The Gazette's March of madness: West and Midwest
By Dan Gladman
For the second year in a row it looks like a cakewalk to the Final Four for Rick Pitino's Kentucky Wildcats. Cautiously demolishing Georgia in last week's Southeastern conference championship game, the Cats are hungry to be the first repeat NCAA winner since Duke in 1992.
A second round tilt with the winner of the Iowa-Virginia game looks to be their toughest hurdle in the weak West regional. While playing far from home can be looked at as a disadvantage, none of the top West contenders can claim homecourt, though second-ranked Utah must be envious of Kentucky, which plays its first and second round games in Salt Lake City.
It is Utah which potentially faces the most fearsome second round opponent in the regional. The winner of North Carolina-Charlotte versus Georgetown is sure to give the Utes an early scare. Expect an upset in round two in Tucson, Arizona.
Wake Forest is the biggest question mark in the West. After starting the season with a bang and climbing in December to the No. 1 ranking, the Demon Deacons fell apart, losing their shooting touch and key Atlantic Coast Conference games. A first round, homecourt advantage in Winston-Salem, N.C. was lost during the late season tailspin. But the Deacs, led by all-American Tim Duncan and his divine numbers 20 points, 14.5 rebounds, 3.3 blocks per game can still be expected to make some noise. Kentucky is hoping Wake gets knocked off early, perhaps by Oklahoma or Georgetown.
Iowa versus Virginia is a classic first round NCAA matchup, pitting the Hawkeyes' non-stop full court press against the Cavaliers' smothering defence.
More uncertain is the Midwest bracket of the 64-team field. Minnesota was consistent all year in its Big Ten championship season but the Gophers lack tournament experience. They missed last year's NCAA and in 1995 lost in the first round. The Big Ten doesn't have a post-season tournament so Minny has yet to be tested with the season on the line. A Final Four berth is unexpected. In a bracket of upstarts, look for an upset in San Antonio, Texas.
Number-four Clemson has struggled of late and fifth-ranked Tulsa always steps up come tournament time. The Golden Hurricane lost in the first round last year but tough road wins this year include a victory at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion.
On the bottom half of the Midwest bracket, two names literally jump out UCLA and Cincinnati. The UCLA Bruins, champions two years ago, were outsmarted but not surprised last year by the Princeton Tigers. That first round exit has the Bruins hungry again and, led by first-year coach Steve Lavin, they are talking championship again.
Perennial underachievers, the Cincinnati Bearcats boast one of the strongest starting fives in the tournament, with forward Danny Fortson's 21.4 points and 9.3 boards per game leading the way. A Final Four appearance in 1993 has been followed by unsavoury NCAA runs in the years since. Last year's Sweet Sixteen loss to Mississippi State needs to be improved upon this year.
Xavier and Iowa State figure to pull at least an upset between them.
The Family Berserker's Final Four picks:
1. Wake Forest
4. New Mexico