WEST REGIONAL

1. ARIZONA (27-4)

* First-round opponent: Nicholls State.

* Season in brief: The defending national champions started a bit slowly, losing to Duke, Kansas and Florida State. They became a juggernaut in January, beating UCLA and undefeated Stanford, and finished with a 17-1 Pacific 10 record, with the only blemish a loss to USC in overtime. A deadly transition game and quick inside players cause surprising problems. Sophomore point guard Mike Bibby was spectacular against Stanford and Miles Simon is a big-game player, but swingman Michael Dickerson is the steadiest and most underrated Wildcat.

* Player to watch: Bibby. You might not see much more of him, because many expect him to jump to the NBA after the season. But his intelligence on the court, passing ability and ability to score off the drive or the outside shot make him one of the nation's best point guards.

* Tidbit: Guard Jason Terry is the nation's best sixth man.

* NCAA bio: Until last season's championship, Coach Lute Olson had to endure the same kind of can't-win-the-big-one whining that once dogged Dean Smith and John Elway. Over the years, the Wildcats have been knocked out in the first round by East Tennessee State, Santa Clara and Miami of Ohio, but Olson finally won in his 18th NCAA tournament appearance, his 13th at Arizona.

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2. CINCINNATI (26-5)

* First-round opponent: Northern Arizona.

* Season in brief: Team Suspension's season began with Ruben Patterson held out the first 14 games by the NCAA for various violations, and included three-game suspensions for D'Juan Baker and Kenyon Martin for unauthorized long-distance calls and a late-season suspension of guard Michael Holton. But the Bearcats persevered through all crises, and finished first in Conference USA, first in the tournament.

* Players to watch: Patterson, a senior forward, scored 32 points in a tribute to his mother when she died of a heart attack at 38 in late February. But keep on eye on forward Kenyon Martin too. He had a triple-double against DePaul, including 10 blocked shots.

* Tidbit: Rod Baker, whose final team at UC Irvine went 1-25 last season, is a Cincinnati assistant.

* NCAA bio: Reached the Final Four in 1992, but disappointed last season when highly touted team lost to Iowa State in the second round. Went to five consecutive Final Fours from 1959-63, winning titles in 1961 and '62.

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3. UTAH (25-3)

* First-round opponent: San Francisco.

* Season in brief: The Utes lost Keith Van Horn, the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft and the likely rookie of the year, yet started the season with an 18-O record. New Mexico ended the run in a close game at the Pit. The Utes also lost at Wyoming, but took revenge over New Mexico before losing to Nevada Las Vegas in the WAC tournament.

* Player to watch: Michael Doleac is a 6-11 center with the softest of shooting touches who is also unusually accurate from the free-throw line for a big man.

* Tidbit: Point guard Andre Miller is from Verbum Dei High.

* NCAA bio: Utah has been eliminated by Kentucky in three of the last four seasons, including last year, when the Utes entered the tournament ranked No. 2. Utah won the NCAA championship in 1944, filling in as a last-minute substitute for Arkansas after being eliminated from the National Invitation Tournament, then with a more prestigious field.

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4. MARYLAND (19-10)

* First-round opponent: Utah State.

* Season in brief: The Terrapins gave North Carolina its first loss Jan. 14, 89-83, in overtime. Duke, however, had no trouble with them, beating Maryland by 32 and 27 points. Still, Maryland finished a clear third in the ACC and was ranked seventh in RPI, influencing its seeding. The good news? Maryland can't face Duke again unless it reaches the Final Four.

* Player to watch: The Terrapins are deep and balanced, but keep an eye on senior forward Rodney Elliott, who had 20 points and 17 rebounds in a late-season victory over Temple.

* Tidbit: Center Obinna Ekezie, whose father is a Nigerian oil company owner, chose Maryland because it's one of nine schools that offer a dual degree in business and engineering.

* NCAA bio: Maryland was upset by the College of Charleston in the first round last season and Charleston went on to give Arizona a scare in the second. Overall, the Terrapins have 14 appearances, with trips to the regional finals in '73 and '75 under coach Lefty Driesell.

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5. ILLINOIS (22-9)

* First-round opponent: South Alabama.

* Season in brief: The Illini were only 8-5 after a 74-69 loss to UCLA in December, but rallied in the Big Ten to contend with Michigan State for the title. They lost to Purdue in the semifinals of the first Big Ten tournament. Kevin Turner is the team's leader, but extremely athletic forward Jerry Hester has been a big addition after a back injury last season.

* Player to watch: Turner had back-to-back 30-point games with 32 against UCLA and 35 against Indiana.

