Coach: Rick Pitino
Key Player: Surprise, it isn't All-American forward Jamal Mashburn, who has already declared himself eligible for the NBA draft. Instead, the honor goes to point guard Travis Ford. Everyone knew Mashburn was going to be great. But no one knew how Ford would play. Now they do. Ford averaged 12.9 points and led the team in assists with 128. He was second in minutes played and shot 51.1%. He has been invaluable in Pitino's motion offense.
Little-known Fact: Pitino's Lexington restaurant, Bravo Pitino, grossed about $2 million last year.
Outlook: It would be most helpful if freshman forward Rodrick Rhodes returned to his early season form, when he was the MVP of the ECAC Holiday Festival. And it wouldn't hurt if the Wildcats, an average team at best from the free throw line, converted more attempts. Still, Kentucky has the formidable Mashburn, who is averaging 21.8 points and 8.4 rebounds. It has Ford and enough depth to reach the final eight or four teams. One thing is for sure: If faced with a last-second shot, Pitino will put a Kentucky defender on whoever is throwing the ball inbounds. He failed to do so against Duke last year, and look what happened.
2. SETON HALL
Coach: P.J. Carlesimo
Key Player: Senior guard Terry Dehere, the player of the year in the Big East Conference, survived a nasty midseason shooting slump and has increased his scoring average to 21.8 points. He is shooting 40.8% from the three-point line, which leads the Pirates.
Little-known Fact: Dehere was born in Trinidad and when he signed his letter of intent with Seton Hall, he had yet to start a high school game.
Outlook: Few teams ended the regular season playing better than the resurgent Pirates. Dehere is hot. Jerry Walker, the Big East's defensive player of the year, has made the transition from center to power forward. Sophomore center Luther Wright is probably the most improved player in the league. They ended the regular season with eight consecutive victories. A final eight appearance sounds about right for Seton Hall.
3. FLORIDA STATE
Coach: Pat Kennedy
Key Player: Point guard Charlie Ward can't be found on the first, second or third All-ACC teams. But his value to the Seminoles can't be overestimated. Without him, Florida State loses leadership, toughness and a player unafraid to take big shots at key moments of a game. Hampered by a shoulder injury for various parts of the season, Ward only recently returned to the Florida State lineup. His impact was immediately felt as Sam Cassell, more comfortable as the shooting guard, was allowed to move back to his original position.
Little-known Fact: By his senior year at King's College Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Kennedy was the No. 1 assistant on the coaching staff. He scouted his first game as a junior and was promoted to the top assistant the next year.
Outlook: At last the Seminoles have Ward back, as well as freshman forward Derrick Carroll. That gives Florida State a lineup that goes nine-deep. Looking for a dark horse team to reach the final eight or even the Final Four? This is the one.
Coach: Tom Davis
Key Player: Big Ten opponents will celebrate when Acie Earl completes his eligibility at season's end. A solid scorer (17.2 points per game), a fantastic shot blocker (the all-time conference leader) and an accomplished rebounder (9.6 per game, first in the Big Ten this season), Earl is the heart and soul of this team.
Little-known Fact: The Hawkeyes were eliminated from the NCAA tournament by eventual champion Duke in each of the last two years.
Outlook: Earl's contribution is almost automatic: double-digit points, near double-digit rebounds and lots of intimidation on the defensive end. In most cases, Davis' pressing defense funnels everything toward Earl. But Iowa also needs guard Val Barnes to show signs of consistency. The Hawkeyes can rebound, play defense and are experienced enough to win a tournament game or two.
5. WAKE FOREST
Coach: Dave Odom
Key Player: Only one player was a unanimous choice for All-ACC first team--junior forward Rodney Rogers. Rogers led the league with a 21.1-point average and also had 7.5 rebounds per game. Few players can match his power near the basket, and even fewer can match his quickness in the open court. He is the foundation on which this team is built. The only question left is whether he will leave Wake Forest a year early for the NBA draft.
Little-known Fact: Despite losing four starters, the Demon Deacons were able to surpass the 17-victory mark of a season ago.
Outlook: Much was expected of Wake Forest last year, but the Deacons collapsed down the stretch and were eliminated early in the NCAA tournament. This season, even with the loss of four starters, Wake Forest is in much better position to do some damage. A final 16 appearance wouldn't be a surprise.
