West: Bracket Loaded With Powers

Arizona players, from left, Salim Stoudamire, Jason Gardner, Channing Frye and Rick Anderson stand on the court in the final minute of the top-ranked team's 96-89 loss in overtime to UCLA in the first round of the Pacific 10 tournament Thursday, March 13, 2003, in Los Angeles.
Arizona, Kansas and Duke are talented enough to be No. 1 seeds in separate brackets of the NCAA tournament.

Instead, the former national champions are bunched together as the top three seeds in the West, perhaps the toughest of the four regionals.

"There's so many good teams. In the West, we've got some very heavy hitters," Arizona coach Lute Olson said Sunday. "I think it's going to be a great region."

In another twist, Arizona and Kentucky, the Midwest's top seed, are on the same side of the bracket and could meet in the national semifinals.

"We obviously don't try to look ahead. The committee can't predict in terms of who might win," said Jim Livengood, selection committee chairman and Arizona athletic director. "That's just the way it worked out. It'll be very interesting."

Arizona (25-3), a No. 1 seed for the fifth time, will open the tournament Thursday at Salt Lake City against No. 16 Vermont (21-11), a first-time participant.

If the Wildcats win, they'll advance to a second-round matchup against the winner of Cincinnati-Gonzaga (23-8), a difficult game between the No. 8 and 9 seeds. The Bearcats (17-11) made the tournament for the 12th straight year.

"We realized that if we can get past Gonzaga, we'll play the No. 1 team in the country," Cincinnati forward Armein Kirkland said. "We're ready to show this team is focused, even though we've had some bumps along the way."

So have the Wildcats, who won the regular-season Pac-10 title, but were upset in overtime by UCLA in the first round of last week's conference tournament, ending their 10-game winning streak.

"We have really been playing very, very well, then we ended up with a little blip on the screen with UCLA," Olson said. "I'm not too sure that might not help us going in instead of having a winning streak and a lot of pressure. I think it'll be a little easier to motivate our guys."

No. 2 seed Kansas (25-7) won the Big 12 regular-season title, then lost to Missouri in the conference tournament. Another of the Jayhawks' losses was to Oklahoma, the No. 1 seed in the East.

The Jayhawks, who reached the Final Four last year, open Thursday at Oklahoma City against No. 15 Utah State (24-8), the Big West tournament champions.

"That whole West regional is mind-boggling," Kansas coach Roy Williams said.

Arizona rallied from a 20-point deficit to beat Kansas 91-74 in January. The rematch could happen in the regional final at Anaheim, Calif.

"We would be up for the game as much as we've ever been up for a game in our lives," Jayhawks forward Nick Collison said.

No. 3 seed Duke (24-6) won its fifth consecutive Atlantic Coast tournament, but had its streak of five straight years as a No. 1 seed end. The Blue Devils open Thursday in Salt Lake City against No. 14 Colorado State (19-13), the Mountain West tournament winner.

No. 4 Illinois (24-6) won the Big Ten tournament title Sunday and will play No. 13 Western Kentucky (24-8) Thursday in Indianapolis.

"You can make a strong case that the West is arguably the toughest region," Illini coach Bill Self said. "When it came down to it, I was thinking, `Kansas hasn't been called yet. Duke hasn't been called yet. Notre Dame hasn't been called yet.' I think there should have been a fifth regional."

The Illini have played Kansas the last two years, and they're in the same region as the Jayhawks for the fourth time. They've also been in the same region with Duke twice in the last four years, and twice in the last three years with Arizona.

"It is interesting that Arizona and Kansas seems to be in our way," Self said. "But you know something, I hope we have to play them because that means we've won two games."

Also Thursday, No. 5 Notre Dame (22-10) will make the short trip to Indianapolis to play Wisconsin-Milwaukee (24-7), another first-time participant.

by Beth Harris