Kentucky Leads This Derby

Times Staff Writer

No. 1 KENTUCKY (29-3)

First-round opponent: No. 16 Indiana Purdue Indianapolis.

Season in brief: After a rocky start that included a loss to former Wildcat coach Rick Pitino and rival Louisville, Kentucky remade itself as a defensive team and became stunningly dominant, winning 23 in a row. The Wildcats swept through the Southeastern Conference unbeaten, joining the 1996 Kentucky team as the only other team to go 16-0 in the SEC. With a 64-57 victory over Mississippi State in the SEC championship game, Kentucky became the first team to combine an unbeaten SEC season with the tournament title since the 1952 Wildcats.

Player to watch: Keith Bogans. Before this season, Bogans had been an erratic disappointment, but the senior has found himself, emerging as the clear offensive leader.

Tidbit: Pitino says Tubby Smith has one of the two toughest coaching jobs in America -- and the other is Notre Dame football.

NCAA bio: Seven NCAA championships, more than any school except UCLA. The Wildcats' 13 Final Fours are tied with Duke for third behind North Carolina and UCLA, which have each appeared in 15. Won the 1996 and '98 titles, but the Wildcats haven't advanced past the Sweet 16 since 1999.

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No. 2 PITTSBURGH (26-4)

First-round opponent: No. 15 Wagner.

Season in brief: The Panthers opened a new arena at the beginning of the season and pulled off a new feat at the end, winning the Big East tournament title for the first time, defeating Connecticut, 74-56. Pitt's only losses were at Georgia, at Syracuse, at Notre Dame and at Seton Hall.

Player to watch: Brandin Knight. The senior point guard -- the younger brother of NBA player Brevin Knight -- doesn't have striking statistics other than his assist totals. But he is the Panthers' leader and best player -- and once again he is showing he can play hurt.

Tidbit: Coach Ben Howland -- a Californian who once was passed over for jobs at UC Irvine, Loyola Marymount and UC Santa Barbara -- was the national coach of the year last season and is high on the list for the UCLA job.

NCAA bio: Advanced to the Sweet 16 last season before losing to Kent State in overtime in the Panthers' first NCAA tournament under Howland. The appearance marked the end of an eight-year NCAA tournament drought for Pitt, which reached the Final Four in one of the early eight-team tournaments, in 1941.

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No. 3 MARQUETTE (23-5)

First-round opponent: No. 14 Holy Cross.

Season in brief: Marquette spent part of the season in the top 10 and won 15 of its last 16 regular-season games before losing Alabama Birmingham in the quarterfinals of the Conference USA tournament, committing 30 turnovers in the process. The Eagles' other losses were to Notre Dame, East Carolina, Dayton and Louisville.

Player to watch: Dwyane Wade. The junior guard, a finalist for numerous national-player-of-the-year awards, averages 21.5 points a game.

Tidbit: Spelling Wade's first name D-w-y-a-n-e is a family tradition. His father spells his the same way.

NCAA bio: First-round upset victim against Tulsa last season. Won the NCAA title in Al McGuire's final game as coach in 1977, defeating North Carolina. Also reached the Final Four in 1974, losing to North Carolina State in the title game.

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No. 4 DAYTON (24-5)

First-round opponent: No. 13 Tulsa.

Season in brief: The Flyers found a home in the Top 25 and confirmed it by defeating Temple to win the Atlantic 10 tournament title for the first time. (They had the notable advantage of playing on their home court.) During the regular-season, the Flyers defeated Cincinnati and Marquette, lost to Duke by 11 and were swept by Xavier.

Player to watch: Keith Waleskowski. The senior forward is one of a trio of players who share the load, along with Brooks Hall and Ramod Marshall.

Tidbit: Dayton ranked 23rd in the nation in attendance last season with an average crowd of 12,130.

NCAA bio: Dayton played UCLA in the 1967 NCAA title game, losing to the third of John Wooden's 10 championship teams. Made the Elite Eight in 1984 before losing to eventual champion Georgetown. The Flyers were first-round losers in their most recent appearance, in 2000.

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No. 5 WISCONSIN (22-7)

First-round opponent: No. 12 Weber State.

Season in brief: The Badgers were the surprise regular-season champions of the Big Ten after clinching with a dramatic 60-59 victory over Illinois in a battle of Top 25 teams. But they bowed out of the conference tournament with a quarterfinal loss to Ohio State. The Badgers' nonconference schedule included losses to Wake Forest and Marquette.

Player to watch: Kirk Penney. The senior guard and leading scorer averages 16.3 points a game.

Tidbit: Penney played for the New Zealand team that lost to the U.S. in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and then performed the haka, a traditional Maori dance, at midcourt as a sign of respect for the NBA stars.

NCAA bio: Wisconsin lost to eventual champion Maryland in the second round last season. Won the 1941 title over Washington State and reached the Final Four in 2000 under Dick Bennett, but scored only 41 points in a semifinal loss to Michigan State.

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No. 6 MISSOURI (21-10)

First-round opponent: No. 11 Southern Illinois.