6. KANSAS STATE
Coach: Dana Altman
Key Player: Anthony Beane, a junior college transfer, is averaging 39 minutes, 10.1 points and 4.7 assists. During the regular season he won six games in the final seconds with shots, steals or free throws. Beane, not the more publicized Darrin Hancock of Kansas, received the Big Eight's Newcomer of the Year honor.
Little-known Fact: In regular-season games decided by four or fewer points, the Wildcats were 9-1.
Outlook: If Kansas State is to do any damage in the tournament, it must keep opponents under 70 points (the Wildcats are 12-1 when they do) and not abandon its conservative half-court offense. Prediction: one game and out.
7. WESTERN KENTUCKY
Coach: Ralph Willard
Key Player: Darnell Mee, the best overall player in the Sun Belt Conference, averaged 19.5 points, six rebounds and 3.3 steals--not bad for a 6-3 guard.
Little-known Fact: This is Western Kentucky's first NCAA invitation since 1987 and its first Sun Belt tournament championship.
Outlook: Willard, a former assistant on Rick Pitino's staff, employs a mini-version of Kentucky's fast-motion offense. Prediction: one game and out.
Coach: Rick Majerus
Key Player: Senior forward Josh Grant was recently voted Western Athletic Conference player of the year--and with good reason. The 6-9 Grant, who is also a finalist for the John R. Wooden Award, led the league in scoring (17 points per game), rebounding (11.1) and free-throw shooting (92%). This isn't new territory for Grant. He was WAC player of the year two seasons ago, but sat out 1991-92 because of a knee injury.
Little-known Fact: Majerus, a bachelor who lives in a Salt Lake City hotel, says he considers himself lucky if a woman even talks to him. He says he considers it a bonus if she has a full set of teeth.
Outlook: Utah enters the tournament with three losses in its last four games, but the Utes are too good to struggle for long. If Utah doesn't win two games, it will be a mild surprise.
Coach: Paul Evans
Key Player: Point guard Jerry McCullough, much like St. John's David Cain, has become a player to watch. After averaging only 7.4 points as a freshman, McCullough more than doubled his average to 16.
Little-known Fact: Quick, name the top three Big East coaches by winning percentage. No. 1--Georgetown's John Thompson. No. 2--Syracuse's Jim Boeheim. No. 3--Evans.
Outlook: Everything depends on McCullough, who can soften defenses with his perimeter shooting. The only way the Panthers can do anything in the tournament is if McCullough finds his outside shot.
10. MEMPHIS STATE
Coach: Larry Finch
Key Player: The Tigers wouldn't be within sniffing distance of the NCAA tournament if it weren't for swingman Anfernee Hardaway, the 6-7 junior who practically carried Memphis State all season. When sophomore forward David Vaughn suffered an injured knee shortly after the season began, Hardaway was asked to provide even more offense and rebounding. Despite facing every gimmick defense imaginable, Hardaway averages about 22.8 points, which is among the nation's leaders and nearly six points more than he averaged last year. He is also averaging 8.7 rebounds and 6.6 assists.
Little-known Fact: Except for a two-year period when he was an assistant on Gene Bartow's staff at Alabama-Birmingham, Finch has never lived outside the state of Tennessee.
Outlook: Considering the absence of Vaughn and the constant pressure applied by opponents on Hardaway, the Tigers have done well. Memphis State could win its opening round game, but any victories after that will take a few mini-miracles.
Coach: Perry Clark
Key Player: Senior forward Anthony Reed recently became the school's all-time leading scorer. It was no small feat, because Clark favors a system that is heavy on substitutions. Perry doesn't go overboard on the player changes. Reed gets the most minutes, and it shows. He averages 15.8 points, up slightly from last season's 14.4. Reed isn't a bad three-point shooter (33%), and he leads the Green Wave in rebounds (6.9 per game).
Little-known Fact: It's not such a big secret, but if Bobby Cremins leaves Georgia Tech for his alma mater of South Carolina, Clark's name would be immediately mentioned for the Yellow Jacket job. Clark was a member of Cremins' original staff at Georgia Tech.
Outlook: The Green Wave can still go nine, even 10 players deep. But this season's second team isn't as good as last year's. Tulane isn't a particularly good shooting team from the field (45.6%), and the Green Wave isn't a whole lot better from the free-throw line (63.9%). But opponents are shooting only 44%.
