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West Regional

March 09, 1998

1. ARIZONA (27-4)

* First-round opponent: Nicholls State.

* Season in brief: The defending national champions started a bit slowly, losing to Duke, Kansas and Florida State. They became a juggernaut in January, beating UCLA and undefeated Stanford, and finished with a 17-1 Pacific 10 record, with the only blemish a loss to USC in overtime. A deadly transition game and quick inside players cause surprising problems. Sophomore point guard Mike Bibby was spectacular against Stanford and Miles Simon is a big-game player, but swingman Michael Dickerson is the steadiest and most underrated Wildcat.

* Player to watch: Bibby. You might not see much more of him, because many expect him to jump to the NBA after the season. But his intelligence on the court, passing ability and ability to score off the drive or the outside shot make him one of the nation's best point guards.

* Tidbit: Guard Jason Terry is the nation's best sixth man.

* NCAA bio: Until last season's championship, Coach Lute Olson had to endure the same kind of can't-win-the-big-one whining that once dogged Dean Smith and John Elway. Over the years, the Wildcats have been knocked out in the first round by East Tennessee State, Santa Clara and Miami of Ohio, but Olson finally won in his 18th NCAA tournament appearance, his 13th at Arizona.


2. CINCINNATI (26-5)

* First-round opponent: Northern Arizona.

* Season in brief: Team Suspension's season began with Ruben Patterson held out the first 14 games by the NCAA for various violations, and included three-game suspensions for D'Juan Baker and Kenyon Martin for unauthorized long-distance calls and a late-season suspension of guard Michael Holton. But the Bearcats persevered through all crises, and finished first in Conference USA, first in the tournament.

* Players to watch: Patterson, a senior forward, scored 32 points in a tribute to his mother when she died of a heart attack at 38 in late February. But keep on eye on forward Kenyon Martin too. He had a triple-double against DePaul, including 10 blocked shots.

* Tidbit: Rod Baker, whose final team at UC Irvine went 1-25 last season, is a Cincinnati assistant.

* NCAA bio: Reached the Final Four in 1992, but disappointed last season when highly touted team lost to Iowa State in the second round. Went to five consecutive Final Fours from 1959-63, winning titles in 1961 and '62.


3. UTAH (25-3)

* First-round opponent: San Francisco.

* Season in brief: The Utes lost Keith Van Horn, the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft and the likely rookie of the year, yet started the season with an 18-O record. New Mexico ended the run in a close game at the Pit. The Utes also lost at Wyoming, but took revenge over New Mexico before losing to Nevada Las Vegas in the WAC tournament.

* Player to watch: Michael Doleac is a 6-11 center with the softest of shooting touches who is also unusually accurate from the free-throw line for a big man.

* Tidbit: Point guard Andre Miller is from Verbum Dei High.

* NCAA bio: Utah has been eliminated by Kentucky in three of the last four seasons, including last year, when the Utes entered the tournament ranked No. 2. Utah won the NCAA championship in 1944, filling in as a last-minute substitute for Arkansas after being eliminated from the National Invitation Tournament, then with a more prestigious field.


4. MARYLAND (19-10)

* First-round opponent: Utah State.

* Season in brief: The Terrapins gave North Carolina its first loss Jan. 14, 89-83, in overtime. Duke, however, had no trouble with them, beating Maryland by 32 and 27 points. Still, Maryland finished a clear third in the ACC and was ranked seventh in RPI, influencing its seeding. The good news? Maryland can't face Duke again unless it reaches the Final Four.

* Player to watch: The Terrapins are deep and balanced, but keep an eye on senior forward Rodney Elliott, who had 20 points and 17 rebounds in a late-season victory over Temple.

* Tidbit: Center Obinna Ekezie, whose father is a Nigerian oil company owner, chose Maryland because it's one of nine schools that offer a dual degree in business and engineering.

* NCAA bio: Maryland was upset by the College of Charleston in the first round last season and Charleston went on to give Arizona a scare in the second. Overall, the Terrapins have 14 appearances, with trips to the regional finals in '73 and '75 under coach Lefty Driesell.


5. ILLINOIS (22-9)

* First-round opponent: South Alabama.

* Season in brief: The Illini were only 8-5 after a 74-69 loss to UCLA in December, but rallied in the Big Ten to contend with Michigan State for the title. They lost to Purdue in the semifinals of the first Big Ten tournament. Kevin Turner is the team's leader, but extremely athletic forward Jerry Hester has been a big addition after a back injury last season.

* Player to watch: Turner had back-to-back 30-point games with 32 against UCLA and 35 against Indiana.

* Tidbit: Coach Lon Kruger took Kansas State to the final eight in 1988 and reached the 1994 Final Four with Florida.

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