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At Salt Lake City

March 16, 2000|CHRIS DUFRESNE

* Arizona vs. Jackson State: Arizona's star center, Loren Woods, is out, and his backup, Justin Wessel, has a sprained ankle. Jackson State's best player is 6-foot-11 center Vincent Jones, the Southwestern Athletic Conference defensive player of the year. So, is Arizona ripe to become the first No. 1 to lose to a No. 16? Not so fast. Arizona lacks depth, but its core of Jason Gardner, Gilbert Arenas, Michael Wright, Richard Jefferson and Luke Walton gives the Wildcats plenty of punch to bully past a 15-loss team from the SWAC. The key is Jefferson, the 6-7 sophomore.

* Wisconsin vs. Fresno State: This matchup of teams with vastly contrasting styles should be fun to watch. Wisconsin finished 8-8 in conference and needed a win over Northwestern in the Big Ten tournament to secure a bid, but has scored wins over Texas, Temple, Illinois and Indiana. The Badgers hold opponents to 56 points a game, but they only score an average of 60. It took Jerry Tarkanian five years to get Fresno State back into the tournament, and he's hoping to stay more than a round or two. That will depend on guard Courtney Alexander, the nation's leading scorer, who could have entered the NBA draft last year but chose to make another run at the NCAA tournament.

* Texas vs. Indiana State: Bottom line is Texas has 7-0 center Chris Mihm and Indiana State doesn't. Mihm may be the nation's best post player, averaging 17 points and eight rebounds. Indiana State is making its first tournament appearance since Larry Bird led it to the title game in 1979. The Sycamores play great man-to-man defense, have a star in forward Nate Green, but don't have a player taller than 6-7 in their starting lineup. Djibril Kante and 6-6 power forward Matt Renn will be giving up pounds and inches to Mihm inside, and that could spell trouble. Texas' backcourt of Ivan Wagner and William Clay is much improved from last year, when the Longhorns were first-round dropouts.

* Louisiana State vs. Southeast Missouri State: Please note: this is South-east Missouri State, not to be confused with Southwest Missouri State, which made a Sweet 16 run last year under then-coach Steve Alford. Louisiana State was riding a 10-game winning streak before losing in the Southeastern Conference tournament to Arkansas. The Tigers probably deserved a higher seed and are no doubt out to prove the NCAA selection committee wrong. In sophomore forward Stromile Swift and center Jabari Smith, LSU may have the nation's most formidable frontcourt. Swift emerged as maybe the SEC's best player at season's end.


* Purdue vs. Dayton: Purdue was streaking toward the tournament, a winner of eight consecutive games, before closing the regular season with losses to Indiana and Wisconsin. Now, we don't know what to think. The Boilermakers made it to the Sweet 16 last year as a No. 10-seeded team, and usually perform better when expectations are lowered. No one works harder and looks less graceful doing it than forward Brian Cardinal, but he has fouled out in three of the team's nine losses. Dayton is a capable opponent, but last made an NCAA visit in 1990. The Flyers got off to a school-record start and scored a memorable win over Kentucky.

* Oklahoma vs. Winthrop: The Sooners ran out of gas against Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament final, and need to quickly refuel. Eduardo Najera is the power source, and he took the blame for the Iowa State letdown. Najera controls the inside, averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds, while the Sooners made almost 40% of their three-point attempts in conference play. Winthrop proved last year's first NCAA trip was no fluke by winning the Big South tournament title again. The Eagles were a No. 16-seeded team last year, and were crushed in the opening round by Auburn.

* Louisville vs. Gonzaga: A loss to North Carolina Charlotte in the Conference USA tournament was not what Denny Crum had in mind headed into the NCAA tournament, but the Cardinals have been an up-and-down team since losing their opener at Virginia Commonwealth. Crum is still a master coach, but this smacks of an upset waiting to happen. Gonzaga is coming off a dramatic overtime win over Pepperdine and returns the heart of a squad that fell only a few shots short of making last year's Final Four. Guard Matt Santangelo, sharpshooter Richie Frahm and power forward Casey Calvary are all tournament-tested tough.

* St. John's vs. Northern Arizona: St. John's is the most dangerous team in the bracket, champion of the Big East tournament and center of a political storm in the wake of guard Erick Barkley's ongoing problems with the NCAA. As Coach Mike Jarvis fends off the "enemy" with his verbal jousts, investigators continue probing into activities that may not be holier-than-thou. Amazingly, despite the turmoil, the team has won 11 of its last 12 games. Northern Arizona? They're the Lumberjacks, they shoot all day. This is the nation's best long-distance shooting team, led by Ross Land, whose 46.2% three-point accuracy ranks the best in NCAA history for players with more than 300 attempts.

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