NCAA's middle ground a toss-up After top seeds, there are plenty of question marks

March 12, 1997|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

At the least, the bureaucrats on the NCAA men's basketball committee have done a good job finding the cream in a field's crop. The past five NCAA champions, and six of the past seven, were No. 1 seeds.

It's a 64-team tournament, however, and there's a crowded middle ground in between the sure winners and losers. Boston College went into the Big East tournament on the bubble but came out a No. 5 seed. Will anyone blink if Maryland, another No. 5, loses to the College of Charleston, No. 12 seed in the Southeast but No. 16 in the national rankings?

Which teams are hard to figure, and where might the upsets occur?

East

The X-factor: Third seed New Mexico is one of the best teams in the country when it's at home in the altitude of Albuquerque, but will the Lobos enjoy Pittsburgh as much as they do The Pit?

Upset waiting to happen: Even if California had Ed Gray, the potent guard whose season was ended by a broken foot, 12th seed Princeton would have the antidote. Sydney Johnson, the Towson Catholic product who was the Ivy League Player of the Year, can defend with anyone this side of Gary Payton.

What should happen: Besides Princeton, a first-round surprise could come from Massachusetts, over Louisville. The Minutemen can beat New Mexico in the second round, but their chances stop in the Sweet 16, against South Carolina. In the other half of the bracket, the NCAA couldn't have made it any easier for North Carolina, giving the Tar Heels an opening weekend in Winston-Salem.

Southeast

The X-factor: Which Maryland team is going to show up in Memphis? The one that began the season 17-2, or the one that was about as impressive as Michigan down the stretch?

Upset waiting to happen: Fourth seed Arizona loves a fast pace that follows the lead of Mike Bibby and Miles Simon, but the South Alabama backcourt of Rusty Yoder and Jerome Coaxum can force a slower tempo. The Jaguars allowed an average of 44.6 points in the Sun Belt tournament.

What should happen: The Marquette-Providence winner will fall to Duke in the second round, but Illinois and Georgia are capable of beating the suddenly susceptible Blue Devils. Top-ranked Kansas should breeze through Memphis, and handle whatever comes in its path in the regional in Birmingham.

Midwest

The X-factor: The Pac-10 is one of three conferences without a tournament. Has UCLA's Steve Lavin ever called the shots in a postseason game?

Upset waiting to happen: There are two. Sixth seed Iowa State has few noteworthy wins, and the Cyclones should be an underdog against Illinois State. Fifth seed Tulsa shouldn't look ahead to the second round, because Boston University might have made it as an at-large if it hadn't beaten Drexel in American East.

What should happen: Mississippi and Temple will set a record for fewest points in a tournament game that doesn't involve Princeton. If the Owls can't upset Minnesota, Clemson can, even though the Tigers were unable to do so in December. Cincinnati, the preseason No. 1, hasn't beaten a Top 25 team all season, and is there any reason to think that the disgruntled Bearcats can get it together in time to eliminate suddenly serene UCLA in the third round?

West

The X-factor: Either fifth seed Boston College is on a roll, or the Big East is even worse than imagined. The Eagles impressed in conference tournament wins over Georgetown and Villanova, but they were so shaky in January, they needed overtime to beat Fairfield.

Upset waiting to happen: Is fourth seed St. Joseph's really one of the top 16 teams in the nation? The Hawks are a classic example of the sum exceeding the parts, but Pacific is just as deep, can also shoot the three and has 7-footer Michael Olowokandi off the bench.

What should happen: Stanford's Brevin Knight took it to Marcus Camby in the second round last year, and he'll take memories of that lesson into a similar meeting with Tim Duncan. The Western Athletic Conference hasn't done well in recent tournaments, and Utah might not survive a second-round game against Georgetown, which has played well on the road. It doesn't matter what happens on that side of the draw anyway, because Kentucky will emerge.

Final Four

The All-America team consists of a center and four forwards, proof that good guard play is at a premium.

Kansas has an unparalleled front line in Raef LaFrentz, Scot Pollard and Paul Pierce, but what separates the Jayhawks from the rest of the field is that they also have a seasoned floor leader, Jacque Vaughn. Kansas will beat North Carolina in one semifinal, Kentucky will stop UCLA in the other, and the Jayhawks will dethrone the Wildcats on March 31.

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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