Who do you like?
The question usually pops up in January, resounds through
February and early March, and then rattles off the watercooler
between Selection Sunday and Thursday noon, when office-pool
picks are due. Only it misses the point. Better to ask, Who
don't you like?
Fact is, 63 teams in every NCAA tournament field wind up losers.
As obvious as this is, it's worth highlighting in an era lacking
great teams, when every club has some weakness and even
prohibitive favorites come up short. A year ago Duke had four
players who would be selected in the first round of the NBA
draft, but the Blue Devils didn't have much size or much
experience in close games, having beaten opponents by an average
of 24.6 points. In the title game Connecticut hammered them on
the boards, and Duke failed to get off a final shot in a 77-74
So for experts let us look not to Packer and Vitale but to the
ancients--to men like Achilles, he of the weak heel, and to
Indiana coach Bob Knight's favorite philosopher, Sun-Tzu, author
of The Art of War. As Duke forward Shane Battier says, "The
tournament is like war, and war is about the exploitation of
Accordingly, we dug through the archives, identifying the
various ways teams have gone down to defeat over the years. Then
we examined this year's field and found at least one potentially
fatal flaw in every participant. In region-by-region assessments
over the following pages we've projected how those weaknesses
will come into play in the first four rounds of the draw, to
foretell where each team--except for our Final Four
participants, that is--will get its comeuppance.
Who do we like? Join us as we go through the process of telling
you--a process of elimination.
Teams lose because they can't beat a zone. With so many players
eager to reach the NBA and so many coaches selling themselves as
just the men to take them there, college ball features few of
the zone defenses outlawed in the pros. But that scarcity can
make a zone all the more effective, especially in
single-elimination play. Utah used a triangle-and-two in its
1998 upset of top-seeded Arizona, and UTEP in 1992 and Syracuse
in 1996 bamboozled two favored Kansas teams with zones. Last
season Cincinnati was derailed when it failed to solve Temple's
matchup zone. "I knew after the first two minutes the game was
over," the Owls' Rasheed Brokenborough said then. "They were
arguing and cussing with each other. They didn't have a clue."
"A zone is really tough [to play against] when the other team
gets the lead," says former Jayhawks forward Chris Piper, who
played on the third-seeded Kansas team that lost to 11th-seeded
Auburn in the '85 NCAAs. "The minutes seem fewer in your mind
during the tournament, when you know it's one and done." Adds
Sonny Smith, whose box-and-one and triangle-and-two helped
Auburn upset St. John's and UNLV as well as Kansas during the
mid-'80s, "I was real big on changing defenses. No set
pattern--just try to confuse people, especially if a team didn't
have an experienced point guard."
Who's most susceptible to a zone in this year's field? Kentucky,
for one. The Wildcats are the worst-shooting Kentucky team since
1963, making only 41.8% of their shots from the field. Their
fecklessness moved Alabama coach Mark Gottfried to say, "They
dare you to play zone--even if you don't have a zone." And
Syracuse, the Wildcats' likely second-round opponent, has a good
Because a key outside shooter goes cold. "Defense can carry you
most of the year," says Siena coach Paul Hewitt, "but in the
tournament everybody defends pretty well, if only out of
emotion. Scoring can get tough, so you need someone who can
knock it down to give you some oxygen." But what if that
player--like North Carolina's Shammond Williams in 1998 (2 for
12 as the Tar Heels lost) or Kansas's Jerod Haase in 1995 and
'96 (1 for 6, then 0 for 9 as the Jayhawks went down)--supplies
carbon monoxide instead? If he's getting good looks and his team
needs perimeter scoring, he can hardly be expected to stop
Gonzaga might have gone to the Final Four last year had Matt
Santangelo not shot 1 for 9 in the Zags' loss to UConn in the
West Regional final. Santangelo has moved to the point this
season, but now Richie Frahm is Gonzaga's bellwether shooter. He
sank 46% from beyond the arc when the Zags won this season but
only 32% in their eight losses. Tennessee, too, is vulnerable to
one player's frosty touch: The Vols rely on guard Tony Harris,
who went 2 for 11 in a 30-point loss to Southwest Missouri State
in last year's NCAAs. Others who mustn't go cold: Desmond Mason
of Oklahoma State, Khalid El-Amin of Connecticut and A.J. Guyton
of Indiana, who has been splendid in almost every one of the
Hoosiers' 20 victories, but whose worst games--he missed 16
straight shots against Indiana State and disappeared down the
stretch against Illinois, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State
and Purdue--coincided with their seven regular-season defeats.
