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Cats have tough road to return to Final Four


By Roman Veytsman
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, March 23, 2005
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The Arizona men's basketball team is no stranger to the Sweet 16. The Wildcats have been in the tournament's third round four times in the past five years. However, Arizona has not reached the Final Four since 2001, when it fell to Duke 82-72 in the NCAA championship game.

This year's Chicago Regional - filled with three title-contenders and a Cinderella - pose a threat to the Wildcats' hopes of a trip to St. Louis and the Final Four.

Illinois: (34-1, 15-1)
Conference: Big Ten
Seed: No. 1

Key players: Trio of guards Luther Head (15.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg), Dee Brown (13.2 ppg, 4.5 apg), and Deron Williams (12.1 ppg, 6.6 apg)

Coach: Bruce Weber (second season)

First two NCAA Tournament games: defeated No.16 Fairleigh Dickinson 67-55, No. 9 Nevada 71-59

The Fighting Illini spent the better part of the season ranked No. 1 in the nation after receiving little consideration for the top spot to start the year.

The three starting guards were the team's top scorers and led the Illini to 76.9 points per game in the rugged Big Ten. Illinois' tough non-conference schedule and big wins in conference play gave them the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.

While Dee Brown was named Big Ten Player of the Year, it has been Luther Head who leads the team in scoring, becoming a multidimensional scorer after being considered just an athlete at the beginning of his career.

Deron Williams could be the best of the trio, at least according to NBA scouts who see the talented Williams as a smooth shooter and more than capable playmaker, as he leads the team in assists.

"They have great guards," Arizona assistant coach Josh Pastner said. "They play high-level basketball, and they're very fast."

The guards have received all of the publicity, but the Illini's big men have significantly contributed to the cause - no more so than in the second-round game against Nevada when junior forward James Augustine posted 23 points and 10 rebounds, his second double-double in as many games.

Senior forward Roger Powell, a registered minister, is the leader on this upper-class-laden team.

The Illini bench is not overly deep, but Weber can count on 7-foot-2-inch senior center Nick Smith to come in and give quality minutes. Big bruiser Jack Ingram (14.4 mpg) and guard Richard McBride (15.3 mpg) also see minutes off the bench. "They're strong and active. They're blue-collar players," Pastner said.

UW Milwaukee: (26-5, 14-2)
Conference: Horizon League
Seed: No. 12

Key players: guard Ed McCants (17.5 ppg, 38 percent 3-point field goals), Joah Tucker (15.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg)

Coach: Bruce Pearl (fourth season)

First two NCAA tournament games: defeated No. 5 Alabama 83-73, No. 4 Boston College 83-75

The Wisconsin Milwaukee Panthers didn't just upset two higher seeded teams in their first two games, but they did it in convincing fashion, outscoring their two opponents by a combined 18 points. The Panthers start four juniors and a senior under Pearl, who has turned the program into one of the top mid-majors.

This time around, UW Milwaukee has used efficiency on offense and defense and two players who can light up opponents.

In their two wins, McCants and Tucker combined for 83 points, exactly 50 percent of the team's output, as the Panthers scored 83 points in each game. Although the Panthers were badly out-rebounded in both games by an average margin of 11, they were able to save themselves by making 12 3-pointers in their first game and 11 in their second.

Pastner compared their style of play, based on high defensive pressure, to the style Arizona faced in their second-round matchup against UAB.

"They rely heavily on the pressure defense," he said. "They try to do different things to bother you and they try to get their points off the press."

Oklahoma State: (26-6, 11-5)
Conference: Big 12
Seed: No. 2

Key players: Guard John Lucas III (17.8 ppg, 4.1 apg), forward Joey Graham (17.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg), forward Ivan McFarlin (12.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg)

Coach: Eddie Sutton

First two NCAA tournament games: defeated No. 15 Southeastern Louisiana 63-50, No. 7 Southern Illinois 85-77

If experience wins games in the NCAA Tournament, then the teams in the Chicago Regional are in good shape, and the Oklahoma State Cowboys are no different.

The Cowboys returned most of the team that reached the Final Four last year with the exception of Boston Celtics guard Tony Allen.

Senior point guard John Lucas runs a team that starts four seniors and a very talented freshman in JamesOn Curry, who is North Carolina's all-time leading high school scorer.

Lucas, whose father John was an NBA player and coach, leads a Cowboy attack based on precision and effectiveness in the half court.

The Cowboys, however, are athletic enough to run the break as well with the speedy Lucas and the new starter Curry, who came off the bench earlier in the season.

"He's one of the best point guards in the country," Pastner said of Lucas. "He's a great team leader and he runs his team extremely well.

The Cowboys second leading scorer, Joey Graham, who opted to go back to college for his senior season, has struggled thus far in the tournament, averaging 7.5 points per game.

The Cowboys' experience and talent level was high enough where they were able to get help from the rest of their squad, though.

Leading the way was Ivan McFarlin, who scored 31 points in their second-round win over Southern Illinois and was also the leading scorer in the first game scoring 18 points.

Senior guard Daniel Bobik is the shooter on the team, hitting 44 percent of his 3-pointers on the season.

The bench features two more seniors.

Forward Terrence Crawford logged an average of 22.5 minutes per game thus far in the tournament and helped out with five assists in the first game and seven rebounds in the second game. Stephen Graham, twin of brother of Joey, averaged 6.6 points per game this season and is the main big man off the bench.



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