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Last Year's Finalists Find Way Into Same Regional



* First-round opponent: Alabama State.

* Season in brief: Call it reloading. The Spartans lost three starters off last year's national title team, yet remain formidable. Michigan State defeated all three teams in last year's Final Four: Florida, Wisconsin and North Carolina.

* Player to watch: Marcus Taylor. The 6-3 freshman point guard has had the unenviable task of replacing Mateen Cleaves. Taylor is not Cleaves, not yet.

* Tidbit: For $75,000, Michigan State purchased the floor on which it won the national title last year in Indianapolis and had it transported to the Breslin Center.

* NCAA bio: School's 15th appearance. Won national titles in 1979 and 2000.


* First-round opponent: Princeton.

* Season in brief: Overcame a 3-2 start, with consecutive losses to Michigan State and Kentucky, by reeling off 18 consecutive wins. Spent three weeks at No. 1 in February before a loss to Clemson. Lost some luster with a 20-point loss at Virginia on Feb. 25 and a home loss to Duke.

* Player to watch: Joseph Forte. Virginia Coach Pete Gillen says of the 6-4 sophomore guard: "He reminds me of [Wayne] Gretzky on ice. He just flows."

* Tidbit: Former coach Dean Smith led the Tar Heels to 27 NCAA tournaments, a coaching record.

* NCAA bio: Making an NCAA tournament-record 27th consecutive appearance. Advanced to Final Four last year before defeat by Florida. Won titles 1957, '82 and '93.

3. FLORIDA (23-6)

* First-round opponent: Western Kentucky.

* Season in brief: Overcame numerous injuries to post a third consecutive 20-win season. Led the SEC in surgeries, four. Posted five, 100-or-more-point games, but injuries forced Gators to slow down the tempo at times. Lost the national title-game rematch with Michigan State.

* Player to watch: Matt Bonner. The 6-9 sophomore forward went from sub to starter and improved his scoring average from five to 13 points a game.

* Tidbit: Florida is one of only four schools to make the round of 16 the last two years. The others are Duke, Gonzaga, and Michigan State.

* NCAA bio: School's eighth appearance and third straight under Coach Billy Donovan. Before last year, the highest Florida finished was a third-place tie in 1994 under Lon Kruger.

4. OKLAHOMA (26-6)

* First-round opponent: Indiana State.

* Season in brief: It looked as if the season was lost in late February when Coach Kelvin Sampson dropped the bombshell that he was dismissing star guard J.R. Raymond for violating team policy. But Oklahoma, without Raymond, knocked out Missouri, Kansas and Texas en route to the Big 12 tournament title.

* Player to watch: Aaron McGee. The 6-8 junior forward needs to pick up his game and be more consistent. He has had scoring nights of 32, 28, 27, 26 and 24, but also has had games of zero, three, four, five and six points.

* Tidbit: Long before "Sooner Schooner," Oklahoma had a mascot named "Ol' Mex," a dog. Mex was so revered that when he died in 1928, the university closed so that people could attend his funeral.

NCAA bio: School's 20th consecutive postseason appearance (16 in the NCAA, four in the NIT). Finished second in 1947 and 1988.

5. VIRGINIA (20-8)

* First-round opponent: Gonzaga.

* Season in brief: Started 10-0 before a Jan. 4 loss at Wake Forest. Rose as high as No. 6 in the polls. Avenged a 42-point loss at Duke with a win over the Blue Devils at home. It ended Duke's road win streak in Atlantic Coast Conference play at 25. Also won at home against North Carolina.

* Player to watch: Donald Hand. The senior guard is only the third Virginia player to have 1,000 points, 300 rebounds, 400 assists and 150 steals.

* Tidbit: While Cavaliers is the school's nickname, the sporting teams are also commonly known as the "Wahoos" and "Hoos" by Virginia students and fans.

* NCAA bio: School's 15th appearance, first since 1997. Went to Final Fours in '81 and '84 under former coach Terry Holland.

6. TEXAS (25-8)

* First-round opponent: Temple.

* Season in brief: Reached 20 wins for the 17th time in school history. Won six consecutive games to close the regular season and kept the momentum going by advancing to the Big 12 tournament finals.* Player to watch: Maurice Evans. The 6-5 junior forward scored 28 points in the win over Iowa State, making 10 of 14 shots.

* Tidbit: Priorities? Last season, center Chris Mihm was the first Longhorn basketball to make first-team All-America by the Associated Press. By contrast, Texas football has produced 32 consensus All-Americans.

* NCAA bio: School's 19th appearance. Finished second in 1943 and '47.

7. PENN STATE (19-11)

* First-round opponent: Providence.

* Season in brief: Wins over Michigan and Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament got team off the bubble.

Finished only 7-9 in conference play, but beat Kentucky and Temple in nonconference games. Loss to Northwestern on Feb. 21 looked to be tournament-killer, but team recovered.

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