Because they don't have a go-to guy. Egalitarianism is all well
and good, but not necessarily when matters get down to the short
strokes. There's a rule: If you have to ask who a team's go-to
guy is, that team probably doesn't have one. A go-to guy's
teammates instinctively know his identity. Michigan State is
loaded with talent, and its best player is Morris Peterson, but
the Spartans all know that Mateen Cleaves gets the ball at the
end of a close game, for even if he won't take the last shot,
he'll make the right play.
This season Kansas is plagued by the lack of a go-to guy; no
Jayhawk is averaging more than 26 minutes or 11 shots a game.
St. John's blew a 10-point lead in the last three minutes in a
loss to Ohio State and was outscored 17-2 at the end of a loss
to Notre Dame. Also looking for Mr. Goodbasket are Kentucky,
Stanford and Florida.
Because they draw the wrong team. Stanford's plodding 1998 team
lost badly in the regular season to two versatile, speedy
opponents, Arizona and Connecticut. But the Cardinal lucked out,
dodging a bad matchup until the national semifinals, where
Kentucky's thoroughbreds galloped to victory. Though Stanford is
now better equipped to run or walk, it still lost twice this
season to a faster Arizona team. The South region could provide
several fascinating stylistic studies: Tulsa essentially starts
four guards, and Cincinnati with Kenyon Martin might have
overpowered the Golden Hurricane. But speedy Tulsa won't be as
vulnerable against the Bearcats now that Martin is out. Nor will
Ohio State have much of a size advantage if the Hurricane
reaches the regional semifinals, for the Buckeyes start three
guards. Only Stanford's size in the half-court figures to tame
Could there be a more problematic matchup for impatient Fresno
State than Wisconsin, which, if anything, suffers from an
overabundance of patience? And pity poor Samford, the Princeton
knockoff from the Trans America. "We want to play someone from
outside the Northeast who's unfamiliar with Princeton's
offense," coach Jimmy Tillete said before Selection Sunday.
Alas, the Bulldogs drew an unusually disciplined Syracuse squad,
17-point victors over Princeton earlier this season.
Because the zebras turn dangerous. The little guys finally get
to play the big guys on neutral floors--and with neutral
officials. The conference most endangered by unfamiliar referees
is the Big Ten, whose inability to put more than one team in the
Final Four between 1994 and 1998 was at least partly
attributable to its ponderous, bruising style. This season the
league has been as physical as ever; Michigan State coach Tom
Izzo even had the Spartans practice once in football gear. After
his team lost a scrumfest to Wisconsin on Jan. 26, Purdue coach
Gene Keady bemoaned the permitted mayhem. "Is this style going
to help the Big Ten play better in the NCAAs?" he asked.
Probably not. With two key reserves, Aloysius Anagonye and David
Thomas, hampered by stress fractures, Michigan State could
suffer from foul trouble if prospective games with Syracuse or
Iowa State are tightly called.
Another team that doesn't want to hear a quick whistle is St.
John's. The Red Storm was 20-0 in games in which none of its
players fouled out; it was 4-7 when someone did.
Because injury or illness strikes. For some reason that two
generations of Meyers are still trying to figure out, DePaul's
Mark Aguirre decided to take his only charge of the season late
in the Blue Demons' already-secure 1979 regional-final upset of
UCLA. This act of needless valor sent Aguirre reeling backward
into the knee of teammate Curtis Watkins, who wound up hobbling
through coach Ray Meyer's second--and last--trip to the Final
Four. The tournament annals are full of such ill-timed injuries,
from Ohio State star Jerry Lucas's sprained left knee in the '62
national semifinals, which smoothed the way for Cincinnati's
title victory; through Phil Ford's knee injury suffered a few
days before North Carolina's first-round loss to Alabama in '76;
to the torn ACL that Kansas's spidery Archie Marshall suffered
at the '86 Final Four. Illness, such as Bobby Hurley's diarrhea
just before UNLV's 30-point blowout of Duke in the '90 final or
Keith Van Horn's flu on the eve of Utah's regional final against
Kentucky in '97, can be just as capricious and debilitating.
