Monday, March 08, 1999

MEN'S TOURNAMENT OVERVIEW


It's Duke and 63 wannabes

BY MIKE LOPRESTI
Gannett News Service

        Now Duke knows what 63 guests have been invited to its coronation. Poor Florida A&M. The Rat tlers go first.

        The dance card was set Sunday for this NCAA Tournament. With No.1 Duke a mighty favorite from the East, and 12-18 Florida A&M first up against them.

        With Connecticut, Michigan State and Auburn joining the Blue Devils as No. 1 seeds.

        With a powerhouse Midwest Regional.

        With North Carolina in its 25th straight tournament. And Kent, Samford, Winthrop, Arkansas State and Florida A&M in their first ever.

        With seven teams included from the Big Ten and six from the SEC. But only three from the

        basketball holy land of the ACC.

        The ACC has put teams in the Final Four 15 of the past 18 years, but this season got as many teams invited to the tournament as the Missouri Valley Conference.

        “A shock to everyone,” NCAA Division I committee chairman C.M. Newton called it. “But they have to play their way in.”

        Presumably, “they” meant ACC members 18-13 North Carolina State and 16-13 Wake Forest. Those were among the prime teams left out, along with 21-10 Xavier, 20-12 Mississippi State and 17-12 DePaul.

        The last team in? Probably 13th seeded Oklahoma (20-10), after due deliberation over not only records, but also rankings, computer numbers and gut feeling. Of the 34 at-large teams, 15 have double-digit losses.

East
        Top four seeds: Duke, Miami (Fla.), Cincinnati, Tennessee.

        Best first-round game: No. 6 Temple vs. No. 11 Kent. Temple has the name, but Kent has won 10 of its last 11 and won the tournament in the Mid-American Conference, a league responsible for several past NCAA upsets.

        Region roundup: Florida A&M is the ultimate underdog, starting the season 0-10 before regrouping to take the Mid-Eastern Conference tournament. The Rattlers have only nine healthy players to confront rampaging Duke (32-1) and would seem little danger to blemish the 0-56 record No. 16 seeds have in the tournament.

        The only team to beat Duke this season? Cincinnati. Bingo. The rematch is set if both make it to the regional final.

        Duke's 27-game winning streak is best in the nation. Second best is College of Charleston at 25. They could meet in the second round, in what would then be a combined 54-game winning streak on the floor.

        No.10 seed Purdue, which meets Texas, finished by losing five of its last six. The Boilermakers' skid nearly cost them their invitation. “It was,” Newton said, “a matter of conversation.”

        Steve Alford, Indiana's hero guard on its 1987 champions, is back in the tournament as a coach with Southwest Missouri State.

South
        Top four seeds: Auburn, Maryland, St. John's, Ohio State.

        Best first-round game: No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 13 Murray State. The Buckeyes, 8-22 last year, have had a stun ning reversal and were arguably the Big Ten's second best team at the end. But Murray has a 27-5 record and a great story — 62-year-old Tevester Anderson finally getting a chance to be a head coach, and making the tournament his first season.

        Region roundup: This is probably the weakest region, with no conference tournament champion in the bracket until 10th-seeded Creighton. Auburn is 27-3, but showed cracks late with a 16-point pounding at Arkansas and a 12-point defeat in the SEC Tournament to Kentucky.

        No.2 seed Maryland should have no problem getting serious about its first round game. It's Valparaiso, last year's Cinderel la and back with almost an entirely new team.

        Indiana could use a good run, starting against George Washington and 5-foot-4 guard Shawnta Rogers. The Hoosiers are 1-4 in the last four NCAA Tournaments.

        A UCLA-Ohio State second round game would be intriguing. So would St. John's vs. George Washington, matching St. John's coach Mike Jarvis against his old team.

Midwest
        Top four seeds: Michigan State, Utah, Kentucky, Arizona.

        Best first-round game: No. 5 North Carolina-Charlotte vs. No. 12 Rhode Island. UNC-Charlotte won its last seven games, including four victories in four days to take the Conference USA tournament. Rhode Island is unpredictable, good enough to beat Utah, shaky enough to lose to St. Bonaventure and Fordham.

        Region roundup: Loaded, to be succinct.

        Five of the top six seeds come off conference tournament championships. Michigan State has won 18 straight, Utah 22 in a row. Defending champion Kentucky may have wobbled at the end, losing four of its last seven regular-season games, but the Wildcats know when it's March. They won all three SEC tournament games by double digits, and are 17-1 in the past three NCAA Tournaments.

        Maybe this will best describe the lofty pedigree of the Midwest?

        Kentucky and Kansas, two of college basketball's absolute kings, could meet. In the SECOND round.

        There is also the potential semifinal game between Utah and Kentucky, whom fate and the NCAA keep putting in the same pit to quarrel.

        Kentucky beat Utah in last year's national title game, and also knocked out the Utes in 1997 ... and 1996 ... and 1993.

        Newton said keeping the two apart was discussed by the committee but “you don't break up the field because of past rivalries.”

West
        Top seeds: Connecticut, Stanford, North Carolina, Arkansas.

        Best first-round game: No. 4 Arkansas vs. No. 13 Siena. The Razorbacks beat Kentucky and Auburn late in the season and advanced to the SEC title game. But at 25-5, Siena is one of the sleepers of the field, and leads the nation in free throw shooting.

        Region roundup: Connecticut did not get the best luck, being sent so far from home. But this would still seem Jim Calhoun's best shot at finally breaking through to the Final Four.

        The 28-2 Huskies are at full steam, mashing Syracuse by 21 and St. John's by 19 in the Big East Tournament. If it comes down to a rematch with Stanford, Connecticut has the warm memories of beating the Cardinal by 11 on its own floor in February.

        Stanford has been spotty, with late losses costing it a No. 1 seed. North Carolina has struggled, too, but must be glad to be 3,000 miles away from Duke.

        Florida A&M should be so lucky.

       



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