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SPORTS EXTRA / NCAA TOURNAMENT | MIDWEST

Illinois Is Proving to Be Self-Starter

March 12, 2001|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

1. ILLINOIS (24-7)

* First-round opponent: Northwestern State-Winthrop winner.

* Season in brief: Bill Self left Tulsa to take over for Lon Kruger, who bolted for the NBA's Atlanta Hawks. Self worked wonders with Kruger's talented leftovers. Illini played tough defense and a tough schedule and showed heart in overcoming a 21-point deficit to beat Seton Hall and rallied from 17 down to beat Wisconsin.

* Player to watch: Frank Williams. The 6-3 sophomore guard was the named the Big Ten player of the year by the coaches and media, and can carry the team the way Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves did last year.

* Tidbit: Junior guard Cory Bradford made at least one three-point basket in an NCAA-record 88 consecutive games until his streak ended Feb. 13 against Wisconsin.

* NCAA bio: 21st appearance. Illinois was seeded fourth in the East last season and lost to Florida in the second round. School made the Final Four in 1989 under coach Lou Henson, losing in the national semifinals to eventual champion Michigan.

2. ARIZONA (23-7)

* First-round opponent: Eastern Illinois.

* Season in brief: Tumultuous. High hopes and a preseason No. 1 ranking dashed by center Loren Woods' six-game suspension to open the season and the death of Coach Lute Olson's wife, Bobbi. Wildcats showed flashes of greatness with a 25-point home win over UCLA and a 44-point win over USC at the Sports Arena.

* Player to watch: Woods. The 7-foot-1 senior center has been a disappointment after a brilliant junior season, but his size and shot-blocking ability are keys to a deep tournament run. You can't invent toughness, though.

* Tidbit: The 1997 national championship team is the only school to defeat three top-seeded schools in the same tournament. Arizona downed Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky en route to the title.

* NCAA bio: 20th appearance. Wildcats were No. 1 in the West Region last year but, playing without the injured Woods, suffered a second-round loss to Wisconsin.

3. MISSISSIPPI (25-7)

* First-round opponent: Iona.

* Season in brief: One of this season's surprise teams. Scored quality wins against Oklahoma, USC, Kentucky, Arkansas (twice) and Tennessee. Led the Southeastern Conference in scoring defense through February. Coach Rod Barnes deserved national coach of the year considerations for the way he meshed young players with veterans and led Ole Miss to the SEC tournament title game.

* Player to watch: Rahim Lochart. The 6-5 senior forward led the team in scoring and rebounds and become only the seventh player in school history to have 1,000 points and 700 rebounds.

* Tidbit: When Barnes took over for Rob Evans three years ago, he had never been a head coach at any level.

* NCAA bio: School's fifth appearance. Evans was the first coach to lead Mississippi to the NCAA tournament since 1981 when the Rebels were invited in 1997, but Barnes owns the school's only NCAA tournament win, in the first round over Villanova in 1999.

4. KANSAS (24-6)

* First-round opponent: Cal State Northridge.

* Season in brief: Won more than 20 games a 12th season in a row, scored a big win early over UCLA in Coaches vs. Cancer, suffered an embarrassing 31-point loss at Wake Forest on Dec. 7, beat Ohio State on Dec. 23, got swept by Iowa State in Big 12 play, Kansas' fifth loss in a row to the Cyclones.

* Player to watch: Kenny Gregory. The 6-5 senior forward has been the Jayhawks' most consistent player, adding an outside shot to his slash-to-the-basket game.

* Tidbit: In leading Kansas to the 1952 national title, center Clyde Lovellete became the first player to lead the nation in scoring and win the NCAA title in the same season.

* NCAA bio: 30th appearance. Won titles in 1952 and 1988. A reserve guard on the 1952 squad saw limited action in the tournament. His name was Dean Smith. Present Coach Roy Williams finished second in 1991 and third in 1993.

5. SYRACUSE (24-8)

* First-round opponent: Hawaii.

* Season in brief: Not ranked in preseason Associated Press poll, but won the Great Alaska Shootout with victories over DePaul, Ohio State and Missouri. Started 9-0 before Dec. 22 loss to Tennessee, then reeled off six more wins before a Feb. 13 home loss to Miami.

* Player to watch: Preston Shumpert. The 6-6 junior forward scored a season-high 36 points against DePaul and had a 13-rebound game against Seton Hall.

* Tidbit: No school has won more NCAA tournament games, 39, without winning the championship.

* NCAA bio: 27th appearance. Advanced to the national title game twice under Coach Jim Boeheim. The 1987 squad lost to Indiana, 74-73, on Keith Smart's game-winning shot, while the 1996 team lost to Kentucky, 76-67.

6. NOTRE DAME (19-9)

* First-round opponent: Xavier.

* Season in brief: Mike Brey moved over from Delaware to replace Matt Doherty, who left to coach North Carolina. Brey's Irish climbed as high as No. 10 in both polls the week of Dec. 4. Defeated top-10 schools in consecutive games with victories over Syracuse and Georgetown.

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