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You Have to Duke It Out With Best


1. DUKE (29-4)

* First-round opponent: Monmouth

* Season in brief: Scored impressive victories against Illinois, Boston College, Virginia (42 points), Wake Forest (23) and Florida State (42). Lost to Stanford by one point in December at the Pete Newell Classic, suffered a rare loss at home to North Carolina and had its amazing 24-game, conference road winning streak snapped at Virginia on Feb. 14. Point guard Jason Williams sprained his left ankle Sunday against North Carolina but said he will be ready to play.

* Player to watch: Shane Battier. The 6-foot-8 senior forward has evolved from a defensive stopper to a complete player. In a Jan. 20 victory against Georgia Tech, Battier had 34 points, seven rebounds and five blocks.

* Tidbit: Battier is the 10th Duke player to have his jersey retired, joining Johnny Dawkins, Danny Ferry, Mike Gminski, Dick Groat, Art Heyman, Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner and Jeff Mullins.

* NCAA bio: School's 25th appearance. Two national titles. Duke has finished second six times, four under Coach Mike Krzyzewski.

2. KENTUCKY (22-9)

* First-round opponent: Holy Cross

* Season in brief: Another white-knuckle ride in Lexington, where Coach Tubby Smith and his point-guard son, Saul, overcame five losses before New Year's before making its annual late-season charge, cracking the top 15 with an eight-game winning streak finally halted with a late February loss at Arkansas.

* Player to watch: Saul Smith. The 6-2 guard, the team's only senior, had to overcome another year of taunts from fans. The opposing crowds got him, too.

* Tidbit: The Kentucky cheerleading squad now leads the basketball team in national championships, 11 to seven, after locking up its seventh consecutive title in national competition on Jan. 13.

* NCAA bio: Leads the tournament in appearances, games and victories. Only UCLA, with 11 titles, has more than Kentucky. Wildcats survived a double-overtime victory against St. Bonaventure last season before a second-round loss to Syracuse.


* First-round opponent: Southern Utah

* Season in brief: Completed the nation's most amazing worst-to-first turnaround after finishing last in the Big East Conference and 11-19 overall. This season's squad had no top recruits and only one player taller than 6-foot-6, yet raced to its best start since 1966-67 and proved its regular season was no fluke by winning the Big East tournament.

* Player to watch: Troy Bell. The 6-1 guard was the Big East freshman of the year last season and only got better, sharing Big East player of the year honors with another Troy--Notre Dame's Troy Murphy.

* Tidbit: You wouldn't have thought this was going to be a great season after a 92-85 exhibition loss on Nov. 5 to the Boston Amateur Basketball Club.

* NCAA bio: School's 12th appearance, first since 1997. Former high-profile coaches Bob Cousy, Tom Davis, Gary Williams and Jim O'Brien have all led the Eagles to the tournament, but the school has yet to advance to a Final Four.

4. UCLA (21-8)

* First-round opponent: Hofstra

* Season in brief: The usual: A loss to Northridge, a 4-4 start, a 25-point loss at Arizona, a 29-point loss at California, the cries for Steve Lavin's hide, followed by a brilliant late-season surge to stave off another crisis. Beat No. 1 Stanford on the road for a second consecutive season, and answered a humiliation in Tucson with an overtime victory over Arizona at Pauley.

* Player to watch: Earl Watson. The 6-1 senior guard is a four-year starter who has developed into one of the classiest players in recent UCLA lore.

* Tidbit: Legendary coach John Wooden was 3-9 in his first 12 NCAA tournament games from 1950 through 1963 before winning 44 of his next 45.

* NCAA bio: School's 37th appearance. Eleven national titles. Lavin's tournament record is 7-4. Last season, the Bruins defeated Ball State and Maryland before losing to Iowa State in the Midwest Regional semifinals.

5. OHIO STATE (20-10)

* First-round opponent: Utah State

* Season in brief: Turns out there was life after Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd, the star guards who led the Buckeyes' 1999 Final Four run. Overcame an early loss to Valparaiso to score significant Big Ten victory over No. 3 Michigan State on Jan. 27, No. 14 Iowa on Feb. 7 and No. 16 Wisconsin on Feb. 10.

* Player to watch: Ken Johnson. The 6-11 senior center keeps getting better and better. He is school's all-time leading shot blocker and one of the top 10 in NCAA history. He had game highs of 28 points against Minnesota, 12 rebounds against Syracuse and nine blocks against Massachusetts.

* Tidbit: In Ohio State's 1960 national title game victory over California, reserve guard Bob Knight missed his only shot attempt and finished with no points and one foul.

* NCAA bio: School's 21st appearance. Buckeyes have gone to nine Final Fours. As the No. 3-seeded team in the South Regional last year, Ohio State lost in the second round to Miami.

6. USC (21-9)

* First-round opponent: Oklahoma State

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