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ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

They're No. 1, for Now

March 20, 2003|Robyn Norwood

Let's consider how the No. 1s might tumble.

Every year, at least one does.

History says Kentucky, Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma will not all be at the Final Four in New Orleans.

Most often, only two of the top-seeded teams make it through.

Since the NCAA began seeding the field in 1979, two No. 1s have reached the Final Four in 12 of 24 seasons.

Another 33.3% of the time, only one has made it.

In 12.5% of the cases, three top-seeded teams have made it.

In 4.2% of the tournaments -- or only once -- all four No. 1s have fallen short of the Final Four. That was in 1980.

But there has never been a season when all four made it.

So who will be upset and how will it happen?

Here's a look at the scenarios that could send some of them home.

(But keep in mind, not before the second round. No top-seeded team has ever lost a first-round game.)

Kentucky (29-3) -- To examine what happens when Kentucky loses, you have to go back to the last time the Wildcats lost ... 24 games ago.

It was Dec. 28 to be exact, in a stunning 81-63 upset by Louisville.

Coach Tubby Smith started earning his national coach of the year awards after that, remaking the Wildcats as a dominating defensive team -- a smart move given that Kentucky hardly has a roster of NBA stars-in-waiting.

Since then, only one team since has scored 80 points against Kentucky. Two haven't broken 50. Overall, the Wildcats are holding opponents to 64 points a game and 41% shooting. And during their run through the Southeastern Conference tournament in New Orleans --coincidentally the site of the Final Four -- they held all three opponents to less than 40% from the field.

"I think it's fairly obvious they're going to be back here in New Orleans, and we're just trying to find out who the other three teams are going to be with them," Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury said after losing to Kentucky in the SEC final.

Back when Kentucky lost three early-season games--to Virginia, Michigan State and Louisville -- there was a theme, however.

Guards Keith Bogans and Gerald Fitch shot poorly, combining to make only 23 of 68 attempts, or 33.8%, in those games.

Against Louisville, Bogans went five for 15 and scored 14 points, and Fitch was two for 10, finishing with five.

A disciplined defensive and offensive team such as Pittsburgh might have a chance against Kentucky if it can control the tempo -- a huge 'if.'

Of the four No. 1s, Kentucky is most likely to advance.

Still, the chances of the top-ranked team in the final Associated Press poll winning the NCAA title aren't as high as you might think.

In the last 25 seasons, the only five to do it were Kentucky in 1978, North Carolina in 1982, Duke in 1992 and 2001, and UCLA in 1995.

Arizona (25-3) -- Any perception of Arizona as unbeatable was thoroughly dispelled by UCLA in the Pacific 10 tournament.

And if a team struggling through its worst season since World War II -- a team that lost to Northern Arizona -- can beat the Wildcats, who's to say who can't?

On the other hand, some of Arizona's problems against UCLA were unique to the situation. The Wildcats had little incentive -- not a problem in the NCAA tournament -- and UCLA played at an emotional peak.

But most pertinently, point guard Jason Gardner had an awful game, going two for 20, and 0 for 12 from three-point range.

If he does that again, Arizona will be coming home early.

Gardner, for all his value to Arizona, is a streaky shooter, and, at 5-foot-10, has difficulty shooting over taller guards. He is better running the team and making clutch plays than firing away.

That puts pressure on Salim Stoudamire, a far better shooter, but one who occasionally has found his way into Lute Olson's doghouse, though he's emerged none the worse for it.

Luke Walton's ankle adds another area of vulnerability, should he roll it again.

Arizona's strengths are its depth -- perhaps only Florida's rivals the Wildcats -- and the senior savvy of Gardner, Walton and Rick Anderson.

They'll need every bit of it, with the toughest road to the Final Four of any top-seeded team. Arizona could face Illinois in the Sweet 16 and either Kansas or Duke in the West regional final.

Arizona beat Kansas in January, you might remember -- but only after coming from 20 points behind.

Texas (22-6) -- The Longhorns have claimed a No. 1 seeding for the first time, and nobody knows quite what to expect.

"I'm quite eager myself to see how they handle it," Coach Rick Barnes said. "They understand how quickly it can be over with, they do know that."

They know that from experience, after entering the 2001 tournament as a sixth-seeded team only to lose to Temple in the first round. Last season, Texas advanced to the Sweet 16 before losing to Oregon on a shot by Frederick Jones in the final seconds.

Point guard T.J. Ford is one of the most watchable players in the tournament, virtually unstoppable off the dribble, but all that quickness goes for naught if he misses the finishing shot. (He shoots 41.7% despite taking a lot of shots from the lane.)

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