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February 26, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments

The Morning Dish – Wednesday, February 26th, 2003

by Michael Ermitage

The race for the top four seeds in the NCAA tournament is officially on. With Arizona and Kentucky cruising, it seems that there are still two spots open for top seeds. A certain candidate is Florida. The Gators, who briefly spent time atop the AP poll, are 23-4 overall and 11-2 in the tough SEC. On Tuesday night, Florida demolished South Carolina, 96-63. It was the sort of performance that showed just how dominant the Gators can be when everything is clicking just right. Billy Donovan’s club put six players in double figures, although none had more than Matt Bonner’s 18 points. It was a rather impressive feat considering the Gators had a double-figure scorer from every year in school. Bonner was joined by fellow senior Justin Hamilton, who scored 12 points. Junior Bonell Colas, who averages just 4.9 points per game, chipped in 11. Sophomore David Lee had 14 points on six-of-seven shooting. And freshmen Anthony Roberson and Christian Drejer each added 10 points. Consider that sensational freshman Matt Walsh and dangerous senior Brett Nelson also each had eight points.

Florida’s depth is mind-boggling. While many experts have pointed to Arizona’s second five as the best in America, few have noticed that Florida’s is just as good. The Gators’ achilles’ heel, and it has showed on the road, is that they are far too dependant on youth. If Brett Nelson, Justin Hamilton and Matt Bonner become more consistent players and leaders, the Gators can win the entire thing. As for now, they’re positioned nicely to make a run as a top seed.

Challenging the Gators for a top seed are Big 12 conference-mates Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma. It is likely that one of these three teams will end up with a top seed in the NCAA tournament. And it is not impossible for the Big 12, who has not had a national champion since Kansas won it in 1988 as a member of the Big 8, could land two top seeds. Consider that Texas and Oklahoma are ranked one and two in the RPI ratings. Another fringe candidate for a top seed is Louisville, who has recently dropped two CUSA games to fall out of first place in that conference. The Cardinals would most likely have to win out to land a top seed.

Side Dishes

Surging Illini: As a Big Ten team, there is one thing that you don’t want to do, and that’s play Illinois in Champaign. The Fighting Illini are 33-1 under Bill Self at Assembly Hall, and are just destroying visitors to the arena. Just last Tuesday, the Illini embarrassed Michigan State, 70-40. Now, last night, Illinois manhandled Indiana, 80-54. The Fighting Illini are starting to depend less on all-everything Brian Cook, and it has made them a better team. In last night’s victory, the team was led by sophomore Roger Powell’s 22 points. It was Powell’s second consecutive game with 20 or more points, something he had never previously achieved in his career. Freshman Dee Brown added 16, while Cook had 17. Meanwhile, Indiana is in desperate need of wins. The loss put the Hoosiers below .500 in the Big Ten and in danger of missing the NCAA tournament after appearing in the Finals last season.

Maryland keeps pace: The ACC is still up for the taking, and Maryland took one step closer to the title Tuesday. The defending national champions hammered Clemson, 91-52. The win put the Terps a half-game behind conference leader Wake Forest, and a half-game ahead of Duke. Coach Gary Williams has his team focused on winning the conference, and senior Tahj Holden knows there is more competition than just the heralded Blue Devils this year.

“The past couple of years it’s been us and Duke — that’s been it,” said Holden said. “This year you have three good teams. We’re still fighting for the league championship.”

Leaving Arizona: Arizona forward Dennis Latimore has decided to leave the Wildcats’ program. Latimore averaged 3.2 points and 3.1 rebounds this season, averaging only 12 minutes per contest. The 6-8 power forward was having trouble earning playing time over Channing Frye and Isaiah Fox. Earlier in the season, Arizona lost guard Will Bynum, who transferred to Georgia Tech due to a lack of playing time. Latimore has not yet indicated where he’ll transfer.

Clemons breaks hand: Missouri junior guard Ricky Clemons broke his left hand during the Tigers’ Saturday loss to Colorado. Clemons is the team’s third-leading scorer and leading assist man. Missouri will start reserve guard Josh Kroenke in Clemons’ place. Quin Snyder’s crew is firmly on the bubble at 16-7 overall and 7-5 in conference.

Tonight’s Menu:

• The Tennessee Volunteers are trying to worm their way into an NCAA tournament bid. A win tonight at Kentucky would do a lot for its resume. The Volunteers enter the contest at 15-8 overall and 7-5 in the SEC. They’ve lost two in a row, including a devastating home loss to fellow bubble and conference-mate Alabama on Saturday. The Wildcats, on the other hand, are cruising towards a top seed. Kentucky has yet to lose in the SEC. However, its closest game in conference came against Tennessee, a 74-71 victory in Knoxville.

• Southwest Missouri State has one last shot to be the upset winner of the Missouri Valley Conference. The Bears, two games out of first, host conference co-leader Creighton tonight. Southwest Missouri State nearly defeated the highly-touted Bluejays in Omaha, but blew a 17-point advantage. With a revenge victory tonight and a little bit of help, the Bears can still tie with Creighton and Southern Illinois for the title.

• The Sun Belt conference doesn’t get a whole lot of pub, but that’ll change Wednesday night. The top two teams in the conference, Western Kentucky and Louisiana-Lafayette, will meet on ESPN2. The winner will take sole possession of first place in the conference.

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