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NCAA PREVIEW | West Regional/ THE BREAKDOWN

Upset Doesn't Cost Arizona

March 17, 2003|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

No. 1 ARIZONA (25-3)

First-round opponent: No. 16 Vermont.

Season in brief: Ranked No. 1 for more of the season than any other team, Arizona was stunned by UCLA in overtime in the first round of the Pacific 10 tournament, but still claimed a top regional seeding in the NCAA field. The Wildcats' only other losses were to Stanford and to Louisiana State, in a game Luke Walton missed because of an ankle injury and graduation. Key victories were over Texas and Kansas.

Player to watch: Jason Gardner. The senior point guard's pro prospects are limited because of his 5-10 build, but he is the Wildcats' player in the clutch despite sometimes erratic shooting. Walton raises the level of play with his passing finesse, and guard Salim Stoudamire is Arizona's X-factor.

Tidbit: If Arizona wins the NCAA title, Lute Olson will become the oldest coach to win the national championship, at 68. Phog Allen was 66 when Kansas won in 1952.

NCAA bio: The Wildcats' string of 19 consecutive tournament appearances is the longest current streak and second only to North Carolina's 27 in NCAA history. Arizona has played in Four Final Fours -- 1988, '94, '97 and 2001 -- and the 1997 championship team was the only team in NCAA history to defeat three No. 1-seeded teams on the way to the title.

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No. 2 KANSAS (25-7)

First-round opponent: No. 15 Utah State.

Season in brief: The Jayhawks won the Big 12 regular-season title in a fierce battle with Texas and Oklahoma, then lost in the semifinals of the conference tournament but got a No. 2 regional seeding. After starting the season ranked No. 2, they lost three of their first six, to North Carolina, Florida and Oregon, before hitting their stride. Lost to Arizona at home in January. Jayhawks' key injury is the loss of starting forward Wayne Simien late in the season because of a recurring shoulder injury.

Player to watch: Kirk Hinrich. Senior forward Nick Collison is a national player-of-the-year candidate too, but senior guard Hinrich's three-point shooting and fastbreak ability make the Jayhawks go.

Tidbit: Hinrich and Collison both played for teams coached by their fathers in high school in Iowa.

NCAA bio: Reached the Final Four last season for the first time since 1993, but lost to eventual champion Maryland in the semifinals. Kansas has appeared in 11 Final Fours -- trailing only North Carolina, UCLA, Duke and Kentucky -- and won two national championships, in 1952 and '88.

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No. 3 DUKE (24-6)

First-round opponent: No. 14 Colorado State.

Season in brief: Although the Blue Devils spent a couple of weeks at No. 1 this season, they aren't quite up to the level of recent Duke teams. They split regular-season meetings with Wake Forest, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State and Florida State, and were upset by St. John's before turning it on in the ACC tournament, winning the title with a 84-77 decision over N.C. State on Sunday.

Player to watch: J.J. Redick. Senior forward Dahntay Jones often leads the way, but Redick, a freshman guard, isn't far behind, and he's the Blue Devils' best three-point shooter. He had 30 points in the ACC tournament championship game. Other freshman standouts: Shelden Williams and Shavlik Randolph.

Tidbit: Randolph, the grandson of North Carolina State All-American Ronnie Shavlik, wears No. 42 in hopes he'll be "half the player" his grandfather was. (Shavlik wore No. 84.)

NCAA bio: Three NCAA championships, in 1991, '92 and 2001, and 13 Final Fours. Eliminated in a regional semifinal by Indiana last season after entering the tournament as the No. 1-seeded team in the South and the defending national champion.

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No. 4 ILLINOIS (24-6)

First-round opponent: No. 13 Western Kentucky.

Season in brief: The Illini were the highest-ranked team from the much-maligned Big Ten even though Wisconsin won the regular-season title, and they proved themselves by winning the conference tournament with a 72-59 decision over Ohio State Sunday in the final. Notable nonconference results included a victory over Missouri and a loss to Memphis.

Player to watch: Brian Cook. The senior forward averaged 20 points and seven rebounds to earn Big Ten player-of-the-year honors.

Tidbit: Cook is only the second Illinois player in 60 years to lead the league in scoring. (Kendall Gill was the other, in 1990.)

NCAA bio: Lost to Kansas in the Sweet 16 last season after defeating San Diego State and Creighton, a year after reaching the Elite Eight in Bill Self's first season as coach. Made the Final Four in 1949, '51 and '52 under Harry Combes, and returned in 1989 with a team led by Gill, Kenny Battle and Nick Anderson and coached by Lou Henson.

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No. 5 NOTRE DAME (22-9)

First-round opponent: No. 12 Wisconsin Milwaukee.

Season in brief: The Irish made an early impression with victories over highly ranked Marquette, Maryland and Texas. But they enter limping after a first-round Big East tournament loss to St. John's and four losses in their last five. Put it in its best light, that means Notre Dame is rested.

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