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NCAA PREVIEW | East Regional/ THE BREAKDOWN

Sooners Have Plans for Later

March 17, 2003|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

No. 1 OKLAHOMA (24-6)

First-round opponent: No. 16 South Carolina State.

Season in brief: Beaten by Alabama in the first game of the season, the Sooners showed their mettle later, particularly with a 77-70 victory over Kansas in a game Oklahoma led by 32 only to have to fend off a charge down the stretch. Key injury: Guard Ebi Ere broke his left wrist before the Big 12 tournament, which the Sooners still won.

Player to watch: Hollis Price. The senior guard -- who had to have elbow surgery to remove part of an Indiana State player's tooth after a first-round loss in the 2001 tournament -- is the Sooners' heart, soul, and best clutch player.

Tidbit: Coach Kelvin Sampson is a Lumbee Indian from North Carolina, and his father was among a group of men who made national news by breaking up a Ku Klux Klan rally in 1958.

NCAA bio: Made the Final Four last season the first time since 1988, losing to Indiana in the semifinals. Ninth consecutive appearance under Kelvin Sampson, but that streak included five first-round losses and two second-round losses.

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No. 2 WAKE FOREST (24-5)

First-round opponent: No. 15 East Tennessee State.

Season in brief: The Demon Deacons won their first outright regular-season title in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 41 years, ending the recent Duke-Maryland stranglehold. But Wake couldn't make it a double after being upset by North Carolina State in a semifinal of the ACC tournament. Best victory of the season was an upset of Duke in February, and the only regular-season losses were to Duke, Virginia, Marquette and Maryland.

Player to watch: Josh Howard. Somewhat underrated before this season, Howard is a 6-foot-6 senior forward capable of 30-point outbursts who is on the short list for most national player of the year awards.

Tidbit: Howard and Xavier forward David West -- another player of the year contender -- played on the same prep school team at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va.

NCAA bio: The Demon Deacons lost to Oregon in the second round last year after a first-round victory over Pepperdine. Eighteenth appearance overall. One Final Four, in 1962 under Coach Horace "Bones" McKinney.

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No. 3 SYRACUSE (24-5)

First-round opponent: No. 14 Manhattan.

Season in brief: The Orangemen started 11-1 before losing to Pittsburgh and were also hot down the stretch before falling to Connecticut in a Big East tournament semifinal. Their other losses were to Memphis, Rutgers, and again to Connecticut.

Player to watch: Carmelo Anthony. He's the best freshman in the nation, and the explosive 6-8 forward with three-point shooting range isn't long for the college game after averaging 22.7 points and 10 rebounds a game.

Tidbit: This marks the Orangemen's 22nd tournament appearance under Jim Boeheim. The only active coaches with more are Bob Knight, Lute Olson and Eddie Sutton -- all of whom have won the national championship.

NCAA bio: Failed to make the tournament last season for only the third time in 20 seasons. Played for the NCAA title twice, losing to Indiana in 1987 on Keith Smart's late shot, and falling to Kentucky in 1996.

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No. 4 LOUISVILLE (24-6)

First-round opponent: No. 13 Austin Peay.

Season in brief: In only their second season under Rick Pitino, the Cardinals won 17 games in a row and rose as high as No. 2 in the rankings before hitting a losing stretch late in the season. Key victories were over Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana and Marquette. But their tournament prospects dimmed considerably when leading rebounder Ellis Myles was lost for the season to a knee injury and center Marvin Stone faced repeated suspensions because of NCAA scrutiny over his amateur status.

Player to watch: Reece Gaines. The senior guard switched from shooting guard to the point at Pitino's request and still led the team in scoring, averaging almost 19 points.

Tidbit: Pitino's NCAA record is a stunning 26-7 with four Final Fours -- one at Providence and three at Kentucky -- along with the 1996 national title.

NCAA bio: First appearance under Pitino. First trip under any coach other than Denny Crum since 1968. Two NCAA titles, in 1980 and '86, and seven Final Fours, six of them under Crum.

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No. 5 MISSISSIPPI STATE (21-9)

First-round opponent: No. 12 Butler.

Season in brief: The Bulldogs were one of the Southeastern Conference's up-and-down teams. But they were more up than down at the end, reaching the SEC title game against Kentucky before losing, 64-57, to the conference's dominant team and one of the tournament's four No. 1 seeded teams. Mississippi State's most notable nonconference victories were over Xavier and Oklahoma.

Player to watch: Mario Austin. The junior center says he will return for his senior season after briefly declaring for the NBA draft last year, only to change his mind. Staying is a good idea after his erratic season. He had as many as 28 points and as few as five.

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