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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

The First Look At The Men's Final Four

March 25, 1997|JASON REID

MINNESOTA (31-3) vs. KENTUCKY (34-4) at Indianapolis Saturday, 35 minutes after first game

* MINNESOTA AT A GLANCE: The Gophers qualified for their first Final Four the hard way--by knocking out the people's choice. With all the talk about fast-charging UCLA, you wouldn't have known the Gophers were seeded first in the Midwest Regional. But Minnesota showed who was king of the hill with an 80-72 regional final victory over UCLA. True, the Gophers caught a big break when shot-swatting Bruin center Jelani McCoy played only 13 minutes because of a chest injury. But a right shoulder injury limited Minnesota point guard Eric Harris to 23 mostly ineffective minutes, so both teams had problems. Minnesota also showed its mettle with a 90-84 double-overtime victory over Clemson in the regional semifinals.

* KENTUCKY AT A GLANCE: This is not the team you want to play right now. The Wildcats are roaring, even though injuries have them playing with an eight-man rotation. They are less talented than last season's title-winning bunch, but Kentucky's defensive scheme is the game's best and Coach Rick Pitino has just enough athletes left to make your day miserable. Utah was the latest team to learn what Kentucky can still do in the Wildcats' 72-59 regional final victory. Kentucky All-American forward Ron Mercer, selected the regional's outstanding player, scored a game-high 21 points against Utah. Kentucky has won 10 consecutive NCAA tournament games, and two more victories certainly seem attainable.

MINNESOTA PROBABLE STARTERS

F--Sam Jacobson (6-6, 210) No. 5

F--Courtney James (6-8, 270) No. 4

C--John Thomas (6-9, 275) No. 12

G--Eric Harris (6-3, 195) No. 33

G--Bobby Jackson (6-0, 185) No. 24

MINNESOTA KEY RESERVES

F--Quincy Lewis (6-7, 200) No. 20

F--Miles Tarver (6-8, 225) No. 42

C--Trevor Winter (7-0, 275) No. 50

G--Charles Thomas (6-4, 200) No. 34

KENTUCKY PROBABLE STARTERS

F--Ron Mercer (6-7, 210) No. 33

F--Scott Padgett (6-9, 227) No. 34

C--Jamaal Magloire (6-10, 236) No. 42

G--Wayne Turner (6-2, 183) No. 5

G--Anthony Epps (6-2, 180) No. 25

KENTUCKY KEY RESERVES

F--Jared Prickett (6-9, 235) No. 32

C--Nazr Mohammed (6-10, 240) No. 13

G--Cameron Mills (6-3, 181) No. 21

* GUARDS: Turner and Epps hound opposing guards like no other tandem remaining in the tournament. They have combined for 135 steals, and their relentless pressure wears down opponents and eats up shot clocks. Leaving Epps and Mills unguarded on the perimeter isn't a good idea. Harris' injury slowed Minnesota at the start against UCLA and could cause major headaches for the Gophers against Kentucky's press. Jackson and Charles Thomas carried the backcourt against the Bruins. If Harris can't go at full speed against Kentucky, the Gophers will need them to do even more.

* FORWARDS: Mercer, the NBA-bound sophomore, is a load. He has the shooting touch of a guard and the strength of a post player. Mercer and Padgett shoot and make a lot three-pointers, and Prickett is good enough to provide either with a break. Jacobson is a sound and steady player and James provides muscle near the basket. Lewis does for the Gophers what Prickett does for Kentucky.

* CENTER: If Jason Thomas throws his weight around, Kentucky may not be able to stop him. Thomas is a big guy who stays near the basket, sets picks and rebounds--exactly what Gopher Coach Clem Haskins expects of him. Winter takes up a lot of space as well, but can't do as much as Thomas. Magloire and Mohammed share the post for Kentucky and share it quite well.

* INTANGIBLES: This is the first meeting of Kentucky and Minnesota in the tournament. The teams played four regular-season games in the 1950s and Kentucky leads the series, 3-1.

* COACHING: Pitino is always the subject of job rumors, but such is life when you're the hottest guy in your field. The latest speculation has Pitino assuming operational control of the Boston Celtics, although he has repeatedly said his heart is in the Bluegrass state. Haskins, a nine-year NBA veteran, has dedicated a lifetime to the game and is liked and admired by his players and colleagues. This is the Gophers' fifth tournament appearance in 11 seasons under Haskins, whose record is 201-140.

* FINAL ANALYSIS: Haskins said the Gophers are used to the pressing game because Ohio State uses a press in the Big Ten. Ohio State could press with 10 players and still not match what Kentucky does. Minnesota has more big bodies, but Kentucky has better players. Even if Harris' shoulder is OK, the Wildcats should be playing on Monday night.

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