The safest bet on the 1988 NCAA basketball championship: Not Indiana. The past 14 national champions are 0-14 in title defenses. After that, it gets difficult.
A look at the country's top basketball teams, arranged alphabetically within groups:
THE FIRST FIVE
Just how good this team proves to be should be one of the most exciting developments of the season. Much to Coach Bill Frieder's dismay, ESPN analyst Dick Vitale has been hawking Michigan as a preseason No. 1 for months, largely in expectation of great things from celebrated Proposition 48 players Terry Mills, a forward, and guard Rumeal Robinson, who were forced to sit out last season, as well as much-publicized freshman forward Sean Higgins, formerly of Fairfax High. If these guys--blue-chips, every one--produce as people expect them to right off, the Wolverines could be truly great. If they struggle, then guard Gary Grant--the Big 10 defensive player of the year and Michigan's all-everything--will have to carry this team, and do it without the help of Antoine Joubert and Gard Thompson. The Wolverines could find themselves, as they did last season, struggling in the middle of the difficult Big Ten. But as Vitale points out, Frieder--if he chose--could start a high school All-American at every position. Even if it doesn't work, Grant, the man they call "the General," will be fun to watch.
MISSOURI The Tigers, who beat out Kansas in the Big Eight last season, have probably the best depth of any team in the country this season, with every starter back. Most important, they have All-American Derrick Chievous, a 6-7 forward who already is the school's all-time leading scorer. This guy wears Band-Aids, even when he doesn't need them, but he also scores 24 points a game. In transfer Byron Irvin, the Tigers add a three-point threat. All they need is progress from 7-0 center Gary Leonard, and to avoid an early exit from the NCAA tournament, for a change. The Tigers haven't won an NCAA tournament game since 1982. Look for the drought to end.
It had looked like Dean Smith might be telling the truth for once when he called the Tar Heels overrated this season. But then North Carolina beat Syracuse in the Tip-Off game without J.R. Reid. With J.R., the outstanding sophomore whom Smith suspended for one game after Reid and another player were charged with simple assault after an altercation in a Raleigh, N.C., bar, the Tar Heels are immensely better. Even though there is only one senior on the team--Ranzino Smith, who has been a reserve--and only two returning starters--Reid and guard Jeff Lebo--the Tar Heel prospects look good. Yawn. Dean Smith will depend mightily on the inside performance of center Scott Williams, a sophomore out of Hacienda Heights Wilson, who must help replace Joe Wolf and Dave Popson. From among Pete Chilcutt, the hero of the Syracuse game, Steve Bucknall, Kevin Madden and impressive freshman Pete Fox, the Tar Heels need two good forwards. That shouldn't be a problem. North Carolina should have little difficulty replacing Kenny Smith at point guard. That will fall either to Ranzino Smith or to a marvelously named freshman, King Rice. He may sound like the son of a Southerner, but he's from upstate New York--and was perhaps the best prep point guard in the nation last season.
Syracuse may be the odds-on favorite to win the NCAA championship, but when Big East coaches picked their favorite for the conference championship, seven of nine chose the Panthers, testament in part to the remarkable rebounding ability of Jerome Lane, who at 6-6 led the nation last season as a sophomore with a 13.5 average. Lane is part of a fine front line built around last season's leading scorer Charles Smith, a 6-10 senior center who was convinced to stick around, forgoing the pros for another season. Demetreus Gore, a swingman, returns and will play guard this season. Pitt has one major problem: Point guard. Last season's starter, Michael Goodson, is academically ineligible, not just for the semester, but the entire season. Still, the Big East hardly seems limited in its ability to send teams to the Final Four--in the past six years, seven conference teams have made it, including Syracuse and Providence last season. This season, Pitt and Syracuse could both be there.