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The Smart Money Will Be on Stanford

March 15, 2004|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

Stanford and Connecticut are seeded Nos. 1 and 2 for good reason. They are clearly better than anyone else in the region and it would take a monumental effort by any other team to make the Elite Eight.

North Carolina State must regain its footing after blowing a huge lead to Maryland in an ACC tournament semifinal. Meanwhile, the Terrapins could be spent from the comeback against the Wolfpack and beating Duke in overtime.

Syracuse is defending national champion in name only and none of the lower-seeded teams appear to have the firepower or intangibles to make a serious run.

A Stanford vs. Connecticut showdown could be the highlight of the Elite Eight.

Best first-round game: No. 8 Alabama vs. No. 9 Southern Illinois. Don't be fooled by Alabama's 12 losses. The Crimson Tide played a brutal schedule and won't flinch at facing the four-loss Salukis, who have lost two of three since winning 16 in a row.

Upset in the making: No. 10 Dayton over No. 7 DePaul. The Blue Demons appear vulnerable, especially if they get off to the same somnolent start they did against Cincinnati in the Conference USA final. Dayton's Keith Waleskowski must match the production DePaul's do-everything forward Delonte Holland and allow Flyer guard Ramod Marshall to make the difference.

Impact coach: Maryland's Gary Williams. He led the Terrapins to the NCAA title two years ago and last week took a team with nine freshmen and sophomores to Maryland's first Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 20 years with a stunning four-day run that included overcoming a 19-point halftime deficit against North Carolina State in the semifinal and beating Duke in the final.

Impact player: Emeka Okafor of Connecticut. When healthy, he could be the dominant player in America. With a stress fracture in his back, he was good enough to be the leading rebounder in the Huskies' victory over Pittsburgh in the Big East tournament final.

The pick: Stanford has been as close to unbeatable as any team in many years. With a variety of weapons, a coach in his prime and a fairly easy path to the Elite Eight, the Cardinal gets the nod.

*--* No. 1 STANFORD (29-1)


First-round opponent: No. 16 Texas San Antonio, Thursday.

Impressive victories: Dec. 6, Kansas, 64-58; Dec. 20, Gonzaga, 87-80; Jan. 10, at Arizona, 82-72.

Disturbing loss: March 6, at Washington, 75-62.

Top players: Jr. Josh Childress, F, 15.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg; Sr. Matt Lottich, G, 12.3 ppg, 85.5% FT; So. Chris Hernandez, G, 10.6 ppg, 4.7 apg.

Skinny: As Stanford's winning streak grew, so did the pressure of entering the NCAA tournament unbeaten. Dropping the regular-season finale may have shaken the Cardinal's tree, but the pressure is gone and Stanford, which never beats itself and is looking to the return of a healthy Justin Davis at power forward, can go about its business of getting to the Final Four for the first time since 1998.

*--* No. 2 CONNECTICUT (27-6)


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

Impressive victories: Jan. 11, Oklahoma, 86-59; Jan. 19, Pittsburgh, 68-65; Feb. 2, Syracuse, 84-56.

Disturbing losses: Nov. 26, Georgia Tech, 77-61; Feb. 9, at Notre Dame, 80-74.

Top players: Jr. Emeka Okafor, C, 18.7 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 4.5 bpg; Jr. Ben Gordon, G, 17.2 ppg, 5.0 apg; Fr. Charlie Villanueva, F, 10.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg.

Skinny: Loaded with talent, the Huskies were preseason favorites, but they enter the tournament with Okafor slowed by a bad back and their offense not having always clicked as they had hoped. Still, they remain as deep and athletic as any team, led by an unforgiving defense that held opponents to 36.9% shooting in the regular season.

*--* No. 3 NORTH CAROLINA STATE (20-9)


First-round opponent: No. 14 Louisiana Lafayette, Friday.

Impressive victories: Jan. 24, Georgia Tech, 76-72; Feb. 15, Duke, 78-74; March 6, at Wake Forest, 81-70.

Disturbing losses: Dec. 2, at Michigan, 68-61; Feb. 18, at Clemson, 60-55.

Top players: Jr. Julius Hodge, F, 18.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg; Sr. Marcus Melvin, F, 14.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg; Sr. Scooter Sherrill, G, 10.8 ppg

Skinny: N.C. State's versatility makes it one of the most difficult teams in the country to match up with. Hodge, Melvin and Ilian Evtimov can all shoot three-pointers, and each can also score from inside. Coach Herb Sendek did an outstanding job of keeping N.C. State near the top of the ACC, and though the Wolfpack hasn't been to the Sweet 16 since 1990, it could easily make it this year. If the game comes down to free throws, N.C. State is a good bet to advance. The Wolfpack shoots 79.8% from the line, best in the country.

*--* No. 4 MARYLAND (19-11)


First-round opponent: No. 13 Texas El Paso, Thursday.

Impressive victories: Dec. 10, at Florida, 69-68; Jan. 14, North Carolina, 90-84; March 3, at N.C. State, 70-69. March 13, N.C. State, March 14, Duke, 95-87 in ACC final.

Disturbing loss: Dec. 7, at West Virginia, 78-77.

Top players: So. John Gilchrist, G, 14.6 ppg, 4.8 apg; So. Nik Caner-Medley, F, 13.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg; Sr. Jamar Smith, C, 12.2 ppg, 9.0 rpg

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