Perhaps Martin's broken leg is the sacrifice that will keep the
basketball gods satisfied this season. But even if infirmity
doesn't strike again, a team can be gassed or wobbly by
tournament time. In 1987 Missouri went into the NCAAs having
swept three teams in three days to win the Big Eight tournament.
The Tigers drew Xavier on Thursday at noon, and their heavy legs
showed during a 70-69 loss. This year, keep an eye on Auburn,
whose three games in three days in the SEC tournament will be
followed by a Thursday first-round date (at 11:30 in the
morning, no less) against Creighton in Minneapolis. Duke has
only six regulars, a limited rotation for the nation's
highest-scoring team, and freshman forward Mike Dunleavy only
recently fought off mono. Arizona was just getting ready to
welcome back forward Richard Jefferson when it lost center Loren
Woods, who missed the last five games of the regular season and
whose availability is still in question for the tournament.
Other teams who hope their Atlases don't shrug include Iowa
State, which relies on Big 12 player of the year Marcus Fizer
("We just saddle him up," confesses coach Larry Eustachy), and
Temple, which has been concerned all season about the tender
ankles of its floor leader, Atlantic 10 MVP Pepe Sanchez.
Because they expect too little of opponents--or too much of
themselves. "In 1994 we beat Cal because even though their
coaches respected us, their players didn't," says Wisconsin
coach Dick Bennett, who was then at Wisconsin-Green Bay. "Before
they realized we could play, they were down 15." Duke, which
beat a seemingly invincible UNLV team in '91 by forcing the
Runnin' Rebels to execute in an unaccustomedly close game, wound
up playing the Vegas role a year ago in the final against UConn.
"There was a lot of pressure on us," says the Blue Devils' Chris
Carrawell of last year's tournament. "People were calling it the
Duke Invitational, and we were just expected to win."
Michigan State is the closest thing to a consensus favorite this
season, with Martin's injury having dropped Cincinnati to a
second seed. How will the Spartans carry that burden? As for
teams who might be looking past a quality opponent without a
big-name reputation, look no further than Auburn, UCLA and
Oklahoma. They'll fail to take seriously Creighton, Ball State
and Winthrop at their peril.
Because the darnedest things just happen. There's no other
category under which to file Georgetown guard Fred Brown's
mistaking James Worthy of North Carolina for a teammate in the
'84 final, or Chris Webber's calling a timeout that Michigan
didn't have in the '93 title game, or the peevish clock that
didn't start for 15 seconds in Kansas's 1986 regional semifinal
against Michigan State, just enough time for the Jayhawks to
force the overtime in which they beat the Spartans. Several days
before the '81 tournament three Kentucky freshmen got into a
shaving-cream fight in Wildcat Lodge, the basketball dorm. An
assistant snitched to coach Joe B. Hall, who wouldn't let the
matter die, bringing it up in the locker room before the heavily
favored Wildcats were to play UAB in the second round. "He told
us that if we lost the game, it would be our fault because we
didn't have our heads in the game and we were distracting other
guys on the team," one of the foamy frolickers, forward Bret
Bearup, says today. "We were looking at each other thinking,
What's he talking about?" UAB won 69-62, and whose fault this
was--the freshmen's for behaving sophomorically, or Hall's for
dwelling so negatively on something so trivial--hardly mattered.
Who'll reach the Final Four in Indianapolis rides on factors far
beyond any prognosticator's ken. But we'll volunteer a foursome
just the same, attaching a caveat to each. From the West we like
LSU, provided that Texas, Arizona or St. John's fails to exploit
the Tigers' lack of depth and tournament experience. Michigan
State should emerge from the Midwest so long as Syracuse doesn't
revert to its early-season form and Iowa State doesn't maintain
its late-season form, either of which would force the Spartans
into a close game. (They're 2-4 in games decided by five points
or fewer.) From the East we'll take Temple, assuming that
Sanchez doesn't get sidelined by fouls or injury and the Owls'
outside touch doesn't abandon them. And from the South look for
Stanford, as long as no coltish team--Connecticut, Tennessee,
Arkansas, Tulsa or Cincinnati--can goad the Cardinal into an
So there you have it: Three weeks' worth of weaknesses. Might as
well lose yourself in them. You'll have a lot of company.
