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NCAA PREVIEW / ST. LOUIS REGIONAL

Hard Road Awaits Kentucky, Gonzaga

March 15, 2004|Rob Fernas | Times Staff Writer

So will it be reigning 'Cats or 'Dogs after the regional final is played March 28 in St. Louis?

The top-seeded Kentucky Wildcats and the No. 2 Gonzaga Bulldogs certainly are capable of earning a spot in the Final Four. But after first-round walkovers, the road to San Antonio won't be easy for the front-runners. Standing in their way are a number of dangerous teams.

On Gonzaga's side of the bracket, Georgia Tech looms as a threat after posting its best conference finish since 1996 and ending Duke's 41-game home winning streak two weeks ago. A possible second-round matchup with battle-tested Michigan State also could prove troublesome for the Bulldogs, whose 20-game winning streak is the nation's longest.

Kentucky, after dispatching the winner of the play-in game between Lehigh and Florida A&M, could meet a hot Washington team in the second round. After that, the Wildcats could face a challenge from either Kansas or Providence in the Sweet 16.

But don't count on Kentucky stumbling early. The Southeastern Conference champions have reached the Sweet 16 in five of the last six seasons.

Gonzaga, from Spokane, Wash., has the advantage of playing what amounts to home games in the first two rounds in Seattle. The Bulldogs are 14-0 this season in games played in Washington.

Best first-round game: Fifth-seeded Providence vs. No. 12 Pacific. If nothing else, Pacific should be inspired to gain some respect for the Big West Conference after regular-season champion Utah State (25-3) was snubbed by the NCAA selection committee. With a 15-game winning streak, Pacific is among the hottest teams in the nation and played Duke and Saint Joseph's tough in early losses.

Upset in the making: Eleventh-seeded Utah over No. 6 Boston College. Utah could have fallen apart after longtime coach Rick Majerus resigned Jan. 28 because of health concerns. Instead, the Utes gelled under Kerry Rupp, going 9-3 and winning the Mountain West tournament. Utah's strong front line and the three-point shooting of senior guard Nick Jacobson will be a tough combination for Boston College. Experience also favors the Utes. Boston College's leading scorers are Craig Smith, a sophomore from Fairfax High, and freshman Jared Dudley.

Impact coach: Tubby Smith, Kentucky. Smith signed a contract after last season that pays him at least $2.5 million per season, and it's easy to see why he gets the big bucks. In his seventh season at Kentucky, Smith has guided the Wildcats to a 190-51 record, one national championship, two Elite Eight appearances and two Sweet 16 appearances.

Impact player: Ronny Turiaf, Gonzaga. Even when he is having an off night, Turiaf finds ways to contribute. The 6-foot-10 junior made only one of his first 11 shots in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament, but his two putback baskets in the final minute gave the Bulldogs a 63-62 victory over Santa Clara on March 7. He came back the next night by matching career highs with 29 points and 14 rebounds in an 84-71 victory over Saint Mary's in the final. Senior guard Blake Stepp, a Wooden Award finalist, gets most of the publicity for Gonzaga, but it's Turiaf, a future NBA player, who elevates the Bulldogs to a higher level.

The pick: Kentucky. The Wildcats have the best combination of balance, toughness, senior leadership, coaching and unrelenting defense.

*--* No. 1 KENTUCKY (26-4)

*--*

First-round opponent: Winner of the play-in game between No. 16 Lehigh and Florida A&M, Friday.

Impressive victories: Dec. 13, Michigan State, 79-74; Jan. 13, at Mississippi State, 67-66; Feb. 3, at Florida, 68-65; March 14, Florida, 89-73, in SEC final.

Disturbing losses: Jan. 17, Georgia, 65-57; Feb. 14, at Georgia, 74-68.

Top Players: Sr. Erik Daniels, F, 14.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg; Sr. Gerald Fitch, G, 15.4 ppg, 40.1 3-pt. FG%; Jr. Chuck Hayes, F, 10.7 ppg, 8.2 rpg;

Skinny: Kentucky plays smart, tough basketball. The Wildcats are especially strong on defense, holding foes to 39.9% shooting from the field. The 'Cats also pound the boards despite not having a truly elite big man. Depth is severely lacking, but that may not matter in the NCAA tourney, when coaches shorten their rotations. Outside shooting is a potential trouble spot. But UK has the starting five, the toughness and the coaching to go a long way.

*--* No. 2 GONZAGA (27-2)

*--*

First-round opponent: No.15 Valparaiso, Thursday.

Impressive victories: Nov. 29, Georgia, 82-76; Dec. 6, at Maryland, 82-68; Dec. 13, Missouri, 87-80.

Disturbing losses: None.

Top players: Jr. Ronny Turiaf, F, 15.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg; Sr. Blake Stepp, G, 14.7 ppg, 6.6 apg; Sr. Cory Violette, C, 14.1 ppg, 8.0 rpg.

Skinny: The West Coast Conference champions are making their sixth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance with arguably the best team in school history. Boasting talent, depth and senior leadership, the Bulldogs have a 20-game winning streak after posting a 16-0 record against teams in the overmatched WCC. Gonzaga's success starts with a formidable front line.

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