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At Memphis, Tenn.

March 16, 2001|ROBYN NORWOOD

* Virginia vs. Gonzaga: Gonzaga might not be as strong as its recent upstart teams, but the 12th-seeded Bulldogs have a decent shot at winning this matchup. Virginia can boast of beating Duke and North Carolina but the Cavaliers also finished with losses to Maryland--by 35 points--and Georgia Tech, and have not played well away from home. "People expect more of us because of what we've done the last couple of years," Gonzaga forward Casey Calvary said. "But to pick us to win, I don't know about that." Two factors in the underdog Bulldogs' favor: Gonzaga surprisingly has a slightly bigger starting five, and is an excellent shooting team--51% overall and 40% from three-point range--facing a Virginia team that was last in the Atlantic Coast Conference in defensive field-goal percentage at 46%.

* Oklahoma vs. Indiana State: Oklahoma lost one of its best players late in the season when point guard J.R. Raymond was kicked off the team for violating an unspecified team rule. No matter, the Sooners went on a run that made them the Big 12 tournament champions. Hollis Price took over at the point, and another guard, Nolan Johnson, took over as the team's leading scorer. Indiana State was reeling late in the season, losing six of its last eight regular-season games, but won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. The Sycamores' claim to fame--besides being Larry Bird's alma mater--is beating Indiana two years in a row.

* Michigan State vs. Alabama State: Offense, defense, balance, experience, and great coaching: Michigan State has a rare blend, and the defending champions should go far, even with a different cast. Holdovers Charlie Bell, Andre Hutson and Jason Richardson are complemented by blue-chip freshmen Marcus Taylor and Zach Randolph. Alabama State, No. 150 in the most recent RPI, has one starter taller than 6 feet 5 and lost to Texas Christian by 46 this season. A 16th-seeded team will beat a No. 1 some day, but it doesn't figure to be Alabama State.

* California vs. Fresno State: The No. 8-No. 9 games logically are some of the tightest in the first round, and this matchup has the added intrigue of matching two California teams that travel in different circles. Cal lost four of its last seven games, but don't put too much stock in that: The losses were to Stanford--a blowout--and to UCLA, USC and Arizona, all by five points or fewer. Fresno State--after running into Wisconsin in the first round as a ninth-seeded team last year--gets no favors again. Not that Jerry Tarkanian ever expects to get one from the NCAA.


* Texas vs. Temple: John Chaney's team is never the one a coach wants to see in his bracket because the Owls' grinding defensive style and ability to take care of the ball make them a tough out. But Texas plays exceptional defense too, holding opponents to 39%, even lower than Temple's 40%. Chaney, at 69, is a sentimental favorite much as Lefty Driesell and Jerry Tarkanian are. But unlike those two, he has never been forced out of job--unless you count his leaving the Harlem Globetrotters after one year of touring in 1955. "I couldn't clown," Chaney said. "It's hard enough to play the game the right way without doing all of that other stuff. No, I don't like to see it."

* Florida vs. Western Kentucky: Injuries and a personal tragedy--the stillbirth of Coach Billy Donovan's child--made this a season tempered by hardship for the Gators a year after reaching the NCAA title game. But other than an early-blowout loss to Michigan State in a title game rematch, the Gators haven't lost by more than five points all season. Toughness, grit and skill make them a solid pick over the Hilltoppers, whose biggest threat is 7-1 center Chris Marcus. Upset? Not likely, though Western Kentucky Coach Dennis Felton can dream. "There are a lot of great basketball teams that don't appear on television nightly," he said.

* Penn State vs. Providence: The Nittany Lions went 7-9 in the Big Ten but victories over No. 1-seeded regional teams Illinois and Michigan State got them in the tournament. Guard Joe Crispin is the kind of gunner who can lead his team in the tournament--or out of it after one game. Providence made the tournament a season after going 11-19 and gets balanced scoring from a lineup that ranges from 5-9 point guard John Linehan to 7-2 center Karim Shabazz. Because both teams play three-guard lineups, there doesn't figure to be much inside scoring.

* North Carolina vs. Princeton: A close game is at least imaginable: Four years ago, the Tigers gave North Carolina a game in Chapel Hill before losing by eight. But this Princeton team's finesse can't counter the brawn of a Tar Heel team with a front line that is 6-8, 6-11 and 7-0, and has two football players on the roster. Princeton--coached by John Thompson III, son of the former Georgetown coach--counters with no starter taller than 6-7 Nate Walton, Bill Walton's son. In any case, the Tar Heels' 26-point loss to Duke in the ACC tournament final ought to have given first-year Coach Matt Doherty the team's full attention.

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