Since the NCAA tournament has become one big office pool, put us
down for $5, and here are our picks.
3 OKLAHOMA STATE
10 SETON HALL
Cards coach Mike Deane has taken three schools to NCAAs. This
will be the third to go out early.
Jayhawks have no go-to guy; Demons do--Quentin Richardson, who
nearly committed to Kansas.
For Butler to do it, Bulldogs need star. Alas, no mystery here;
they lack that weapon.
If Quakers of March play Illini of December, Penn wins. But
maturing Brian Cook sinks Ivy champs.
With changing D's and ball hawk Tezale Archie on Guyton, Waves
show Knight another early exit.
Dutchmen should win battle of point guards but, five-on-five,
lack enough fingers for holes in dike.
Arizona's Loren Woods blocked 14 against Ducks; here Samuel
Dalembert stymies Oregon drives.
Owls win, but Leopards' seniors and coach Fran O'Hanlon's old
Big Five savvy keep this close.
Demons almost beat Devils in December, but Duke--especially
point guard Jason Williams--is better, while DePaul isn't.
Youth in search of a leader (Gators) runs into youth with a
leader (Illini's Sergio McClain) as Lon Kruger takes on old
Like Hoosiers, Cowboys cut and screen--but they also have better
athletes and will Wave goodbye to Pepperdine.
Even with Shaheen Holloway,
a senior guard having a superb season, Pirates can't beat
Owls' matchup zone.
Illini, now bringing players like Marcus Griffin and Lucas
Johnson off bench, give Kruger a luxury original Coach K can
only wish for. Big Ten size, strength will out.
Point man Doug Gottlieb passes but doesn't do what Cowboys need
here: score. State's outside game is streaky; with Lynn Greer,
Quincy Wadley and Sanchez, Temple's isn't.
Owls define roles and rebound by committee. Those are Illini's
flaws: Cory Bradford and Frank Williams not always on same page
in backcourt, and Illinois was outrebounded 41-16 at Michigan
16 SOUTH CAROLINA STATE
8 NORTH CAROLINA
12 UTAH STATE
6 MIAMI (FLA.)
3 OHIO STATE
14 APPALACHIAN STATE
For much of year, Bulldogs got most of boards on offensive
glass. Chuck-'n'-chase won't work here.
Tar Heels' slack perimeter D lets Mizzou get free for threes in
matchup that ought to be in NIT.
Coach Stew Morrill is taller (at 6'8") than all but one of his
Aggies; Huskies' front line prevails.
Vols' chemistry problems aren't severe enough to cost them
against SEC Lite team from Sun Belt.
Young Hogs feel no pressure while older Hurricanes, who often
win ugly, lose ugly here.
5'9" Tyson Patterson torments Buckeyes' guards, but Ohio State's
6'11" Ken Johnson rules inside.
Defense, balance, foul trouble for Rebs' Kaspars Kambala help
Hurricane beat inconsistent UNLV.
Martin is gone, but Bearcats have three NBA first-round picks,
enough to sink Seahawks.
Confine play to half of court and Cardinal is as solid as any
team in nation. Mizzou can't eye and let fly its threes and goes
Private battle between Harris and El-Amin could disrupt both
teams, but Vols' all-court speed and power will take out UConn.
Razorbacks have talent and livelier legs, but startling run
stalls against Final Four experience of Buckeyes.
Hurricane's 6'10" Brandon Kurtz has way in middle as underrated
team hands Bob Huggins his seventh loss to a lower seed.
Cardinal controls boards and keeps Vols from getting out in
transition. Stuck in half-court game, Harris and Vincent
Yarborough hunt in vain for open outside shots.
The Hurricane, 29-4 and only 11 points from a perfect season,
makes Buckeyes pay for late-game sloppiness by turning to its
specialty: the forced turnover.
