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Duke Looks Poised to Rise in the South

March 15, 2004|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

This has quickly been deemed the toughest of the four regions, and it's tough to argue. The bracket contains a veritable "Who's Who" of coaching legends: Mike Krzyzewski (Duke), Lute Olson (Arizona), Rick Pitino (Louisville), Roy Williams (North Carolina) and Bob Huggins (Cincinnati).

And how about some of the possible matchups?

The South could produce Duke vs. Arizona, the teams that played for the 2001 national championship, in a second-round game at Raleigh, N.C.

And fans on Tobacco Road are already frothing at the prospect of a Duke vs. North Carolina collision should both teams advance to the regional final.

Best first-round game: No. 6 North Carolina vs. No. 11 Air Force. It's all about expectations. North Carolina fans will expect their Tar Heels to take care of first-round business, but Air Force will be flying high after earning its first NCAA bid since 1962. This should be a terrific battle of coaching wits pitting Williams vs. Air Force's Joe Scott, a disciple of Pete Carril and the deliberate "Princeton" offense that has caused so many teams fits in NCAA history. In 1989, No. 16 Princeton came within a point of defeating No. 1 Georgetown. In 1996, of course, Princeton knocked out UCLA, the defending national champion.

Upset in the making: No. 13 East Tennessee State over No. 4 Cincinnati.

East Tennessee State has a 5-foot-7 dynamo sophomore point guard in Tim Smith, a fearless player who was the most valuable player in the Southern Conference tournament each of the last two years. Cincinnati has lost to a lower-seeded team in three of the last four NCAA tournaments. In 2000, as a No. 2, Cincinnati lost in the second round to No. 7 Tulsa. In the second round of 2002, No. 8 UCLA defeated the No. 1 Bearcats and, in the opening round last year, No. 9 Gonzaga pulled off the slight upset over No. 8 Cincinnati.

Impact coach: This is sort of like trying to pick your favorite Beatle. Olson and Pitino have won NCAA championships, Williams and Huggins have led teams to the Final Four, but it's tough to bet against Krzyzewski, who is widely considered the best college coach since John Wooden.

Impact player: Luol Deng, freshman forward, Duke. He was called this season's Carmelo Anthony by some, a freshman with star power who could carry his team to a national title. Deng started slowly, looking to defer to teammates as he developed his game, but he got better and better as the season went along. He was selected third-team all-ACC and finished in the top 10 in scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage and blocked shots.

The pick: Although this region is as tough as a $2 steak, picking against Duke is like picking against a sunrise. The Blue Devils have the most talent and the best coach.

What more could you want?

*--* No. 1 DUKE (27-5)


First-round opponent: No. 16 Alabama State, Thursday.

Impressive victories: Dec. 3, at Michigan State, 72-50; Jan. 17, Wake Forest, 84-72; March 6, North Carolina, 70-65.

Disturbing losses: Nov. 29, Purdue, 78-68; Feb. 15, North Carolina State, 78-74.

Top players: So. J.J. Redick, G, 16.6 ppg; Sr. Chris Duhon, G, 10.1 ppg, 6.3 apg; Fr. Luol Deng, F, 14.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg; So. Shelden Williams, F, 12.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg.

Skinny: There hasn't been a dominant No. 1 team in college basketball this season, but Duke has been consistently one of the best. A 12-point collapse to Maryland in the closing minutes of the ACC final raises some questions, but this squad still appears to have the right mixture of leadership (Duhon) and talent (Redick) to get to San Antonio. Redick might be the best pure shooter in the country (42% from three-point range) and Williams, when he stays out of foul trouble, provides enough muscle inside to keep teams honest. The X-factor is Deng. The 6-foot-8 freshman is a tough matchup, but he can be taken out of his game. He shot only one for 14 in a loss to Georgia Tech on March 3, but scored 25 points in a win over North Carolina three days later.

*--* No. 2 MISSISSIPPI STATE (25-3)


First-round opponent: No. 15 Monmouth, Friday.

Impressive victories: Jan. 17, at Louisiana State, 64-54; Jan. 21, at Florida, 79-68; Feb. 28, at Vanderbilt, 72-69.

Disturbing losses: Feb. 21, Alabama, 77-73.

Top players: Sr. Timmy Bowers, G, 15.3 ppg, 4.7 apg; Jr. Lawrence Roberts, F, 17.0 ppg, 10.4 rpg; Sr. Branden Vincent, F, 7.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg.

Skinny: In Roberts and Bowers, the Bulldogs have one of the best inside-outside duos in the nation. Roberts is a transfer from Baylor who deserves All-American mention; he is a bull in the low post and also can hit the occasional 15-footer. There's also a nice group of complementary players. The Bulldogs use their quickness to play good defense and their size to crash the boards. This is a team that could go a long way. Questions remain about the coaching acumen of Rick Stansbury, though.

*--* No. 3 TEXAS (23-7)


First-round opponent: No. 14 Princeton, Thursday.

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