A Handsome Group of NCAA Suitors

The NCAA tournament selection committee got down to the nitty-gritty and inspected basketball teams for "beauty marks" and "warts" all weekend, but truth be told, the first part was simple:

Arizona, Duke, Kansas and North Carolina.

That's in alphabetical order, by the way, since committee chairman C.M. Newton, the athletic director at Kentucky, conceded that among those towering four No. 1-seeded teams, any one has an argument for No. 1 overall--and it's an argument that will be decided March 28 and 30 in San Antonio, if not before.

Other issues provided more to chew on. Did Princeton get its due? The Tigers' No. 5 seeding in the East is the highest in Ivy League history, but Princeton plays a peaking Nevada Las Vegas team in a first-round clash of styles and would have to face the only team the Tigers lost to--North Carolina--in a third-round game, should nifty little Princeton make it that far.

UCLA? The Bruins might think they got a backhanded swat with a No. 6 seeding in the South, but UCLA plays a first-round team against a flagging Miami team in Atlanta on Friday. A second-round game against a cresting Michigan team and immovable center Robert "Tractor" Traylor could be trouble for the center-less Bruins, however.

And what of Jim Harrick? He won't see UCLA unless the Bruins and his Rhode Island Rams make it to the Final Four. But that cutesy Midwest matchup between eighth-seeded Rhode Island and a ninth-seeded Murray State team coached by his former UCLA assistant, Mark Gottfried, is no favor. It's a very dangerous first-round game.

USC's 9-19 record isn't nearly good enough for the National Invitation Tournament, but the committee's omission of Arizona State is a tip of the hat to the Trojans. Arizona State out, Washington in. The Sun Devils played themselves out with their blowout loss to USC--a team that might have won the Pacific 10 Conference tournament, if one existed.

But let's take it from the top:

North Carolina, with its resounding victory over top-ranked Duke in the teams' Atlantic Coast Conference rubber match, earned the potential home-court advantage in the East Regional final at Greensboro, N.C., and will begin its journey Thursday in Hartford, Conn., against Navy, a team dotted with Southern California players. North Carolina could meet its neighbor, North Carolina Charlotte, in the second round, but second-seeded Connecticut is the biggest roadblock to a second consecutive Final Four.

Arizona, after clawing its way to the NCAA championship from a fifth-place Pac-10 finish and a No. 4 seeding last season, will begin its attempt to repeat against Nicholls State on Thursday in Sacramento. The Wildcats are top-seeded despite USC's monumental upset of the Wildcats last week.

Scary teams lurking in the bracket are Maryland, which has beaten North Carolina and Kansas, and Cincinnati, a team that hasn't been diverted despite all manner of adversity. The four survivors advance to the West Regional at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim on March 19 and 21.

Duke heads South to face Radford on Friday in Lexington, Ky. Second-seeded Kentucky awaits, as does Michigan, the only team besides North Carolina to beat Duke this season. Or, just possibly, UCLA--if the Bruins can stand the thought of another up close and personal look at Duke, though it couldn't happen before the regional final at St. Petersburg, Fla.

As for Kansas--No. 1 in the Midwest--the Jayhawks drew the tournament's only losing team, 13-16 Prairie View, which won the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship with a remarkable comeback. Prairie View enters the field with the lowest rating--No. 263 of 306--of any team in tournament history, making it the longest longshot in history Friday in Oklahoma City. Trust us, the Panthers won't be meeting anyone in St. Louis.

One threat to Kansas is third-seeded Stanford--although the Cardinal starts with College of Charleston, which upset Maryland in the first round last year and gave Arizona a scare.

Who got left out?

Iowa--A 20-win team once ranked in the top 10 that was punished for a pathetic nonconference schedule.

"The schedule was a real factor," Newton said. "The message has been sent for a number of years, not one, two or three, but as long as I can remember. Illinois Chicago, Detroit and Western Michigan, those teams didn't just schedule hard games, they won some of them."

Hawaii--The Rainbows upset Kansas, but aren't the same on the mainland, and there's no Honolulu regional.

Missouri--Also beat Kansas, but winless on the road for the last two seasons. As Newton says, you don't get to play any NCAA games in your own barn.

Wake Forest--The Atlantic Coast Conference is tough, but Florida State leapfrogged the Demon Deacons because of nonconference victories over Arizona and Connecticut and competitive games against North Carolina and Duke.

North Carolina State--Record just wasn't good enough, despite a victory over North Carolina.

Arizona State--The coaching search can begin now.

Gonzaga--Beat Clemson early, but if you're in the West Coast Conference, better win that tournament.

Dayton--Start that run a little earlier next year.

Ball State--Led by Bonzi Wells, Ball State had a win over Mississippi but was upset by Eastern Michigan in overtime in the Mid-American Conference tournament. Ball State has the biggest gripe of any team left out: The Cardinals beat Western Michigan twice, and Western Michigan made the field.

"A very, very tough call," Newton said.

Georgia Tech--Coach Bobby Cremins, perpetual bubble-dweller, proposes a 75-team tournament, but hasn't figured out how to structure that bracket.

Who got in by the hair of their chinny-chin-chins?

Washington, Florida State, Miami, Detroit.

If there was a message from the 1998 selection committee, it was that nobody cares about your conference's name.

The ACC, the Big 10, the Big East, the Atlantic 10 and the Southeastern Conference all got five teams. Nobody got six.

The Pac-10 barely got four--even though the fifth-place team last season, Arizona, won the NCAA title.

And the little Midwestern Collegiate Conference got three teams--automatic qualifier Butler and at-large teams Illinois Chicago and Detroit, whose schedule makers could give Iowa a lesson.

But it's all done now. No appeals.

"As [former Duke Athletic Director] Tom Butters used to say, you can play your way out of a bad seed, but you can't play your way into the tournament," Newton said.

So, goodbye to Pacific's Michael Olowokandi, Ball State's Wells, Georgia Tech's Matt Harpring, Long Island's Charles Jones and Hawaii's Anthony Carter.

And hello to little upstart Prairie View--for a moment anyway--and to Eastern Michigan's Little Big Man, Earl Boykins. Hello there, Felipe Lopez and St. John's. What took you so long?

By the way, Carolina-Duke IV is scheduled for March 30 in San Antonio.

Better make that tentative.


Feeling Rejected

Teams that ranked in the top 64 in RPI that did not make the NCAA Tournament:

Wake Forest: 35

Vanderbilt: 42

Hawaii: 45

Missouri: 50

Wyoming: 51

Georgia: 53

North Carolina State: 55

Arizona St.: 56

Dayton: 58

Georgia Tech: 60

Alabama Birmingham: 61

Auburn: 63

Southern Mississippi: 64

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