade: Purdue.

If star forward Glenn Robinson has to carry this team for another season he'll need a truss.

The five best players: forward Glenn Robinson, Purdue, forward Michael Finley, Wisconsin; guard Steve Woodberry, Kansas; guard Voshon Lenard, Minnesota; center Juwan Howard, Michigan.

Coach of the year: John MacLeod, Notre Dame.

Every season deserves the unexpected. This time it's MacLeod's turn.

Coach for a year: Joe Harrington, Colorado.

Is this a recipe for job security: seven freshmen on the roster and only one senior? Harrington, who left Long Beach State for Boulder, has two years remaining on his contract, but it's questionable whether he will see the end of it. Harrington is worth the wait, though. Junior guard Donnie Boyce is one of the five best players in the Big Eight Conference and center Ted Allen has shown marked improvement. But none of this might mean a thing if the Buffaloes finish last in the league again.

Best rumor: Boyce came a lot closer to transferring to Michigan and joining Chicago buddy Juwan Howard than Harrington or Wolverine Coach Steve Fisher will admit.

Two seasons from now you'll be talking about this team: Wisconsin.

If Barry Alvarez can lead the Badgers to the brink of a Rose Bowl bid, Stu Jackson can take Wisconsin to a Final Four. By then, center Rashard Griffith will be a junior, to say nothing of being the best big man in the Big Ten.

THE EAST

Twelve teams you'll see in the NCAA tournament: Georgetown, Syracuse, Boston College, Connecticut, Temple, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Manhattan, Drexel, Coppin State, Wagner, Fordham.

Syracuse is back from NCAA probation and Georgetown is back from the black hole known as rebuilding. Neither team played in the tournament last year, but lessons have been learned. Penn will do what no Ivy League team has done since 1984: win an NCAA tournament game. Manhattan's Fran Fraschilla will put together another boffo year and be wooed away at season's end.

Bubble teams: Miami, Providence, St. John's, George Washington.

If any team is poised to have a breakthrough season, it's Miami. The Hurricanes have three players to remember: 7-3 center Constantin Popa, guard Steve Edwards and guard Steve Frazier. As for the Colonials of George Washington, we're probably being too tough on them. But the loss of three senior starters--and the 36.0 points and 13.5 rebounds a game that came with them--puts a lot of pressure on sophomore center Yinka Dare, who has played the sport for a grand total of four years. George Washington Coach Mike Jarvis may prove us wrong.

Final Four candidate: Temple.

Oh, great, another March we have to spend watching Owl alum Bill Cosby mug for the camera. Consider it one of life's little trade-offs.

Final Four longshots: Georgetown, Massachusetts.

As usual, the Hoyas' front-court lineup is worth framing, but the backcourt starters can't hit the side of the National Cathedral. In point guard Joey Brown, the Hoyas trust. Massachusetts has more potential than any team in the East.

Team most likely to fade: Providence.

The Friars supposedly were the last team to be bumped from the NCAA tournament wish list last year. This season it might not be so close. Providence lost only one starter--forward Tony Turner--but his 10.8 scoring average will be hard to replace. The Friars need freshman guard Jason Murdock to play more like former Providence star Eric Murdock. By the way, they're cousins.

The five best players: Forward Donyell Marshall, Connecticut; forward Bill Curley, Boston College; guard Aaron McKie, Temple; guard Lawrence Moten, Syracuse; center Othella Harrington, Georgetown.

Marshall was an absolute star during the off-season all-star tours. Curley is like a construction foreman's lunch box--sturdy, dependable and able to carry several lemons at a time. McKie is good enough to keep Coach John Chaney's raving quotient to a mininum. Moten is smoother than freshly cleaned backboard glass. Harrington can do everything but teach his teammates the secrets of perimeter shooting.

Coach of the year: Leonard Hamilton, Miami.

Surprise team of the year will mean a surprised coach of the year.

Coach for a year: Paul Evans, Pittsburgh.

Word is that Pitt Athletic Director Oval Jaynes isn't a huge fan of Evans. If so, Evans' future at the school wasn't enhanced by the NCAA's recent decision to put the Panther program on probation for two years. Pitt still is eligible for television and postseason play, but will anyone notice? Evans wins games, but he also wars with his players (a no-no in the post-Lou Campanelli era). You wonder what will happen if Pitt doesn't qualify for the NCAA tournament. Bye bye, Paul?

Best rumor: Felipe Lopez, considered the best prospect in the country, will end the Big East's recruiting drought and sign with Syracuse. Of course, Lopez could cross up the big-name schools and sign with, ta-da, Patriot League member Colgate, where his legal guardian teaches.

Two seasons from now you'll be talking about this team: Georgetown.

Harrington and Duane Spencer will be seniors, recently signed big man Jahidi White will be a sophomore and Coach John Thompson will be picking out a finger for a national-championship ring.

Top 10: 1) North Carolina, 2) Duke, 3) Arkansas, 4) Minnesota, 5) Temple, 6) Kentucky, 7) Michigan, 8) Georgetown, 9) Georgia Tech, 10) California.

Waiting list: UCLA, Louisville, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Texas.

Predicted Final Four: North Carolina, Duke, Arkansas, Minnesota.

Predicted NCAA champion: Duke.

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