Season in brief: After a 10-1 start, Missouri struggled often. The Tigers were swept by Kansas and also had losses to Illinois, Syracuse, Oklahoma State and Texas, among others, eventually falling out of the Top 25. But the Tigers came back on in the Big 12 tournament, defeating Kansas to reach the final, where they lost to Oklahoma. Best regular-season victory: a 67-52 defeat of Oklahoma. Cautionary stat: The Tigers were 3-7 on the road.

Player to watch: Rickey Paulding. In sheer athleticism, the junior swingman is one of the nation's best. He averages 17 points a game.

Tidbit: Famous grads include Sheryl Crow, Brad Pitt and Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.

NCAA bio: Reached the Elite Eight last season after defeating UCLA in the Sweet 16. Four trips to the Elite Eight overall, but the Tigers have never been to the Final Four in 20 tournament appearances.

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No. 7 INDIANA (20-12)

First-round opponent: No. 10 Alabama.

Season in brief: Once in danger of becoming a rare team to be left out of the tournament the year after playing for the national title, Indiana rallied to secure an at-large bid by reaching the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament, where it lost to Illinois by one point. The Hoosiers started 14-3 with a victory over Maryland before hitting a five-game skid that included a loss to Louisville and two losses to Michigan State.

Player to watch: Freshman guard Bracey Wright missed time because of a sore back but still emerged among the top five scorers in the Big Ten.

Tidbit: The trademark of Indiana's run to the Final Four last season was its three-point shooting, but the Hoosiers make only 34% from long range.

NCAA bio: The Hoosiers lost to Maryland in the NCAA title game last season, 64-52. It was Indiana's eighth Final Four, and the Hoosiers have won five titles -- in 1940 and '53 under Branch McCracken and in '76, '81 and '87 under Bob Knight.

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No. 8 OREGON (23-9)

First-round opponent: No. 9 Utah.

Season in brief: After starting the season in the top 10, Oregon tumbled out after a series of disappointing performances. Perhaps the most stunning: A 77-52 loss to Cincinnati. The Ducks entered the Pac-10 tournament desperately needing a victory to make the NCAA tournament. They took care of that and more, defeating Arizona State, UCLA, and USC to win the tournament and gain the conference's automatic bid.

Player to watch: Luke Ridnour. The sharp-shooting junior guard -- who is likely to turn pro after the season -- was the Pac-10 player of the year, averaging 20.7 points and 6.7 assists in conference games, and was at his most dazzling in the Pac-10 tournament.

Tidbit: Coach Ernie Kent's sons, Marcus and Jordan, are both part of the basketball program. Jordan, a freshman, is redshirting. The Oregon high school record-holder in the 200 meters and long jump, he is also part of the track team.

NCAA bio: Made the Elite Eight last season before Kansas stopped the Ducks a step shy of the Final Four. Third appearance under Kent after making only one trip between 1961 and 2000. Won the first NCAA tournament title in 1939, defeating Ohio State, 46-33.

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No. 9 UTAH (24-7)

First-round opponent: No. 8 Oregon.

Season in brief: The Utes were the first of what proved to be many teams to beat Alabama, exposing the Crimson Tide. Utah later tied Brigham Young for the Mountain West regular-season title, sweeping BYU during the regular season. A sterling record took some hits late with losses to New Mexico and Colorado State and an early exit in the Mountain West tournament

Player to watch: Britton Johnsen. The senior forward was found to have mononucleosis before the Mountain West tournament and was held out of competition. If Utah is forced to play without him, it loses its heart and soul.

Tidbit: The defense-oriented Utes held 16 teams under 60 points during the regular season -- and four under 50.

NCAA bio: Reached the Final Four in 1998, beating North Carolina in the semifinals before losing to Kentucky in the title game. Four trips to the Final Four overall, including the 1944 championship. Lost to Indiana in the first round last season.

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No. 10 ALABAMA (17-11)

First-round opponent: No. 7 Indiana.

Season in brief: The Crimson Tide avoided becoming a rare team to be ranked No. 1 during the season but fail to make the tournament, recovering from its stumbles during a 7-9 SEC season to make the field. In Alabama's favor: An RPI of 38, ahead of such competition for at-large bids as Big East teams Boston College and Seton Hall and well above SEC rival Tennessee.

Player to watch: Erwin Dudley. The senior power forward was expected to be an All-American candidate but faded during the season, averaging 14.6 points and 9.5 rebounds.

Tidbit: Mike Davis, the coach of Indiana, Alabama's first-round opponent, is an Alabama alum.

NCAA bio: Last season, second-seeded Alabama was a second-round upset victim of Kent State. In 15 previous appearances, the Crimson Tide has never advanced past the Sweet 16.

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No. 11 SOUTHERN ILLINOIS (24-6)

First-round opponent: No. 6 Missouri.

Season in brief: The Salukis, regular-season champions in the Missouri Valley Conference the last two seasons, became a bubble team after losing to Creighton, 80-56, in the MVC tournament final. (They split with Creighton, a Top 25 team, during the regular-season.) Still, their RPI of 34 was enough to qualify for an at-large bid.

