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By BOB HARIG, Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2000

Thursday, Saturday

  • GAMES: No. 1 Michigan State vs. No. 16 Valparaiso; No. 8 Utah vs. No. 9 Saint Louis; No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 12 St. Bonaventure; No. 4 Syracuse vs. No. 13 Samford.

  • BEST PLAYER: Michigan State guard Mateen Cleaves is a two-time Big Ten player of the year who couldn't beat out teammate Morris Peterson for the honor this season. But Cleaves is battle-tested and overcame a preseason foot injury to again lead his team. Cleaves averaged 11.5 points and 7.7 assists, and he had a Big Ten-record 20 assists in a recent victory over Michigan. And his experience is crucial.

  • BEST UPSET POSSIBILITIES: After Saint Louis' run to the Conference USA tournament title, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to suggest the Billikens could knock off Utah. No other first-round upsets appear likely, but a second-round game between Kentucky and Syracuse looms and makes the Wildcats a strong underdog.

  • BEST STORY LINE: The Billikens seemingly had no hope of securing an NCAA bid after losing five of their last six Conference USA games. Then they won four straight in the tournament, including victories over three league rivals they lost to during that stretch (Southern Miss, Cincinnati and DePaul) to claim an automatic bid. The team has two seniors and three juniors.

  • WHAT TO EXPECT: The Spartans should have no trouble reaching the Sweet 16, but a blockbuster matchup awaits in the second round with Kentucky and Syracuse. The Wildcats are a dangerous No. 5 seed who played the most difficult schedule in the country and shared the SEC title. The Orangemen once were 19-0 but finished 5-5, including an embarrassing loss to ninth-seeded Georgetown in the Big East tournament. Once ranked fourth, Syracuse will be fortunate to make the Sweet 16.

  • WHAT THEY'RE SAYING: "I know it will be to the school, the alumni, my wife and everybody else. I think I'm realistic enough to know that. But somehow, some way, within a week after that (final) game, I'm going to make sure we know this has been a special group that has done a lot of great things. And I am not going to judge them on one or two games. But I'm realistic enough to know that you don't have many chances to win national championships. We have as good a chance as some, and you'd like to try to make a run at it." -- Michigan State coach Tom Izzo on the expectations of his team making it to the Final Four for the second straight year.

  • ADVANCING: Michigan State and Kentucky.

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