Published 12:00 am Monday, March 16, 1998

L’Observateur / March 16, 1998

The stretch run to San Antonio has begun in gyms across the country with 64 teams all wanting to be the ones cutting down the nets in the Alamodome come March 30.

The NCAA tournament, college basketball’s glorious time every season, tipped off Thursday and by this time the field has been cut to 32 teams.

That number will be trimmed further to the Sweet 16 by Sunday night.

Dreams will have been made and broken. Some Cinderellas will have seentheir carriages turn back into pumpkins while others will still have their fairy tales alive as the clock ticks toward midnight.

Who will be the teams in the palace come the night of the “Big Dance?” Everybody has their opinions, from North Carolina and Duke to upstarts like Michigan and Utah.

My picks are Kansas in the Midwest, North Carolina in the East, Arizona in the West and Kentucky in the South. The first three are top seeds whileKentucky is a number two seed. All but Kansas have won championships inthe 1990s, although the Jayhawks are no stranger to postseason play, having played in 26 previous tournaments.

North Carolina was its usual self in 1 A.D. (After Dean). Bill Guthridgereplaced Dean Smith, the winningest coach in college history, and became just the third coach ever to win 30 games in his first season. The TarHeels are coming off a 83-68 victory over No. 1-Ranked Duke in the ACCTournament championship game, avenging a loss to the Blue Devils a week before.

The Tar Heels are led by All-American Antawn Jamison who averaged 22.9points and 10.2 rebounds per game while shooting 60.7 percent from thefield. Shammond Williams contributes over 16 points per game.North Carolina’s main threats to the Final Four appear to be either Princeton or Michigan State in its top of the bracket and Connecticut or Xavier in the regional finals.

Arizona is out to defend its national title. The Pac-10 champions areespecially dangerous this year because of the tournament experience they gained last year when they were supposed to be a rebounding team. Thisseason, the Wildcats returned all eight of their top players, including All- Americans Mike Bibby and Miles Simon.

Simon, the hero of last season’s Final Four run, averaged 17.3 points agame while grabbing 2.4 steals per game. Bibby averaged 17.2 points and5.9 rebounds per game while leading the team in assists with 5.9 acontest. And those two weren’t even the leading scorers and rebounders onthe squad. Michael Dickerson led the Wildcats with 18.7 points a contestand A.J. Bramlett was tops with 7.6 rebounds.Arizona does not look to be threatened until the third round when it could face Maryland which has knocked off Kansas and North Carolina this season. In the regional finals, either Cincinnati or Utah could end theWildcats’ run.

Kansas, which was favored by many to win it all last season, wants to prove it can handle tournament pressure. Like Arizona, the Jayhawks alsofeature two All-Americans, Raef LaFrentz and Paul Pierce.

LaFrentz led Kansas in both points and rebounds with 20.1 and 11.3 pergame, respectively. Pierce was right behind LaFrentz in both categories,averaging 20.1 points and 11.3 rebounds per game.The Jayhawks appear to have the easiest road to the Final Four, with only a possible matchup against Purdue in the regional finals blocking their path. With a win in the national championship game, the Jayhawks wouldbecome the first team to win 40 games in a season.

Kentucky is in the hunt for a third-straight berth in the national championship game. The SEC Eastern Conference and tournamentchampions have been on a role of late, winning nine of their last 10.

The Wildcats, under first-year coach Tubby Smith, are led by Nazr Mohammed and Jeff Shepard. Mohammed was second in scoring with 11.9points a game while lead the Wildcats with 7.6 boards. Shepard was theteam’s leading scorer with 13.2 points a contest.Kentucky has a possible third-round matchup with Michigan. A win therewould set a regional final against Duke, bringing back memories of the 1992 regional finals when the Blue Devils won on a last-second shot by Christian Laettner on their way to the national championship.

For what has to be the seventh year in the row, I am picking Kentucky to reach the championship game. The Wildcats’ finals opponent will be NorthCarolina with Kentucky winning a close one. Call it a hunch based on theWildcats’ play of late.

Of course, also remember I am the one that predicted no team west of the Mississippi would reach the Final Four in 1995. That was the year UCLAwon the title.

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