Sunday, February 16, 2003

Preview to Selection Sunday

UC, Xavier, UK, Louisville making strong tourney bids

By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It all seemed so logical in November. Kansas had the best starting five in the country. Arizona was loaded, and Oregon had the Lukes. Then they started playing the games, and what seemed so logical no longer made much sense.

Except for Arizona.

Three months later, while so much of the college basketball world has been turned upside down, coach Lute Olsen's Arizona crew has remained the closest thing the game has to a constant.

By most accounts, the Wildcats are still the best team in the country and almost surely will receive a No.1 seed in the NCAA Tournament when the pairings are announced March 16.

But they have some unlikely company jousting for the other three No.1 seeds, and two of the teams live in our own backyard.

It's difficult to cross the Ohio River and not hear someone talking about Louisville and Kentucky. Of course, because Louisville beat Kentucky rather soundly, Cardinals fans justifiably claimed superiority over their in-state rivals.

Then Louisville was upset by Saint Louis, its 17-game winning streak vanished, and suddenly the Cards appeared vulnerable.

UK's resume includes competition in a tougher league, the Southeastern Conference. But more importantly, the Wildcats simply are playing the best basketball of any team in the country, especially on defense, where they lock up their opponents in the half-court.

On and on the discussion goes, maybe all the way until the two schools stage a colossal showdown in the Final Four, maybe even in the national championship game.

Tubby vs. Pitino for all the marbles. They'd have to shut down the Commonwealth.

Both have work to do to secure those top seeds, though, assuming Louisville didn't blow its chance with that loss to the Billikens.

The Cards play Memphis at home on Feb.19, visit Cincinnati on Feb.22 and are back home against Marquette on Feb.27. They stay home for the Conference USA Tournament at Freedom Hall, where they are unbeaten.

The Wildcats' schedule still includes Mississippi State on Feb.23, Tennessee on Feb.26 and games at No.20 Georgia on March 2 and at No.4 Florida on March 8 before the Cats head to New Orleans for the SEC Tournament.

Despite its lopsided loss to UK, Florida seemed to have the wherewithal to claim the other No.1 seed. But after being upset Saturday by Tennessee, the Gators will have to win out the rest of their regular season, which includes a rematch with the Wildcats.

On the Ohio side of the river, Xavier and UC both appear to be in good shape to earn favorable seeds.

Having spent much of the season in the Top 25, the Musketeers are in line for a No.4 seed, but their most difficult league games are ahead of them. They have a return engagement with Dayton on the road Feb.22, then play at No.25 Saint Joseph's on March 5.

To complicate matters, the Atlantic 10 Tournament is in Dayton, a huge advantage for the Flyers and one more obstacle for the Musketeers to overcome as they jockey for their postseason position.

Despite its recent three-game skid, UC could land a No.5 seed or higher, thanks to its strength of schedule, providing the Bearcats don't go back into the tank.

UC plays Louisville at home Feb.22, is at Memphis on March1 and finishes the regular season at Marquette on March8.

It's unlikely, but if the Bearcats win out, they could get a No.4 seed - more than UC coach Bob Huggins could have expected when the season started.

Even a No.5 seed isn't bad, given the Bearcats' talent level. But remember, No.5 seeds traditionally have had a difficult time staving off upset bids from No.12s. Indiana still is reeling from its recent five-game swoon, but if the Hoosiers have ironed out their problems, they should check in with a No.12 seed. Their toughest challenge is at Illinois on Feb.25.

The way IU has struggled, just making the tournament field should bring a sigh of relief. But remember earlier this season when it appeared the Hoosiers might be one of the 10 best teams in the land?

Just a thought, but how about a UC-Indiana, No.5-No.12 first-round matchup in Indianapolis?

Nationally, in addition to the No.1 seeds, Duke, Kansas and Marquette all have the ability to make a run at the Final Four. The Jayhawks don't have much depth, but when their starting five is clicking, it's as good as anybody's.

Marquette has the size to wear down opponents, some outstanding outside shooters and a player of the year candidate in Dwyane Wade.

And then there are the mid-majors that always make this tournament so much fun. Who doesn't want to see Kyle Korver and Creighton knock off someone from the Big 12, or Manhattan eliminate a beast from the Big East?

The Enquirer's projected NCAA field
NCAA Tournament sites, dates
Postseason ticket information

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Preview to Selection Sunday
The Enquirer's projected NCAA field
NCAA Tournament sites, dates
Postseason ticket information

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