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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

West Regional

March 10, 1997|Chris Dufresne | Times staff writer

1. KENTUCKY (30-4)

* First-round opponent: Montana.

* Season in brief: After losing their opener in overtime to Clemson, the Wildcats won 16 in a row and appeared an even bet to defend their national title until star guard Derek Anderson was lost in January because of season-ending knee surgery. Despite two Southeastern Conference losses to South Carolina, Kentucky proved it could play with anyone in a blowout of Villanova on Feb. 9.

* Player to watch: Ron Mercer is the star, but Anthony Epps is the unsung point guard who selflessly managed Kentucky's title run last year.

* Tidbit: Coach Rick Pitino started his career as a University of Hawaii assistant in 1975-76.

* NCAA bio: Won sixth national title last season, the first for Pitino. The Wildcats lost four starters, redshirted guard Jeff Sheppard, lost Anderson to injury and still had enough talent to get a No. 1 tournament seeding. With Anderson, the SEC's leading scorer when he went down, Kentucky had a legitimate shot to repeat. Now, a Final Four berth would be a crowning achievement.

2. UTAH (26-3)

* First-round opponent: Navy.

* Season in brief: A consistent top-10 team despite losing its two most important nonconference games, against Arizona in the John Wooden Classic and at home against Wake Forest. Utes also were pounded at the Pit, losing by 17 at New Mexico.

* Player to watch: Senior forward Keith Van Horn is the obvious choice, but Coach Rick Majerus can't stop talking down the stretch about all the little things senior guard Ben Caton does to make the team better.

* Tidbit: Majerus, who is never going to be confused with Hugh Hefner, was named Playboy's Coach of the year in 1992.

* NCAA bio: Twenty-nine-point losers to Kentucky in last year's Midwest Regional semifinals. The Utes have one of the nation's top five players in Van Horn and motivation. Utah is a Sweet 16 team, maybe more with a lucky bounce.

3. WAKE FOREST (23-6)

* First-round opponent: St. Mary's.

* Season in brief: Thanked the basketball gods that center Tim Duncan returned for his senior season. Demon Deacons beat Utah in an otherwise weak nonconference schedule, but held their own in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference. They became truly imposing when 7-footer Loren Woods joined Duncan in the front court during conference play. Had a fluke loss to North Carolina State on a bad official's ruling.

* Player to watch: Duncan is college basketball's best player, but junior guard Tony Rutland will be the key to any Final Four hopes.

* Tidbit: Duncan did not play organized basketball until the ninth grade.

* NCAA bio: With Rutland injured in last year's ACC tournament, Wake rode Duncan to the Midwest Regional final before a 20-point loss to Kentucky. Rutland is still not 100%, and Wake Forest did not look invincible down the stretch.

4. ST. JOSEPH'S (24-6)

* First-round opponent: Pacific.

* Season in brief: After reaching last year's NIT title game, the team struggled to a 3-3 start but finished fast after two conference losses to Temple to get a high regional seeding. The Hawks were known as "the gang that couldn't shoot straight," but had to drop the name after making 16 three-point shots against Temple.

* Player to watch: Rashid Bey, a junior point guard, is the only legitimate star on the roster, a player with incredible dribbling skills.

* Tidbit: After Arizona canceled a game against St. Joseph's last year, citing "bad weather," Coach Phil Martelli quipped of Lute Olson: "He recruits McDonald's All-America's. I recruit guys who eat at McDonald's."

* NCAA bio: The Hawks made their first NCAA tournament since 1986 with an anonymous, team-oriented work ethic. They play great defense. The talent level isn't quite there, though.

5. BOSTON COLLEGE (21-8)

* First-round opponent: Valparaiso.

* Season in brief: Coach Jim O'Brien fought off early season reports that he was going to resign under protest over a beef with the administration over incoming recruits. The Eagles were only 5-5 in January and struggled to beat Fairfield in overtime.

* Player to watch: Danya Abrams. The 6-7 senior was only returning first-team All-Big East selection, averaging 16.5 points and 7.9 rebounds a game.

* Tidbit: Boston College won the first game in Big East history, 82-61, over Seton Hall on Dec. 11, 1979.

* NCAA bio: Beat Indiana in last year's first round before losing to Georgia Tech and made the round of eight in 1994 before losing to Florida.

6. STANFORD (20-7)

* First-round opponent: Oklahoma.

* Season in brief: The early season was marked by loss to College of Charleston, then followed by seven consecutive victories. Things were going as scheduled in the Pac-10 until the Cardinal unraveled in a three-game losing streak to California, UCLA and USC, effectively eliminating the team from title contention.

* Player to watch: Brevin Knight is the best point guard west of Jacque Vaughn and the type that can give a team fits in the tournament.

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