* Tidbit: Coach Lon Kruger took Kansas State to the final eight in 1988 and reached the 1994 Final Four with Florida.

* NCAA bio: A victory over USC last season was school's first since 1993, but the Illini lost to Tennessee Chattanooga in the second round. They made the Final Four in 1989, as well as 1949, '51 and '52.

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6. ARKANSAS (23-8)

* First-round opponent: Nebraska.

* Season in brief: Hardly as flashy or talented as the famous "40 minutes of hell" teams that had such players as Corliss Williamson, Scotty Thurman and Corey Beck, the Razorbacks are back after being relegated to the National Invitation Tournament last season. Point guard Kareem Reid runs the team, and Nick Davis is one of the nation's leading rebounders. But a lopsided late-season loss to Mississippi raised questions going into the SEC tournament, where they lost to Kentucky in the semifinals.

* Player to watch: Pat Bradley, a junior shooting guard, is a big-time three-point threat.

* Tidbit: Coach Nolan Richardson graduated from Texas Western in 1963, three years before an all-black starting lineup won the 1966 NCAA title with an historic victory over all-white Kentucky.

* NCAA bio: Richardson guided the Razorbacks to the 1994 NCAA title and they reached the final again in '95 before losing to UCLA. Arkansas has been to six Final Fours ('41, '45, '78, '90, '94 and '95).

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7. TEMPLE (21-8)

* First-round opponent: West Virginia.

* Season in brief: Temple, which finished the season fairly strong, wins with Coach John Chaney's traditional emphasis on controlled play and keeping turnovers to a minimum. The Owls beat Indiana and Michigan State early, but endured a three-game losing streak in December before a strong finish in the Atlantic 10 that was marred somewhat by a nonconference loss to Maryland.

* Player to watch: Sophomore center Lamont Barnes is the leading scorer, but the guard tandem of Rasheed Brokenborough and Argentine point guard Pepe Sanchez determine Temple's success.

* Tidbit: The program has endured a series of emotional blows, among them the death of promising center Marvin Webster Jr. of a heart attack in August.

* NCAA bio: It's the ninth consecutive tournament appearance and 22nd overall for Temple, which entered 1988 tournament ranked No. 1 in nation but lost to Duke in a regional final. The Owls reached Final Four twice in the 1950s.

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8. TENNESSEE (20-8)

* First-round opponent: Illinois State.

* Season in brief: Former Oregon coach Jerry Green took over from Kevin O'Neill this season. A late-season surge that included wins over Mississippi, Arkansas and South Carolina bolstered the Volunteers after a 1-5 start in SEC play.

* Player to watch: Tony Harris--a freshman point guard some say is the best player from Memphis since Penny Hardaway--leads the team in scoring, assists and steals.

* Tidbit: All-time scoring leader Allan Houston (1990-93) never appeared in the NCAA tournament.

* NCAA bio: Its last appearance was in 1989, and Tennessee has never reached a regional final.

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9. ILLINOIS STATE (24-5)

* First-round opponent: Tennessee.

* Season in brief: The Redbirds return for second year in a row after winning the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. Key comparison games: beat Pacific by one point and lost to Hawaii, 84-63.

* Player to watch: Power forward Rico Hill. On the few occasions when he plays poorly, he calls it the "Rico Chill."

* Tidbit: Doug Collins, who played at Illinois State from 1971-73, is the leading scorer in school history.

* NCAA bio: The Redbirds have had five appearances and two victories. The most recent was in 1985 over USC.

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10. WEST VIRGINIA (22-8)

* First-round opponent: Temple.

* Season in brief: The Mountaineers stumbled badly in a Big East tournament loss to Rutgers. Coach Gale Catlett announced he would like to go out after 20 years in Morgantown with an NCAA tournament appearance, and he has that option if he still wants to quit. An upset of Connecticut at home was the highlight.

* Player to watch: Forward Damian Owens, bothered by a sore back late in the season, is crucial to West Virginia's success.

* Tidbit: Laker General Manager Jerry West was the most outstanding player of the 1959 Final Four as a junior at West Virginia.

* NCAA bio: Its last tournament appearance was in 1992, but the Mountaineers were regulars in the '50s, '60s and '80s.

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11. NEBRASKA (20-11)

* First-round opponent: Arkansas.

* Season in brief: The Big 12 wasn't highly regarded beyond Kansas and Oklahoma State, but an RPI in the mid-30s helped the Cornhuskers. They lost to Kansas in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament by 32 points.

* Player to watch: Many people expect junior Tyronn Lue to turn pro after the season.

