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NCAA PREVIEW

Out of the Picture / There are 65 teams vying for the national championship, but lack of a local school makes it an especially puzzling tournament

No Local Knowledge Is Required for These Brackets

March 17, 2003|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

Suddenly, the NCAA tournament is a lot like the NFL for Los Angeles.

There are plenty of teams to cheer for -- but none of them belong to us.

There was no local drama when the field of 65 was announced Sunday, with Kentucky, Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma designated as the No. 1-seeded teams favored to reach the Final Four in New Orleans.

No need for UCLA's Bruins to gather at the Morgan Center to watch the pairings announcement -- only Steve Lavin's firing awaits.

No sudden run on Anteater paraphernalia at UC Irvine.

And no fresh surge of interest in USC, the last of nine area teams to see its final smidgen of hope disappear Saturday with a loss to Oregon in the title game of the Pacific 10 tournament.

What had been likely for months is now official: The L.A. area is without an NCAA team for the first time since 1984.

If you want a home team, you'll have to look south to the University of San Diego Toreros, who will play Stanford in the first round Thursday in Spokane, Wash.

"That's been pointed out to me, that we're the one team from Southern California going to the tournament. That's a daunting responsibility," said San Diego Coach Brad Holland, who played at UCLA. "It all started for us back when we beat UCLA at UCLA. That's when I thought we might have a pretty good club here."

The usual controversies accompanied the announcement of the bracket -- the who's ins and who's outs.

But the most contentious issue is that the two runaway favorites for the national title -- Kentucky and Arizona -- would meet not in the NCAA championship game but in a semifinal if they make it to the Final Four on April 5-7.

Arizona (25-3) was seeded No. 1 in the West as expected, despite its upset loss to UCLA in the Pac-10 tournament.

But Kentucky (29-3) was seeded No. 1 in the Midwest instead of the South as expected. (The West and Midwest winners meet in one semifinal, and the South and East winners in the other.)

Jim Livengood, chairman of the 10-member NCAA selection committee -- and the athletic director at Arizona -- said the reasoning was that by playing in the Midwest, Kentucky would play its regional games in Minneapolis, which is closer to Kentucky than San Antonio, site of the South regional.

Minneapolis is approximately 847 miles from Lexington.

San Antonio is approximately 1,150.

And as anyone who has ever watched a Kentucky NCAA tournament game knows, Ashley Judd isn't the only fan who would follow the Wildcats to Walla Walla, Wash. -- that's 2,263 miles -- if that's what it took.

As for Arizona and any favoritism issue, let it be noted that Livengood was required to leave the room when Arizona was discussed, and that Lute Olson's team ended up in a bracket that includes Kansas, Duke and Illinois.

"In the West, we've got some very heavy hitters," said Olson, whose team opens against Vermont on Thursday in Salt Lake City and would face Cincinnati or Gonzaga in the second round . "No one did us any favors. No one can say that Livengood gave us any breaks."

The selection committee also was pressed to defend its choice to make Texas (22-6) a No. 1 instead of Kansas (25-7).

The Big 12 was given two No. 1s, with the other going to tournament champion Oklahoma, which finished 24-6.

Texas won neither the tournament nor the regular-season title, which went to Kansas.

Livengood's response: Texas beat Kansas.

Wrong. Kansas won the only meeting, 90-87.

"I'm sorry, I'm thinking of Oklahoma," Livengood said, scrambling. "The hard thing is trying to fit five teams into four spots."

The actual reasoning might be found in the unbalanced schedule in the Big 12, which meant Texas played a tougher schedule than Kansas.

But on to the real emotional issues, which teams play on and which teams go home.

Among those left out: Bob Knight's Texas Tech team and North Carolina, both longshots after posting losing conference records then pulling big upsets in conference tournaments. (Texas Tech beat Texas, and North Carolina beat Maryland.)

Few would contend those teams were deserving.

Also passed over: Nevada Las Vegas, which with a Ratings Percentage Index of 40 was the highest-rated team not to make the field. The Rebels (21-10) blew a lead against Colorado State to lose the Mountain West title game Saturday.

The Big East took some lumps too, with Seton Hall (17-11, No. 41 RPI) and Boston College (18-11, No. 49) both left out. Seton Hall had the strongest case, with victories over Pittsburgh and Notre Dame late in the season.

Those spots might have been the ones claimed by Auburn and Alabama of the Southeastern Conference, rated the nation's toughest.

Both had RPIs in the 30s, but Alabama (17-11) was on the bubble despite being No. 1 in the Associated Press poll in December.

After an early victory over Oklahoma, the Crimson Tide was only 7-9 in the SEC and lost eight of its final 11, including an SEC tournament game to Vanderbilt. But Alabama apparently was saved by its nonconference schedule, rated third behind Arizona and Louisville.

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