1. NORTH CAROLINA
Coach: Dean Smith
Key Player: Junior center Eric Montross, bad haircut and all, is the most dominating big man in the very tough ACC. The 7-foot, 270-pound Montross averages 15.7 points and 7.4 rebounds. Equally important is his ability to clog up the middle, intimidate and play tough, physical defense. Montross is at his very best near the basket. He 60.8%. If he ventures from the basket, his effectiveness is drastically reduced.
Little-known Fact: The only time Smith won a national championship was in 1981-82 at--you guessed it--the Superdome in New Orleans.
Outlook: The Tar Heels bring wave after wave of players at you. Their depth helps hide several weaknesses, including the lack of a consistent perimeter game. Guard Donald Williams is one of the few legitimate outside scoring threats for North Carolina. In the regular season finale against Duke, Williams hit five of eight three-pointers and was 10 for 15 from the field. He was the only Tar Heel to convert a three-point shot. Forward George Lynch is a tough, physical rebounder, and guards Brian Reese and Derrick Phelps give North Carolina a premier defender and calm playmaker, respectively.
Coach: Bob Huggins
Key Player: Guard Nick Van Exel does it all. He scores (18.8-point average). He shoots three-pointers (35.3%). He runs the Bearcat offense. He pops off to opponents. He helps give Cincinnati one of the top-ranked scoring defenses in the country. Van Exel is among the top four point guards in the game. Few are more fun to watch.
Little-known Fact: Huggins still hasn't signed a new deal with Cincinnati. The longer it takes, the more likely other schools will take runs at him.
Outlook: This team was doomed until the NCAA ruled that senior center Corie Blount was eligible to play. But with Blount (11.7 points, 8.3 rebounds) back in the middle, Van Exel in the backcourt and Huggins on the sideline, Cincinnati has enough weapons to beat a few teams in the tournament. A second consecutive Final Four appearance is probably out of the question, but a final 16 or even a final eight showing isn't so improbable. That's because the Bearcats have a great defense and play with a lot of confidence--the product of Huggins' attitude.
Coach: John Calipari
Key Player: Five Minutemen score in double-digits, but senior forward/center Harper Williams is the most valuable. Williams was the Atlantic 10 Conference player of the year in 1991-92, but broke his hand this season and missed nine games. Once he returned, Williams quickly re-established himself by averaging 16.1 points and 8.2 rebounds. For the second consecutive year, Williams was named Atlantic 10 tournament MVP.
Little-known Fact: Massachusetts is only the second team in Atlantic 10 Conference history to win two consecutive regular season and tournament championships. Calipari reached 100 victories faster than any Minuteman coach.
Outlook: If the Minutemen have a weakness, it is their lack of depth. That's why the expected return of sophomore guard Mike Williams (broken hand) is so important. With few backcourt options available to Calipari, Williams is a key. Listed as questionable for the first-round game, Williams is capable of scoring in double digits as a reserve. Another player to watch is 6-7 sophomore forward Lou Roe (14.3-point, 9.2-rebound average).
Coach: Nolan Richardson
Key Player: Scotty Thurman is this good: Only the second Razorback freshman to be named to an All-Southeastern Conference team; the all-time freshman scoring leader in Arkansas history; the all-time Arkansas three-point field goal leader in a season; ranked second in the SEC in three-point goals per game; fifth in three-point percentage; sixth in scoring (17.9) and tied for eighth in steals.
Little-known Fact: Entering the SEC tournament, Richardson had won 74% of his games, fifth among active Division I coaches.
Outlook: A question: Would you want to play these guys? Richardson loves the idea of "40 minutes of hell," and the Razorbacks can do that. They lead the SEC in the scoring, steals and turnover margin. This isn't Richardson's best Razorback team, but it might be one of his quickest. Thurman is a gem, as is freshman center Corliss Williamson (15.2 points, 5.3 rebounds), who missed much of the early season because of injuries. Arkansas is young--sophomore guard Cling McDaniel is also in the lineup--but always tough.
5. ST. JOHN'S
Coach: Brian Mahoney
Key Player: Point guard David Cain was nowhere to be found last season. Stuck behind Jason Buchanan, Cain saw little action and his role on this year's team was also in doubt. So what happened? Cain went from averaging eight minutes and 2.5 points a game to stardom. A unanimous All-Big East first team selection, Cain averaged 11.1 points and led the league with 184 assists.
Little-known Fact: Big East coaches thought so much of St. John's chances this season that they picked the Redmen to finish ninth.