* Tidbit: They played in NIT last three years, winning the title in 1996.

* NCAA bio: The Cornhuskers have never won an NCAA tournament game in five appearances, most recently in 1994.

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12. SOUTH ALABAMA (21-6)

* First-round opponent: Illinois.

* Season in brief: Bill Musselman, the veteran college, NBA and Continental Basketball Assn. coach, resigned abruptly shortly before the season because of conflicts with Athletic Director Joe Gottfried. He left behind a solid team for Coach Bob Weltlich though, and the Jaguars won the Sun Belt's automatic bid with a conference tournament victory over Southwestern Louisiana.

* Player to watch: Guard Toby Madison made the shot that sent the Jaguars to the tournament with 40 seconds to play against Southwestern Louisiana.

* Tidbit: Gottfried's son is Mark Gottfried, the Murray State coach who is a former UCLA assistant.

* NCAA bio: South Alabama gave Arizona pause in a 65-57 first-round loss last season. The Jaguars' only victory in five trips came in 1989 in an upset of Alabama.

13. UTAH STATE (25-7)

* First-round opponent: Maryland.

* Season in brief: The Aggies made the field by defeating Pacific in the Big West tournament final. An RPI rating of 54 made the Aggies a fringe team if they had not won the Big West.

* Player to watch: Marcus Saxon, a senior point guard, can put up big numbers.

* Tidbit: Coach Larry Eustachy is a 1979 graduate of Long Beach State.

* NCAA bio: Their last appearance was in 1988, when Aggies lost to Vanderbilt in first round.

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14. SAN FRANCISCO (19-10)

* First-round opponent: Utah.

* Season in brief: The Dons surged late in the season and upset Gonzaga in the West Coast conference tournament final to win the automatic bid. They are coached by Phil Mathews, who coached Cedric Ceballos at Ventura College and was once a Cal State Fullerton assistant. Key scores: A 107-82 loss to Purdue and a 65-52 loss to Indiana.

* Player to watch: Senior forward Hakeem Ward averages 17 points and shoots 57%.

* Tidbit: K.C. Jones, Bill Russell, Bill Cartwright and Quentin Dailey all played for the Dons.

* NCAA bio: They are making their first appearance since 1982, but won NCAA championships in 1955 and '56 with Russell. They also reached Final Four in 1957.

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15. NORTHERN ARIZONA (21-7)

* First-round opponent: Cincinnati.

* Season in brief: Ben Howland, in his fourth season as coach, has guided the Lumberjacks to the school's first NCAA tournament. They beat Montana State to win the Big Sky tournament and an automatic bid.

* Player to watch: Andrew Mavis, a 6-6 senior forward, leads the team. Northern Arizona has three strong three-point threats: Mavis, Ross Land and Rod Hutchings.

* Tidbit: Howland, a former UC Santa Barbara assistant, is a logical candidate to succeed Jerry Pimm there.

* NCAA bio: First appearance.

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16. NICHOLLS STATE (19-9)

* First-round opponent: Arizona.

* Season in brief: The Colonels won the Southland tournament title, 84-81, over Texas Arlington, coming from nine points down. They surged to the championship after not even making the conference tournament last season.

* Player to watch: Russell McCutcheon's basket with 11 seconds left against Texas Arlington helped the Colonels reach the NCAA tournament. His brother, Jason McCutcheon, is the team's center and was also the leading rebounder with 5.8 per game.

* Tidbit: The school is located in Thibodaux, La.

* NCAA bio: Nicholls State lost to Virginia in the first round in 1995 in its most recent appearance.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

WEST REGIONAL

FIRST-ROUND GAMES, THURSDAY

1. Arizona (27-4)

16. Nicholls State (19-9)

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8. Tennessee (20-8)

9. Illinois State (24-5)

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4. Maryland (19-10)

13. Utah State (25-7)

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5. Illinois (22-9)

12. South Alabama (21-6)

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2. Cincinnati (26-5)

15. Northern Arizona (21-7)

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7. Temple (21-8)

10. West Virginia (22-8)

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3. Utah (25-3)

14. San Francisco (19-10)

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6. Arkansas (23-8)

11. Nebraska (20-11)

FAST FACTS

1. Arizona is only the ninth defending champion to return with its entire starting lineup the following year. Of the eight previous teams, only UCLA in 1968 won the title again.

2. Since the four regionals were established in 1956, the West has produced the most champions with 17. Next: The Midwest and South/Southeast with 10 and the East with five.

3. Northern Arizona is one of four teams making its first tournament appearance. The others: Illinois-Chicago, Prairie Wiew A&M; and Radford.

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