March 12, 2000
Michigan State, which reached the Final Four as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest a year ago, gets to try to do the same thing this year.
The fifth-ranked Spartans secured the top seed in the Midwest bracket by winning the Big Ten tournament championship Sunday. It looked for much of the season as though Cincinnati would wind up as the Midwest's top seed, but the Bearcats lost to Saint Louis in the Conference USA tournament after their top player, Kenyon Martin, got hurt early in the game. Cincinnati was made the No. 2 seed in the South.
The Spartans (26-7) have what it takes to make another run deep into the tournament. They play tremendous defense, have superb guard play led by Mateen Cleaves and they're experienced.
"These players, these seniors, have taken us so far," coach Tom Izzo said after Sunday's 76-61 victory over Illinois in the Big Ten tourney title game.
Michigan State's first-round opponent, Valparaiso, is in the tournament for the fifth straight year and has a bit of experience pulling off upsets. It was two years ago that Bryce Drew's buzzer-beater got the Crusaders, then seeded 13th, past fourth-seeded Mississippi in the first round of the Midwest regional. But this time Valparaiso is the No. 16 seed, with a record of just 19-12, and no 16th-seeded team ever has won an NCAA tournament game.
Iowa State capped its remarkable season Sunday with a victory over Oklahoma in the title game of the Big 12 tournament and was rewarded with the No. 2 seeding. The Cyclones (29-4), picked to finish no better than seventh in the conference, also won the regular-season title with a 14-2 record.
They are led by one of the most powerful players in the country, Big 12 player of the year Marcus Fizer, who enters the NCAA tournament with a ton of confidence.
"We have to play to our potential to get the respect we deserve," he said after scoring 22 points on Sunday. "If you don't respect us, we go out and beat you."
The Cyclones will play 15th-seeded Central Connecticut State (25-5) in the first round. Central Connecticut, the champion of the Northeast Conference, is making its first NCAA tournament appearance since joining Division I in 1986. The Blue Devils finished 4-22 just two years ago.
The No. 3 and 4 seeds in the Midwest are Maryland and Syracuse. Maryland (24-9) closed out the season by winning 11 of its final 14 games, and one of those losses came Sunday against Duke in the championship of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
Syracuse (24-5) opened the season 19-0, but heads into the NCAA tournament having split its final 10 games.
The region's fifth and sixth seeds have two of the richest histories in the game. Kentucky (22-9) is making its 42nd NCAA appearance, and its 86 game wins are more than any other team has. No. 6 seed UCLA (19-11) has 11 championships to its credit.
At the other end of the spectrum are No. 11 seed Ball State and 12th-seeded St. Bonaventure. Ball State is making its first NCAA appearance in five years, while St. Bonaventure hasn't been in the tournament since 1978.
One of the mystery teams in the region could be Auburn.
The Tigers (23-9) lost their final four games of the regular season, following the NCAA's suspension of star player Chris Porter. But they regrouped during the Southeastern Conference tournament and reached Sunday's title game, which they lost to upstart Arkansas.
Utah, making its sixth straight appearance under coach Rick Majerus, is the eighth seed and will play No. 9 seed Saint Louis (19-13), which used its upset of Cincinnati to propel itself to the championship of the Conference USA tournament.
By OWEN CANFIELD
AP Sports Writer