Outlook: St. John's has surprised people all season. On paper, it doesn't look like much of a team. Still, the Redmen finished a solid second behind Seton Hall and play well enough as a team to do better than the much more talented and heralded Redmen team of a year ago. That means at least one tournament victory.
Coach: Jeff Jones
Key Player: Sophomore guard Cory Alexander has already asserted himself as the de facto leader of the Cavaliers. He plays the most minutes, leads the team in scoring and was the player most responsible for rescuing Virginia from a brief tailspin that put the Cavaliers' NCAA tournament status in doubt.
Little-known Fact: Jones didn't sign a high school recruit for the 1992-93 season.
Outlook: Only one team beat Duke twice during the regular season: the Cavaliers, who beat the Blue Devils by eight points at Cameron Indoor Stadium and by three at Charlottesville. Virginia is capable of such excellence, but equally adept at getting blown out--witness the 22-point and 20-point losses to North Carolina. Virginia can win a game, maybe two, in the tournament, but only if Alexander, forward/center Ted Jeffries and guard Doug Smith keep their mistakes to a minimum. The Cavaliers, who had one of the best power ratings in the country, are used to tough games, so success in the tournament wouldn't be a shock.
7. NEW MEXICO STATE
Coach: Neil McCarthy
Key Player: Is there any doubt? Entering the Big West tournament, point guard Sam Crawford had led the Aggies to five consecutive victories and 14 in their last 16 games. During one 3-0 stretch, Crawford averaged 18.6 points and 10.3 assists. For the regular season, he averaged 9.2 assists, No. 1 in the nation.
Little-known Fact: Few, if any, coaches recruit more junior college players than McCarthy.
Outlook: As long as Crawford is running the offense, New Mexico State has a chance to do some damage. Granted, the Aggies aren't quite as good as last year's team, the one that reached the round of 16 before losing to UCLA. But McCarthy is a good coach with valuable tournament experience, and senior forward Tracey Ware (61.6% shooting, 7.1 rebounds) gives New Mexico State a solid inside game. But another round of 16 visit? Doubtful.
8. RHODE ISLAND
Coach: Al Skinner
Key Player: The Rams' best player doesn't even start. Abdul Fox, a 6-6 junior guard/forward, is averaging 15.4 points and 3.4 rebounds as a reserve. Fox might be one of the best sixth men in the country, given that he leads Rhode Island in scoring. The only two times he started came when first-team players were injured.
Little-known Fact: A year ago, Skinner almost became an assistant on the staff of Miami Heat Coach Kevin Loughery. Loughery and Skinner played together in the ABA.
Outlook: Rhode Island lost at Arizona in the last two minutes. Wake Forest beat the Rams by four points. Rhode Island is very quick and loves to press and move the ball up and down the court. The Rams have serious trouble when forced to play a half-court game, especially against taller teams. They don't have a player taller than 6-8.
Coach: Gene Keady
Key Player: Even Keady, the king of sneers, has to smile when considering the season first-year forward Glenn Robinson has produced. Robinson, who sat out his freshman season because of academic difficulties, led the Big Ten in scoring (26.5 points a game) and averaged 9.4 rebounds. He also led Purdue in steals, blocked shots and three-point shooting (a remarkable 45%). When recruited, Robinson and Chris Webber were considered near equals in the national rankings.
Little-known Fact: Not since 1972, when Mike Robinson of Michigan State accomplished the feat, has a first-year player led the Big Ten in scoring.
Outlook: The way to stop Purdue isn't much of a secret: surround Robinson with every available defender and hope for the best. For the Boilermakers to be successful, sophomore forward Cuonzo Martin has to help take some of the scoring load off Robinson. The other Purdue weakness is its backcourt. All things considered, the Boilermakers will be fortunate to win more than one tournament game.
Coach: Danny Nee
Key Player: Junior forward Eric Piatkowski ended the regular season with a 16.6-point average and was 37.5% from the three-point line. Nicknamed "The Polish Rifle," Piatkowski is a complete player whose play almost always dictates the way the Cornhuskers perform. His ability to hit the perimeter shot is a must.
Little-known Fact: Guard Erick Strickland, the Big Eight Conference freshman of the year, played minor league baseball in the Florida Marlins' organization last summer.
Outlook: The Cornhuskers have become a points-happy team in the grand tradition of conference rival Oklahoma. Nee, who used to love the half-court, slow offense, now encourages his team to run. With 10 players who play between 16-28 minutes, the Cornhuskers can afford to constantly push for points. Strickland, who wasn't expected to be much of a factor, has played great. Better yet, Nebraska ended the regular season by winning six of eight and eight of 11. It is a team that has improved markedly in the second half of the season. Not so great is Nebraska's 0-3 NCAA tournament record. Under Nee, the Cornhuskers lost to Xavier in 1991 and Connecticut in 1992.
