One mans trip through the field of 65: Brackets 101

Posted: Monday, March 17, 2003

The only form that gets more use in March than an NCAA tournament bracket sheet is a 1040a for taxes, and that one doesn't have to be finished for another month.

So first, fill out the brackets, a task as tough as ever after a season in which the order of the Top 25 changed every week.

A No. 1 seed has never lost to a No. 16, so there are four easy games to pick. At least one No. 13 seed has won a game the last two years, so that sounds like a lucky road to follow.

There have never been four No. 1s in a Final Four, and that group has never been shut out of the national semifinals, either.

Two teams from the same conference have reached each of the last four Final Fours, so that sounds like a plan.

Even with all these guidelines, it's fun to create interesting matchups as the field narrows. So here goes, the road to New Orleans:

Top-seeded Oklahoma has the shortest trip to first- and second-round games, traveling 20 minutes from Norman to Oklahoma City. That will help the Sooners in wins over South Carolina State and North Carolina State.

Wake Forest will be the only No. 2 seed not to reach the second weekend as Saint Joseph's backcourt knocks out the Demon Deacons in the second round. The Hawks' run ends in the Sweet Sixteen at the hands of Syracuse, which beat another Philadelphia school, Penn, in the previous round.

Mississippi State's athletic backcourt will end Louisville's run in the second round and then not be enough against Oklahoma's guards.

Syracuse and super freshman Carmelo Anthony use playing in nearby Albany, N.Y., to their advantage and keep Oklahoma from returning to the Final Four.

SOUTH

A second-round matchup of Michigan State and Florida, a replay of the 2000 title game, is too much fun to pass up. The Spartans win the rematch and get Xavier in the third round after the Musketeers have ended Maryland's dream of repeating as national champion.

Top-seeded Texas, LSU, Connecticut and Stanford win their first-round games, and the Longhorns beat Connecticut to get a shot at Xavier.

In what might be one of the highest-scoring games of the tournament, Texas uses its home-state advantage in San Antonio to move on to the Final Four for the first time.

MIDWEST

Kentucky enters the tournament with a 23-game winning streak, and the Wildcats will get to New Orleans with 27 wins in a row. Their second victory will be over Utah in a rematch of the 1998 national championship game when Tubby Smith won it all in his first season.

Tulsa will be this year's lucky No. 13 as the Golden Hurricanes knock off Dayton and then fall to Wisconsin.

Holy Cross will scare a big team for the third straight year, but Marquette will prevail only to lose to Missouri in the second round.

The first-round matchup between Alabama and Indiana is a game between teams that were considered among the nation's best several months ago. Alabama will prevail, then lose to Pittsburgh.

Kentucky and Pittsburgh will play in a regional final for defense enthusiasts to salivate over. Kentucky makes it two No. 1s in the Final Four.

Gonzaga proves once again how good the mid-majors are with a win over Cincinnati before losing to Arizona.

Illinois beats Notre Dame in a second-round matchup in Indianapolis watched by plenty of fans from both schools.

Central Michigan and 7-foot center Chris Kaman knock off Creighton in the opening round but then can't beat Duke despite the advantage inside.

Kansas' senior tandem of Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison find a way to beat Memphis and Duke, which extends the longest current streak with its sixth straight Sweet Sixteen berth.

The Jayhawks then get Illinois, which stuns top-seeded Arizona in the regional semifinal. Kansas gets back to the Final Four and joins Texas, so the Big 12 gets a pair in for the second straight year.

FINAL FOUR

Kentucky and Syracuse met for the national title in 1996 and the Wildcats and Orangemen will do it again seven years later. The Big 12 also loses two semifinals for the second straight year.

A 29-game winning streak will be an impressive way to end this season and start the next one, and that's what Kentucky will have when it wins it all near Bourbon Street.

Jim O'Connel is a basketball reporter for the Associated Press.



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