Among survivors, even the surprises have familiar ring

It's long time, no see for Penn State and USC

NCAA Tournament

March 19, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Cinderella will have to come from a different type of neighborhood in this year's NCAA tournament.

Of the 16 teams remaining from the original field of 65, only Gonzaga qualifies by virtue of both its conference affiliation (West Coast) and its low seeding (12th). But how can a team that has made the Sweet 16 three years running be considered a surprise?

That doesn't mean there aren't any rags-to-riches stories remaining on the road to Minneapolis.

Here are a few of them:

East

Southern Cal, which beat third-seeded Boston College in Saturday's second-round game in Uniondale, N.Y., hasn't been this deep in the tournament since reaching the Final Four in 1954.

The sixth-seeded Trojans, who will play second-seeded Kentucky on Thursday in Philadelphia, are a mostly anonymous bunch that was largely overshadowed in the Pac-10. It shouldn't be different this week, with crosstown-rival UCLA still getting more attention in its Sweet 16 showdown with top-seeded Duke.

USC has the muscle to give the Wildcats some problems inside, in particular with Sam Clancy and David Bluthenthal. The Trojans also showed a good deal of quickness against BC, forcing 27 turnovers. And they displayed depth, with reserve point guard Robert Hutchinson hitting big free throws down the stretch.

You can make a case for Kentucky's being one of this year's heartwarming sagas, given that the Wildcats started 3-5 and rumors swirled around coach Tubby Smith that he would be leaving Lexington as soon as his son Saul, the team's much-maligned senior point guard, played his last game. That still might happen, but don't be surprised if the Wildcats advance to the Final Four.

The marquee semifinal is between Duke and UCLA. If there is any team in the tournament that has the talent to stay with the Blue Devils, it's the Bruins. The matchup of point guards Jason Williams and Earl Watson could be the key.

There are 19 NCAA championships among the remaining teams in the East, and Duke has to be considered the favorite to add to its two back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992 under Mike Krzyzewski. But the Blue Devils might have the toughest road to get there of any of the top seeds left in the field.

West

The best story line with a legitimate chance disappeared when St. Joseph's went down to Stanford Saturday night in San Diego. The next-best story line is the matchup between third-seeded Maryland and 10th-seeded Georgetown, which has a lot of interest in this area but much less outside the Capital Beltway.

The teams haven't played each other since Joe Smith's first game as a Maryland freshman in 1993-94, and neither has much flash. Both are solid, deep and well-coached, and the outcome will depend mostly on which team shows up.

Stanford is still the favorite to emerge from Anaheim, but the Cardinal was a bit exposed by St. Joe's, particularly by Hawks star Marvin O'Connor. Though this is not close to the best team Bob Huggins has had at Cincinnati, the Bearcats are athletic enough (in the backcourt particularly) to give Stanford trouble.

If Maryland gets the balance it did Saturday against Georgia State -- and the bench play -- the Terrapins will get farther than they have since 1975. Getting to the school's first Final Four will be another obstacle, and the Terrapins are much more athletic than Stanford.

Considering the teams the Cardinal has lost to this season -- Arizona and UCLA -- both the Terrapins and Hoyas have a chance.

Midwest

Again, the power conferences will be represented in San Antonio. It's the Big Ten (Illinois) against the Big 12 (Kansas) and the Pac-10 (Arizona) against the Southeastern (Mississippi).

Though most expect the Illini and Wildcats to play for the third time this season -- they've split two -- come Sunday at the Alamodome, don't be shocked to see the Jayhawks spoil that scenario.

Kansas overcame a roller-coaster regular season and a disappointing Big 12 tournament to post two easy victories in Dayton, Ohio, advancing past the second round for the first time since 1997.

But do Hawaii and Syracuse prepare a team for Illinois? The Jayhawks are the only team in the country to rank in the top five in field-goal shooting and field-goal defense, and will need to do both well to beat Illinois.

Arizona started the season as No. 1 in the country and has shown flashes recently (a win at Stanford two weeks ago) of being a legitimate contender for Lute Olson's second title.

If there's a sentimental favorite now, it's Olson. The first championship helped Olson's postseason reputation and softened his image. The death of his wife this season could be a big story if the Wildcats reach Minneapolis.

The X-factor is Mississippi. The Rebels were lucky to escape little Iona and make big Jeff Ruland cry, and needed a late three-pointer yesterday to edge Notre Dame. It doesn't seem likely Ole Miss has the depth to stay with Arizona, but it certainly has the quickness.

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