Cardinal draws Tulsa out with threes by Casey Jacobson and David
Moseley and then looks inside to Mark Madsen and Collins twins
to finish off Hurricane. Kurtz can't stop assault alone.
1 MICHIGAN STATE
9 SAINT LOUIS
12 ST. BONAVENTURE
11 BALL STATE
2 IOWA STATE
15 CENTRAL CONNECTICUT
Spartans pound ball inside, and Valpo can't defend post.
Cleveland to become Cleaves-land.
Utes will find way to stop Billikens' top player, Justin Love
(which is not name of a weepy film).
It's Bonnie good to land a bid after 22 years, but Wildcats' big
post players will dominate.
Samford beat St. John's, but Orange plays zone, and Bulldogs'
offense works best against man.
The Cardinals, 6-3 in close games, get steady play from their
guards--just what Bruins lack.
Gaels try to get points from press, but Terps guards Steve Blake
and Juan Dixon won't be fazed.
Don't be fooled: Tigers went 0-4 after loss of Chris Porter, had
only one good win in SEC tournament.
Blue Devils had first winning Division I season in 1998-99; now
in first NCAAs. Good news ends here.
Utes' late-season fade nearly cost them a bid. Now they learn
the difference between most physical league and one of the least.
As if Orange zone weren't tough enough for the cold-shooting
Wildcats, swingman Desmond Allison is likely out after DUI bust.
Yes, Ball State beat Purdue by 20, but Terps are rare ACC team
on late-season run and have more offense than Boilermakers.
Cyclones will learn from Auburn not to take Missouri Valley rep
lightly and will use defense to shut down Jays' finesse game.
Spartans, Orange have much in common: Both play zones; both
wobbled in close games. But State gets nod for depth, better
individual matchups and way it finished season.
Like homonymous maker of Viagra, Fizer gets all the pub. But
floor leader Jamaal Tinsley is among nation's best, and Cyclones
reap benefit of having played in a tougher league.
Tough luck for the Twisters: Nation's second-hottest team draws
nation's hottest; Spartans' near home court edge in Palace of
Auburn Hills will tell the story in best of the regional finals.
16 JACKSON STATE
9 FRESNO STATE
12 INDIANA STATE
13 S.E. MISSOURI STATE
2 ST. JOHN'S
15 NORTHERN ARIZONA
SWAC! Name of Jackson State's league is also sound of Tigers,
with 15 losses, going down.
Tark gets lousy draw in return to NCAAs, facing team that beat
his Bulldogs by 22 a year ago.
Sycamores return to NCAAs after 21 years but come up short
versus taller Longhorns.
Indians won Ohio Valley with D, especially blocks. But OVC isn't
SEC, and LSU is huge up front.
Highlight of Dayton's season, upset of Kentucky, is ancient
history as Flyers meet their 'Makers.
Eagles, who won at Mizzou, get better of Sooners in half-court.
Besides, a 14 beats a three every year.
Cards beat DePaul, North Carolina, Utah by double digits--at
home. Zags prevail on the road.
They're Lumberjacks, and they're just O.K. Red Storm will stymie
their three-for-all style.
Badgers bamboozle teams that don't like the half-court, but with
Jason Gardner in control, Wildcats are as adept at walking as
Longhorns' Chris Mihm and Gabe Muoneke are big, but LSU's
Stromile Swift and Jabari Smith are bigger--and more active.
Both teams like physical style, but difference between Big Ten
and Big South comes clear when three Boilermakers seniors flex
Without top-flight defender Mike Nilson (ruptured right Achilles
tendon) the Zags won't depose the Kings of Queens.
Arizona was minus Jefferson in 26-point mauling in Baton Rouge,
but he's not worth 26 points. Torris Bright plays fellow frosh
point Gardner to draw as Tigers near their first Final Four
Boilermakers are too slow for the Red Storm. "We can't contain
the dribble," Purdue coach Keady has confessed, and all the
slashing Johnnies like to go hard to the hole.
After getting the better of bigger foes in late-season run,
undersized Red Storm, beaten up by Purdue, runs out of gas.
Neither team has much depth, but Tigers have more size.