Jim Nantz, Billy Packer . . . all the CBS experts agreed on national television Sunday that the West is definitely the strongest of the four regions for this year's NCAA tournament. And with half of the West Regional coming to the Huntsman Center, it should be an exciting week for local basketball fans.
Salt Lake's subregional features the winner of the Big East Tournament, the Pac-10 champion, the Missouri Valley Conference winner, the team with the second-longest winning streak in America, a top ACC team and, of course, a local favorite in BYU. Ironically the Cougars earned a spot at the University of Utah's homecourt by defeating the Utes Saturday night in the WAC finals.The inclusion of BYU virtually guarantees a sellout for the two days of play Thursday and Saturday at the Huntsman Center, although interest was high even before the pairings were announced.
Monty Howard, the U. of U.'s director of athletic ticket sales, said sales were already 30 percent ahead of last year when crowds were 13,000-plus. Howard said 3,000 tickets remained as of Sunday evening and he expected those to be gone well before Thursday's games.
As for the games, here's a brief look at the four matchups:
BYU (20-12) vs. Virginia (21-11) - These two teams played 10 years ago in the NCAAs when the Ralph Sampson-led Cavaliers defeated the Danny Ainge-led Cougars 74-60 in the East Regional finals.Virginia also has a history in the NCAAs in Salt Lake against a WAC team. In 1987, the 5th-seeded Cavaliers were beaten at the Huntsman Center by 12th-seeded Wyoming, which went on to the Final 16.
The Cougars have the height advantage with 7-6 Shawn Bradley and fellow insiders Steve Schreiner, Gary Trost and Kenneth Roberts.
The smaller Cavaliers are led by the youngest major-college coach in 30-year-old Jeff Jones, who succeeded long-time coach Terry Holland this year. Their athletic director is former Utah AD Jim Copeland.
Only one of Virginia's top-five scorers is taller than 6-5. Bryant Stith, a 6-5 forward, is the leading scorer with a 20-point average. John Crotty, a 6-1 guard, scores 15.4 points per game, while 6-6 forward Kenny Turner has a 14.9 average. Ted Jeffries, a 6-9 center averages 6.2 points per game. The Cavs struggled down the stretch, losing four of its last six.
Arizona (26-6) vs. St. Francis (24-7) - The Wildcats have been a top-10 team all season with a veteran, balanced lineup led by Kentucky transfer Chris Mills (15.5 ppg) and Brian Williams (13.8 ppg). They finished the season Saturday with a 42-point win over Oregon, the same team that beat them a week earlier.
The Red Flash (how's that for a nickname?), have already had a tough road to get this far. They had to win the Northeast Conference Tournament, which got them to an NCAA "play-in" game last week against Fordham, which they won 70-64.
The Flash are a small team with a 6-7 center and a couple of 6-5 forwards. Mike Iuzzolino, a 5-10 guard, is the leading scorer with a 24.3 average.
New Mexico State (23-5) vs. Creighton (23-7) - NMSU Coach Neil McCarthy returns to the place he coached the Weber State Wildcats several times. McCarthy's team was a 6th seed last year in the West, but got ambushed by Loyola in the first round. The Aggies come in still stinging from a first-round defeat at the Big West Tournament last week.
McCarthy's teams are built along the same lines as Rick Majerus' Utes. They're a well-balanced team that relies on good defense and rebounding. Reggie Jordan leads the way with 15 points and 8 rebounds per game, while Tracey Ware, Randy Brown, William Benjamin and Michal New all average between 12.9 and 10.5 points per game.
The Bluejays are a hot team, having won 15 of their last 16 games. They are led by 6-10 center Chad Gallagher, who averaged 19.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. Bob Harstad, a 6-6 forward, was close behind with a 18.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.
Seton Hall (22-8) vs. Pepperdine (22-8) - These two teams come in with identical records, but little else in common.
The Pirates, NCAA runnerups two years ago, came on strong to capture the Big East tournament after finishing fourth during the regular season. Oliver Taylor, a 6-foot guard, was the hero, winning two games with last-second baskets. Terry Dehere and Anthony Avent are the top two scorers for P.J. Carlesimo at 19.2 and 18.3 ppg, respectively.
The Waves may be the hottest team in the country, this side of UNLV. They've reeled off 16 straight wins, but all have come against West Coast Conference opponents. They played five NCAA tournament teams in the preseason and lost all five. Pepperdine comes into the tournament without their top scorer, Doug Christie, who tore up his knee during the WCC tournament last week. Geoff Lear (18.6) and freshman Dana Jones (10.0) will try to keep the Waves afloat.