Chaos descends on order of prognosticators

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The floor surrounding you 30 minutes after your kids awoke on Christmas morning, having attacked the carefully wrapped and impeccably arranged gifts awaiting them under the tree. The debris greeting you just after your neighbors stumbled off into the wee morning, your annual holiday bash having gone into the books as another success. The traffic that awaited you when you wandered out after a freak snowstorm, having traveled before the plows had even pulled out of their garages.

Pick the analogy that speaks best to you of chaos and shambles, and there you find the image fit for a college basketball season only six weeks old. Like George Bush's re-election campaign, it is now -- so suddenly -- rife with uncertainty. As its opening act draws to a close with this weekend's holiday tourneys, making predictions is about as easy as anticipating the next move of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Sure. Duke is undefeated and ranked No. 1, just as so many so assuredly prophesied back when the trees were still dressed and their leaves were turning. But that scare thrown at it two weeks ago by Michigan's Fab Five did more than mark the debut of those Wolverine frosh into a world curiously awaiting their arrival. It also saw the Blue Devils relaxing and breathing easily after going up 13 early in the second half, getting hit with a 14-point run while shooting 0-for-3 and committing four turnovers, and needing every bit of their guile and experience to win in overtime.

It was an uncharacteristic interlude by a group that prides itself on consistency of effort, and served to remind all of the college coach's eternal mantra: Those are kids running up and down the floor with my paycheck in their mouths. It does not matter if those kids are named Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill. Their unexpected triumph over Nevada-Las Vegas in last year's national semis surely proved the uncertainty of certainties, and here -- in a very different way -- they gave notice once again that sure things are nothing but a sucker's bet.

Another of those sure things, you might remember, was mighty Indiana, but the Hoosiers floundered badly against their first two ranked opponents and had everything but their manhood questioned before hanging on Saturday against St. John's. That was the same Saturday that Ohio State, viewed as their prime threat in the Big 10, was upset by unranked Southern Cal, and now a most unpredictable spice is set to jump into the Buckeyes' suddenly nicked mix.

His name is Lawrence Funderburke, who began his college career in Bloomington, Ind., exited there under contentious circumstances and finally transferred to Columbus. Reports say he has been nothing less than a monster in practice. But his second coming-out party is not scheduled until Jan. 7, and just how he affects the chemistry of these Bucks won't be known for weeks after that.

That night of Jan. 7 also raises the curtain on this season's second act, the opening of the Big 10 schedule, and just so happens to find surprising Michigan State visiting Columbus. It was hardly expected to be a conference force with All-American Steve Smith now down in Miami playing point for the Heat, but here it is plays host to the weekend's Cutlass Classic at 8-0 and as champs of the Maui Classic. Now throw once-beaten Iowa into this simmering stew, and suddenly a scramble all analyzed as a straight-up race of one-on-one is a steel-cage match featuring Hawkeyes, Buckeyes, Hoosiers, Wolverines and Spartans.

This bouillabaisse of battered predictions, this cornucopia of rising contenders, understand that it is not merely a Midwestern phenomenon. Seton Hall, out in the Big East, was picked by at least one publication to win the national title, and nearly every publication gift-wrapped that conference's title and handed it to St. John's. Not! The Pirates, still young and nicked by injuries, were just destroyed three weeks ago by North Carolina, and a day later the Redmen were nuked by Duke.

Connecticut now looms as the class of this caste, where Syracuse is busy doing a fine imitation of Michigan State. In the wake of losing a superstar of its own, Billy Owens, it too was summarily consigned to its conference's second division. But it has unveiled one of those freshman finds in 6-foot-4-inch guard Lawrence Moten, won a battle with the NCAA over the eligibility of 6-10 Conrad McRae and is now a game away from opening its conference season undefeated. (Time out for a word from the cupcake maker: 6-1 Georgetown lost the only game it played, to Virginia in OT. Its other appearances, all against a group characterized by Hawaii-Loa, make it still unfit for speculation).

Turn right now, head south, and, hey, forget Duke, just survey this wreckage: Carolina, so impressive against the Hall, beaten in the regal Dean E. Smith Center by Florida State, which was playing its first game as a member of the exalted ACC. Kentucky, conquerors of Indiana, beaten in hallowed Rupp Arena by Pitt, a Big East mystery guest. Georgia Tech, an ACC dark horse and the preseason NIT champ, beaten by unheralded Georgia in the Omni, where three nights later the Yellow Jackets themselves defeated No. 8 Kentucky. Arizona, undefeated and ranked No. 2, beaten in a defensive struggle at Arkansas by a team best known for scoring in triple figures and still without talented Todd Day, suspended until the new year. And LSU home of Shaquille O'Neal in disarray and losers to Arizona, Vegas (itself a loser to Rutgers, of all people) and Louisville.

Denny Crum's Cardinals, in turn, have unfurled a very different kind of surprise by ripping off six straight wins and returning to the Top 20 after last year's 14-16 aberration. And then there's that conference of mammoth linemen and the feared wishbone. The football-famous Big 8 has four teams perched in the Top 20, and this quartet of Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State is as good as any the more storied basketball leagues can throw into a fray.

Scholarship limits. Transfers (see former Northwestern guard Rex Walters, now a star for Kansas.) Precocious maturity after summers filled with camps and tourneys (see Michigan). Junior college imports (see Oklahoma). Television exposing once-regional programs to a national audience (see UConn and Seton Hall). Moribund programs benefiting from recent coaching hires (see Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Kentucky). Traditionally strong programs simply carrying on under familiar faces (see Indiana, Oklahoma and the rest of the obvious). Pick one or mix and match, and there discover why this best of all games is able to make even that wretched thing called parity look good.

So pick up that wrapping paper, wash those dirty dishes, step back for the plows and savor the prospect of the conference races just off the horizon. For make no mistake: The best of this mess is yet to come.

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