Nevada Las Vegas fell one victory short of the Final Four last season, and has essentially the same team back--plus Larry Johnson, the 6-7 power forward who is one of the most dominant players in the country. UNLV, ranked third, is seeded first in a regional that doesn't include any other teams in the top 12. Arizona, which has been dominant in the later part of the season, is seeded second, setting up a possible regional final between coaches Jerry Tarkanian and Lute Olson, whose rivalry has a personal edge. Defending NCAA champion Michigan opens against Illinois State, the alma mater of Coach Steve Fisher.
Matchups--Thursday at Salt Lake City: Nevada Las Vegas (29-5) vs. Arkansas Little Rock (20-9); Ohio State (16-12) vs. Providence (17-11); Oregon State (22-6) vs. Ball State (24-6); Louisville (26-7) vs. Idaho (25-5). Friday at Long Beach: New Mexico State (26-4) vs. Loyola Marymount (23-5); Michigan (22-7) vs. Illinois State (18-12); Alabama (24-8) vs. Colorado State (21-8); Arizona (24-6) vs. South Florida (20-10).
Seedings--1. Nevada Las Vegas, 2. Arizona, 3. Michigan, 4. Louisville, 5. Oregon State, 6. New Mexico State, 7. Alabama, 8. Ohio State, 9. Providence, 10. Colorado State, 11. Loyola Marymount, 12. Ball State, 13. Idaho, 14. Illinois State, 15. South Florida, 16. Arkansas Little Rock.
Who's hot--Arizona, UNLV.
Arizona swept through the Pacific 10 tournament, winning by 23, 24 and 16 points, and won its final 11 regular-season conference games by an average of 21 points. UNLV won its Big West tournament games by 22, 27, and 18 points.
Who's not--Oregon State.
The Beavers were upset by Arizona State in the Pac-10 tournament, and were blown out by Arizona in the final game of the regular season, 87-60, in a game in which Gary Payton, held to five points, said he did not try his hardest.
Tournament tested--UNLV, Arizona, Louisville.
UNLV, at 20-10, has the sixth-highest winning percentage in NCAA tournament history among teams with at least 20 appearances. Arizona is 9-8, but made the Final Four two years ago and the Final 16 last year. Louisville is 37-22, with four Final Four appearances in the 1980s and two championships.
Time will tell--Loyola Marymount, New Mexico State, South Florida.
Loyola faces the difficult emotional task of playing after the death of Hank Gathers. New Mexico State, which made it to the Final Four in 1970 under Lou Henson, returns to the tournament for the first time since 1979. South Florida is making its debut.
Players to watch--Larry Johnson, Anderson Hunt (UNLV); Gary Payton (Oregon State); Keith Hill (New Mexico State); Bo Kimble (Loyola Marymount); Sean Rooks (Arizona); Rumeal Robinson, Sean Higgins (Michigan); Carl Brown (Arkansas Little Rock); Jimmy Jackson (Ohio State); LaBradford Smith (Louisville); Mike Mitchell (Colorado State); Curtis Kidd (Ball State).
Johnson, a junior, is as certain to be an NBA success as anyone playing. Payton is the Ducks' trash-talking guard who was being touted as national player of the year before a strange lapse against Arizona in which he was held to five points. Kimble leads the nation in scoring.
Coaches to watch--Jerry Tarkanian (UNLV), Denny Crum (Louisville), Neil McCarthy (New Mexico State), Steve Fisher (Michigan), Lute Olson (Arizona).
The only coach in the tournament who has won every NCAA game he ever coached is Fisher, who guided Michigan to the title after Bill Frieder accepted the Arizona State job last season. McCarthy, with nine 20-win seasons in 15 years, is one of the country's most underrated coaches.