GOING TO NEW ORLEANS
Maryland has the ring, and the best collection of talent in this region might belong to Florida but the best player in the region, T.J. Ford, belongs to Texas. Not only has the team played better and for longer stretches this season, but the Longhorns have added incentive after coming within two points of advancing to the Midwest Regional final.
TEAM ON THE RISE
Before losing to Temple in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament, Xavier was on a 16-game winning streak. It's not rags to riches, but the Musketeers have a top-shelf star in David West and one of the nation's underrated stars in Romain Sato.
TEAM ON THE DECLINE
It's tempting to place this tag on defending national champ Maryland, which dropped to a No. 6 seed by getting swept by Virginia. Florida, however, is the better choice, Everything's relative, but three straight losses to head into the tournament is a weak statement for a No. 2 seed, particularly when your best wins in the last month have been over struggling Auburn and Alabama.
The strength indexes don't tell everything, but it still is a mystery how a team rated 19th overall, like Brigham Young, drops to the No. 12 seed in this region. The 23-8 Cougars do suffer from a lack of major wins, with a Dec. 4 Arizona State defeat as their top triumph. But, led by forward Travis Hansen, the Cougars could easily slip past the first two rounds of the tournament. The team's first-round opponent, Connecticut, and No. 7 seed Michigan State are the other candidates to surprise.
Everybody loves T.J., as in Ford, Texas' All-America point guard, who led the nation in assists last year as a freshman. As a sophomore, the Houston native is averaging 7.2 assists and 2.0 steals per game in addition to his 15.1 points to lead the Longhorns.
MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER
San Diego senior Jason Keep might strike you as clumsy. But if the way his 6-10, 290-pound frame moves offends you, his results will not. Keep, a former high school All-American in football, has averaged 18.2 points and 9.1 rebounds this season, with outings of 30 points and 16 rebounds against UCLA and 24 points and nine rebounds against Purdue. Boilermakers guard Willie Deane and UNC-Wllmlngton guard Brett Blizzard also are players largely under the radar.
Gary Williams shepherded the Terrapins into Final Fours in the last two years, trumped by Michigan State's Tom Izzo, who put three straight Michigan State teams in the national semifinals. A sentimental choice - though out of touch with reality - will probably be Purdue's Gene Keady, who is a staple of late March while never making it to the' sport's grand showcase.