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A Duke, but no royalty

The Blue Devils are one of four No. 1 seeds, but that doesn't make them big favorites as in years past at the NCAA Tournament.

By BRIAN LANDMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2000


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Duke, which undoubtedly will be the nation's new No. 1-ranked team, was awarded the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament's East Region as part of Selection Sunday.

Just don't tell coach Mike Krzyzewski his Blue Devils are the ones to beat.

"We've been a team to beat all the time because we're beatable," he said, referring to his team matching a school record with five overtime games and even losing twice at Cameron Indoor Stadium this season. "Our team's good, it's really good, but it's not great."

No team appears to be in that category entering this week's tournament, which has been virtually unheard of since, well, maybe ever. There always seemed to be a UCLA or Kentucky or, last season, Duke, that was a clear-cut favorite.

Not this year.

The race for Indianapolis, site of the Final Four, seemingly lacks a pole-sitter.

"There's no super team," ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said. "I think there's about 15 teams that can win six games in a row."

Joining Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament champion Duke as top seeds are Big Ten tournament champ Michigan State in the Midwest Region and Pac-10 co-champs Stanford and Arizona in the South and West, respectively.

The 10-member NCAA selection committee, however, couldn't even differentiate between those four, member Les Robinson said Sunday night.

"None of them really jumped out," he said. "It wasn't like last year when Duke was clearly the No. 1 seed."

Meanwhile, Florida, which shared the Southeastern Conference regular-season title with Kentucky, LSU and Tennessee, drew the No. 5 seed in the East and opens with Butler on Friday in Winston-Salem, N.C. Miami, which lost to St. John's in the Big East semifinals, received the No. 6 seed in the South and plays surprise SEC tournament champ Arkansas on Friday in Nashville.

Arkansas' presence in the field of 64 underscores the chaos selection committee members had to grapple with as they spent the past four days squirreled away in an Indianapolis hotel room pouring over reams of data and watching games.

"I've never experienced more conference tournament upsets than what we saw this weekend," said first-year committee chairman Craig Thompson, a five-year veteran of the group. "It was highly unusual. It brings back into perspective the whole college basketball landscape, the parity that's in college basketball and these different situations just added to that confusion, if you will."

The chaos for the committee began Thursday when Cincinnati senior center Kenyon Martin, the likely national player of the year, broke his right leg in the opening moments of the then top-ranked Bearcats' Conference USA tournament opener against Saint Louis.

Without their star and leader, the Bearcats lost 68-58. They had beaten the Billikens, who went on to win the C-USA tournament and the league's automatic berth, six days earlier by 43 points.

"The situation with Cincinnati was we did not have an opportunity other than a 37-minute span in one game to judge how Cincinnati would play without Martin," Thompson said, adding that the team was so emotionally distraught over Martin's injury that its performance was probably an aberration.

Still, after much debate, the committee moved Cincinnati to a No. 2 seed in the South.

"This is historical," Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins said Sunday night on ESPN. "It's probably the first time the No. 1 team in the RPI (ratings percentage index) isn't a No. 1 seed."

Later Thursday, the committee watched Arizona, without injured star center Loren Woods, beat visiting Stanford to snap a two-game losing streak.

Even though the committee was told that Woods' back injury would prevent him from playing in the NCAA, it had a test to better assess Arizona's strength and rewarded it with a No. 1 instead of Temple or Iowa State.

While the seeding, even at the top, was more difficult than ever, so too was the selection of the 35 at-large teams. (Of the 31 leagues, only the newly-formed Mountain West and the Western Athletic Conference didn't receive automatic berths this year.)

For the final few spots, Thompson said, the committee was left with a group of about 11 teams, all of which had some beauty marks and warts. Virginia, for example, had a win against Maryland, had twice beaten North Carolina, a No. 8 seed in the South, and was 19-11 overall, 9-7 in the ACC. No team with a winning record in the ACC had been left out since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

Yes, Virginia, you're the first.

"They were eliminated very late," Thompson said, pointing to the Cavaliers' non-conference schedule. He said six of their wins were against the bottom one-third of the 318 Division I schools and they were 1-4 against the top 25 as determined by the NCAA's unpublished RPI.

"I'm happy for Carolina, but I thought when you play somebody head-to-head and you beat them twice, you should be in," Virginia coach Pete Gillen said. "It's disappointing the league's respect is so down."

This is the second straight year the ACC has sent just three teams to the NCAA.

Also in Virginia's last group were teams such as Vanderbilt and Notre Dame.

The Commodores (19-10), who had been ranked as high as No. 20 and were still in the AP poll until the final week of February, had big wins against Florida, LSU and two against Tennessee. But their overall schedule was weak and 12 of their wins were against teams rated near the middle to bottom.

"They weren't able to distinguish themselves with that other grouping of (SEC) schools," Thompson said.

The Irish had the same luck. Notre Dame enjoyed big wins against Ohio State, St. John's and defending national champion UConn twice, but mixed in bad losses against weaker opposition such as Miami (Ohio), Providence and Pittsburgh.

So, the committee selected Indiana State, which beat Indiana and won the Missouri Valley Conference in the regular season.

"What we're seeing now is this new evolution of the college game that has taken three, five years for it to work its way out and we're now seeing where the college game is and where it's always going to be," CBS analyst Billy Packer said of the parity. "The college fan and surprisingly, the sport itself, has become healthier because we no longer have those 18-25 players who would in effect be in 12 programs that would dominate the scene."

So Billy, who's your favorite?

"I don't think there is one," he said. "If you want to take them and give me the other 63, I like my chances. When you start looking at the top 20 teams and say, "Can this team beat that team on a neutral court?' You'd say, "Yeah, sure it can.' "

"This tournament," added Krzyzewski, "is wide open, as wide open as it's been."

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