Monday, March 17, 2003

Controversy abounds in this year's tourney

West is stacked; Who let Cincy, 'Bama in?

By Mike Lopresti
Gannett News Service

INDIANAPOLIS - Consider the NCAA Tournament bracket. Pick your controversy.

• Is the West too loaded?

• Why are Kentucky and Arizona - the two undisputed heavyweights of the season - on track to meet ... in the semifinals?

• Auburn lost nine of its last 14 games and made the field. So did Alabama, dropping 10 of its last 16. So did Cincinnati, losing eight of its last 12. The Bearcats were beaten 11 times this season and are still seeded eighth.

• In that case, where is Boston College, who won a division of the Big East? Or Texas Tech, who ended Bob Knight's tournament invitation streak at 16 seasons? The Red Raiders, albeit 6-10 in their conference, nearly made the Big 12 title game.

That should keep the talk shows busy. But then, it's been a turbulent year in college basketball. Why should Selection Sunday have been quiet?

In any case, the bracket is there now, in black and white - and Kentucky blue.

The Wildcats' 23-game winning steak is the most gaudy number in a field that also includes Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma as other No. 1 seeds.

Kentucky vs. Arizona would seem like an ideal potential national championship game in New Orleans. But the bracket has them meeting two days earlier in the semifinals, if both get that far.

"The committee can't look ahead," NCAA Tournament Committee chairman Jim Livengood said. "The committee would do a great disservice if we tried to be match-makers."

Not that anything seems certain. It has been an epidemic of fallen favorites in the conference tournaments, where 18 No. 1 seeds were beaten - 13 before the championship game. Twelve of the top 18 teams in the Associated Press poll lost in the past week. The air is stormy as the dance begins.


AT THE TOP: Oklahoma goes for a return ticket to the Final Four, getting its first two games in friendly Oklahoma City.

FIRST-ROUND FEATURE: No. 5 Mississippi State vs. No. 12 Butler. Was Butler worth all the national lobbying?

CINDERELLA-IN-WAITING: No. 11 seed Pennsylvania has won 19 of 20 games and could be major trouble for Oklahoma State.

ETC.: No. 3 seed Syracuse got a proverbial box of chocolates from the committee, with the chance to play in the regional just down the road in Albany, N.Y ... No. 4 Louisville is the fourth school Rick Pitino has taken into the tournament.


AT THE TOP: Texas can't be upset about this regional, which is not that fearsome on paper and will be decided in San Antonio. Florida seems an overseed at No. 2.

FIRST-ROUND FEATURE: Michigan State, a Big Ten enigma, goes against Colorado. The Spartans flopped as league preseason favorites, but they also beat Kentucky.

CINDERELLA-IN-WAITING: Connecticut is not exactly a Cinderella, but a long run would be a feel-good story after coach Jim Calhoun's prostate cancer surgery.

ETC.: No. 14 Troy State will try to bomb No. 3 Xavier with an offense fourth in the nation in 3-pointers.


AT THE TOP: Kentucky is on a tear, and nobody in this region seems a truly convincing candidate to stop it. Except for maybe No. 2 Pittsburgh and its nine-game winning streak.

FIRST-ROUND FEATURE: No. 5 Wisconsin vs. No. 12 Weber State. Weber State has won 17 straight.

CINDERELLA-IN-WAITING: Dayton has never been seeded so high as No. 4, and has a starless lineup. But the Flyers have also won 18 of 20.

ETC.: No. 14 Holy Cross has won 12 in a row and 20 of its last 21. That ought to get No. 3 Marquette's attention ... Indiana's Mike Davis will be coaching against his alma mater when the Hoosiers face Alabama.


AT THE TOP: Absolutely stacked. No. 1 Arizona and No. 2 Kansas would be high voltage enough. But No. 3 Duke won the ACC Tournament, No. 4 Illinois the Big Ten. No. 6 Creighton is 29-6. No. 7 Memphis had won 12 straight before a close loss to Louisville. Arizona landed in a region of pit bulls.

FIRST ROUND FEATURE: No. 4 Illinois vs. No. 13 Western Kentucky. The Illini stormed to the Big Ten, but Western has won 17 of 19.

CINDERELLA-IN-WAITING: Central Michigan could continue a Mid-American Conference habit of making trouble.

ETC.: The one suspect seed here is Notre Dame at No. 5. The Irish defense gave up 83, 80, 92, 95 and 87 points.

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