Coach: Fran Fraschilla
Key Player: Senior center Keith Bullock averages 18.4 points and 11.1 rebounds. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference player of the year, Bullock can score inside and also shoot from the perimeter.
Little-known Fact: Rookie Coach Fraschilla replaced Steve Lappas, who left Manhattan for Villanova. Now Fraschilla and the Jaspers are going to the tournament and Lappas and the disappointing Wildcats are going nowhere.
Outlook: Manhattan last reached the NCAA tournament in 1958. If the Jaspers aren't overwhelmed by excitement--which they probably are--they could cause problems. If Bullock scores 23 points, he will become the 73rd player in NCAA history with 2,000 point and 1,000 rebounds.
12. TEXAS TECH
Coach: James Dickey
Key Player: As expected, 6-8 senior forward Will Flemons has been the driving force behind the Red Raiders' slightly improbable entry into the NCAA tournament. Flemons was the Southwest Conference's player of the year as a junior, so it wasn't too surprising when he led Texas Tech past Texas Christian in the SWC tournament semifinal with 21 points and 11 rebounds. Nor was it a complete shock when the Red Raiders beat Houston in Sunday's championship game.
Little-known Fact: Entering the final week of the season, the Red Raiders were an unimpressive 101 in the Rating Percentage Index, which the NCAA tournament selection committee relies on.
Outlook: The Red Raiders were supposed to be good, but took until the final weekend of the season to prove it. Dickey insists on tough, in-your-face defense, something he learned under Eddie Sutton at Kentucky and Arkansas.
13. HOLY CROSS
Coach: George Blaney
Key Player: A tie. Sophomore forward Rob Feaster, the Patriot rookie of the year a season ago, more than doubled his scoring average of 1991-92. He went from eight to 17.6-points per game. He also averaged 5.7 rebounds and added 57 assists and 55 steals. Feaster was an all-conference selection and the league tournament MVP. Senior point guard Roger Breslin runs the team, as evidenced by his 7.2-assist average. He also chips in 10 points a game. His 90.1% free-throw mark is second best in the nation.
Little-known Fact: Holy Cross became the first Eastern team to win a Final Four when it beat Oklahoma in the 1947 championship.
Outlook: When it holds opponents below 50% shooting, Holy Cross is 23-2. Holy Cross has three senior starters. Against a team that depends on its half-court offense, Holy Cross, which lost to Vanderbilt by only four, is competitive.
Coach: Fran Dunphy
Key Player: Guard Jerome Allen, who averages 13.2 points and 4.9 assists, was recently named co-Ivy League player of the year. It was the first time in Ivy history that a sophomore won or shared the title. An aggressive scorer and excellent defensive player, Allen is the main reason Penn was able to unseat Princeton.
Little-known Fact: Penn reached the 1979 Final Four, losing to Magic Johnson and Michigan State.
Outlook: The Quakers aren't very big on the front line, nor is the team very experienced. Allen and Matt Maloney, a transfer from Vanderbilt, form one of the better guard combinations. It won't matter. Penn is a solid but overmatched.
15. COPPIN STATE
Coach: Ron (Fang) Mitchell
Key Player: Forward Stephen Stewart, Mideastern Athletic Conference newcomer of the year and MVP of the MEAC tournament, averaged 5.2 rebounds and a team-leading 13.6 points.
Little-known Fact: Stewart is the brother of Washington Bullet player Larry Stewart.
Outlook: Not too promising. The Eagles depend on outside shooting. Stewart, 6-5, and 6-8 center Michael Stewart are the prime inside targets.
16. EAST CAROLINA
Coach: Eddie Payne
Key Player: The Pirates entered the Colonial Athletic Assn. tournament as the seventh seeded team, but they left with the championship. Center Ike Copeland was named to the all-tournament team after scoring 24 points and collecting 11 rebounds in an earlier victory against Old Dominion. He only scored two points in the stunner against top-seeded James Madison--last-minute free throws that helped seal the upset.
Little-known Fact: East Carolina is only the eighth team with a losing record to advance to the NCAA tournament. Montana State was the last team below .500 (14-16) to earn a bid, in 1986.
Outlook: Grim, particularly against in-state power North Carolina. East Carolina did itself proud to reach the NCAA tournament, but now it's time for the big fellas to go to work.