by Gerry Brown
The NCAA Tournament one-upped itself this year. The traditional field of 64 is now one team larger. With the split of the Western Athletic Conference last summer, the formation of the new Mountain West Conference by the former WAC schools, and the addition of the new conference's automatic tournament bid, the NCAA tournament committee decided instead of taking away one of the 34 at-large bids that they would add a play-in game.
Final Four: Duke, Arizona, UNC, Stanford.
National Champion: Stanford.
So the committee picked the 64th (Northwestern St.) and 65th (Winthrop) ranked tournament schools and decreed that they play each other for the right to get creamed by one-seed Illinois in the first round of the tournament. The two teams played Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio.
Get used to the play-in game because it will be around for the foreseeable future. The last time the tournament staged a play-in game was 1991 when teams from the six lowest ranked conferences in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) played for three berths. St. Francis (Pa.), Coastal Carolina and Northeast Louisiana all made the tourney, but immediately lost in the first round.
Besides that new wrinkle, hoops fans can expect the usual when it comes to March Madness: shocking upsets, buzzer beaters, Cinderella stories and above all, great competition.
Familiar faces abound as well: Duke, Stanford and Michigan State are all repeat one seeds from a year ago.
Here is a breakdown of each region and the teams to keep an eye on:East
Duke is the king of this region. If you doubt it just look at what they did to fellow national powerhouse North Carolina in the ACC tourney final. Star guard Jason Williams will be back from a twisted ankle, not that they'll need him in their first round game with Monmouth. Teams that might be able to beat Duke include Kentucky and Boston College, but don't bet against Duke making the trip to Minneapolis for the Final Four. The best game in the region could end up being the 8-9 matchup between Georgia and Missouri. But whoever survives should be nice and tenderized for the top-seeded Blue Devils two days later. Upset special: Creighton over the Luke Recker-less Iowa Hawkeyes.
Illinois is no doubt the weakest one-seed and they should be the first to go down. It could come as early as the second round if eight-seed Tennessee beats Charlotte and its dangerous tandem of Tony Harris and Vincent Yarborough come up big. No matter what happens, expect two-seed Arizona to survive the region and make a return to the Final Four. Upset Special: Butler over Wake Forest, Iona over Mississippi, or both.South
Michigan State is the defending national champion but the nucleus from a year ago is gone. Florida could squeak through. North Carolina might just be determined after getting embarrassed by Duke last week in the ACC tourney. The South is wide open. Gonzaga, former Cinderellas, could pull off another first round upset this year with a win over five-seed Virginia. If there is going to be any shocker to make it to Minneapolis it will be out of the South. Upset Special: Gonzaga over Virginia or Providence over Penn State.West
If Duke is the beast of the east, then Stanford is the best of the west. The path is clear for a Cardinal run to the Final Four. Two-seed Iowa State will be too small to play with Stanford in the front court plus this looks like it could be coach Mike Montgomery's year. If Duke's Williams's ankle is nagging him throughout the tourney, the Blue Devils could be vulnerable and Stanford will be cutting down the nets at the Metrodome. Upset Special: Georgia State over Wisconsin.
2000 NCAA Tournament|
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