12. TENNESSEE CHATTANOOGA
Coach: Mack McCarthy
Key Player: Smart, tough point guard Tim Brooks is the one to watch. He averages 16.3 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.3 steals. He was voted the Southern Conference's player of the year and tournament MVP. In only two years, Brooks has broken the school's all-time assists record. Brooks transferred to Tennessee Chattanooga from Sullivan College in Louisville.
Little-known Fact: The Moccasins finished 23-7 last year, but weren't invited to the NCAA tournament or the NIT.
Outlook: Another team capable of a first-round upset. The Moccasins shoot well from the outside (48.6%) and average 86.3 points, a school record. They also have some depth, notably Chad Copeland, a guard who averages 14.1 points in only 17.7 minutes.
13. NORTHEAST LOUISIANA
Coach: Mike Vining
Key Player: Power forward Ryan Stuart, the two-time Southland Conference player of the year, leads the Indians in scoring average (21.2 points) and rebounding (9.6). A member of the Worldwide Church of God, Stuart is forbidden to play from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. He skipped two games this season because of religious reasons and Northeast Louisiana lost both. Not surprisingly, the school petitioned the NCAA to allow the Indians to be placed in a Thursday-Saturday bracket. It didn't work, Northeast Louisiana getting a Friday game against Iowa.
Little-known Fact: Northeast Louisiana hasn't beaten a ranked team since 1976, when the Indians defeated No. 18 Centenary and Robert Parish.
Outlook: This is Northeast Louisiana's fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. The Indians have yet to win a game. That said, the Indians are one of those low-seeded teams that could spring an upset.
Coach: Jim Crews
Key Player: Parrish Casebier, who averaged 25.4 points last season and was the 10th-ranked Division I scorer, is now a reserve, which gives you an idea of the balance and depth of the Purple Aces. In beating favored Xavier in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference tournament final, Casebier, a 6-3 junior forward, scored 26 points. But this isn't a one-player team. Also vital to the Purple Aces' success is 6-7 sophomore forward Andy Elkins (13.3 points per game) and 7-1 center Sascha Hupmann (11.2 points, 10.5 rebounds).
Little-known Fact: Hupmann, who came to the United States as a high school exchange student from Munich, Germany, in 1988, weighed 190 pounds upon his arrival. He checks in at 265 pounds now. Elkins became the first Evansville native in almost 20 years to stay at home and play for the Aces.
Outlook: As long as they don't get stuck in an elevator--as they did during the MCC tournament in Indianapolis--or have to play Xavier--they have lost eight of 11 against the Musketeers--the Purple Aces aren't a bad team.
15. TENNESSEE STATE
Coach: Frankie Allen
Key Player: It didn't take long for voters to choose the Ohio Valley Conference player of the year. In only his first year in the league, junior college transfer center Carlos Rogers won the award. That sort of thing happens when you average 20.2 points and 11.6 rebounds.
Little-known Fact: Tennessee State was picked to finish sixth in the OVC. This is also Tennessee State's first NCAA tournament appearance since the school joined Division I in 1977. Outlook: If Rogers stays out of foul trouble, Tennessee State is surprisingly tough. The Tigers were beating Louisiana State at Baton Rouge when Rogers drew his fourth foul. LSU promptly took advantage of his absence and went on a 20-2 run. The team is shooting a very respectable 35% from the three-point line. Also worthy of attention is freshman swingman Monty Wilson. Tennessee State has size and a dangerous perimeter game. What it doesn't have is tournament experience and clutch free-throw shooting (64%).
Coach: Kevin Bannon
Key Player: Senior guard Darrick Suber will be a Rider legend after his performance in the Northeast Conference tournament final against Wagner. Suber's 12-foot shot over three defenders at the buzzer gave the Broncs a 65-64 victory and the automatic NCAA invitation. Suber, who averaged 22.6 points during the season, scored 33 that night. He was the conference and tournament MVP.
Little-known Fact: Former Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps is a Rider alumnus. The Broncs were 1-5 before Bannon's wife, Cindy, gave birth to their first child Jan. 5. Since then, Rider has gone 18-5.
Outlook: One miracle finish is probably the limit this season for Rider. The Broncs have Suber, who can score from inside and out, but not much else. Suber is the only player in double figures, and the front line measures 6-6, 6-6 and 6-7. Not exactly the formula for an NCAA upset.