Player to watch: Kent Williams. The senior guard made 47.6% of his shots from three-point range and led the team in scoring at 15.3 points a game. (He was four for 12 from the field in the title game against Creighton, however.)

Tidbit: Walt Frazier, the Hall of Famer and New York Knick great, played at Southern Illinois and led the Salukis to the 1967 National Invitation Tournament title.

NCAA bio: The Salukis are certified upset threats. They defeated Bob Knight's sixth-seeded Texas Tech team in the first round last season, then reached the Sweet 16 by defeating third-seeded Georgia before losing to Connecticut. Sixth appearance overall.

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No. 12 WEBER STATE (26-5)

First-round opponent: No. 5 Wisconsin.

Season in brief: The Wildcats enter the NCAA tournament with a 17-game winning streak, capping it with a 60-57 victory over Eastern Washington in the title game of the Big Sky tournament.

Player to watch: Jermaine Boyette. The senior point guard leads the team in scoring, assists and steals, and scored 37 points against Brigham Young.

Tidbit: Coach Joe Cravens was an assistant on the UC Irvine team that went 1-25 in 1997.

NCAA bio: In each of its last two appearances, Weber State has upset a No. 3-seeded team. In 1999, the Wildcats beat North Carolina in the first round before taking Florida to overtime in the second. In 1995, they knocked off Michigan State before losing to Georgetown. Thirteenth appearance overall.

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No. 13 TULSA (22-9)

First-round opponent: No. 4 Dayton.

Season in brief: After starting the season as No. 25 in the preseason poll, Tulsa swooned to 11-7. But the Golden Hurricane has gone 11-2 since then, clinching the Western Athletic Conference bid with a 75-64 victory over Nevada in the tournament final. (Tulsa can thank regular-season champion Fresno State, which pulled out of the postseason after confirming reports of academic fraud involving former players.)

Player to watch: Kevin Johnson. The senior forward was chosen first-team all-conference, with teammates Dante Swanson and Jason Parker on the second team.

Tidbit: Despite coaches who keep moving on to better jobs, Tulsa keeps returning to the NCAA tournament. Coaches who have guided the Golden Hurricane to the field of 64: Clarence Iba, Nolan Richardson, J.D. Barnett, Tubby Smith, Steve Robinson, Bill Self and John Phillips.

NCAA bio: Tulsa upset fifth-seeded Marquette in the first round last year before losing to Kentucky. Made the Elite Eight in 2000 under Self, now at Illinois. Fourteenth appearance overall.

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No. 14 HOLY CROSS (26-4)

First-round opponent: No. 3 Marquette.

Season in brief: Four seasons ago, the Crusaders were 7-20. Now they're in the NCAA tournament for the third year in a row, earning an automatic berth with a 72-64 victory over American in the Patriot League final. Their losses were to Kansas (81-57), Yale, Marist and American.

Player to watch: Patrick Whearty. The senior forward is the leader of an ensemble cast. Contrary to expectations, 7-6 center Neil Fingleton isn't much of a factor, averaging only three points and seven minutes after transferring from North Carolina.

Tidbit: Hall of Famer and Boston Celtic great Bob Cousy played at Holy Cross, where he was a member of the 1947 NCAA championship team and the Crusaders' leading scorer in 1949 and '50.

NCAA bio: The Crusaders lost to top-seeded Kansas by 11 in the first round last year and to second-seeded Kentucky by four in the first round in 2001. Holy Cross reached the Final Four in 1947 and '48, winning the NCAA title in 1947.

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No. 15 WAGNER (21-10)

First-round opponent: No. 2 Pittsburgh.

Season in brief: There's no question Wagner has good upset karma with Dereck Whittenburg on the bench, 20 years after his famous NCAA tournament moment. His Seahawks are in the field for the first time after a 78-61 over St. Francis of New York in the title game of the Northeast Conference tournament. Notable results: Wagner lost to Connecticut by 12 and to Maryland by 22.

Player to watch: Jermaine Hall. The senior forward had 27 points on 12-of-16 shooting and 12 rebounds in the NEC title game.

Tidbit: Whittenburg shot the airball that Lorenzo Charles slammed home against Houston in 1983 to give Jim Valvano's North Carolina State team the NCAA championship in one of the greatest upsets in basketball history.

NCAA bio: First appearance.

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No. 16 IND. PURDUE INDIANAPOLIS (20-13)

First-round opponent: No. 1 Kentucky.

Season in brief: The Mid-Continent Conference's NCAA tournament darling of years past is Valparaiso. But IUPUI claimed the automatic bid with a 66-64 upset of Valpo in the tournament title game after a last-second shot by Matt Crenshaw, a 26-year-old Navy veteran. Cautionary scores: IUPUI lost to Notre Dame by 44 and to Creighton by 47 in November.

Player to watch: Josh Murray. The senior forward also played in the NCAA tournament with Ball State before transferring to IUPUI.

Tidbit: Among the lyrics to the IUPUI fight song, "We're raising by the power of two/Both Indiana and Purdue/Doubly strong we're ever true/To IUPUI."

NCAA bio: First appearance, in only the school's fifth season as a Division I team.

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