Gonzaga-Cincinnati AP Preview

March 18, 2003

GAME: No. 9 Gonzaga (23-8) vs. No. 8 Cincinnati (17-11).

REGIONAL: West, first round.

TIME: Thursday, 12:40 p.m. EST.

SITE: The Jon M. Huntsman Center; Salt Lake City.

Gonzaga and Cincinnati were both breathing sighs of relief when NCAA tournament bids were handed out on Sunday.

Now, the two at-large teams look to rebound from losses in their conference tournaments as they meet in the first round of the West Regional.

The Bearcats lost 63-61 to Southern Mississippi last Wednesday in the first round of the Conference USA tournament.

The Bearcats, who lost eight of their last 12 games, were pleased to earn a spot in the field - even if they have to travel to Salt Lake City.

Cincinnati complained in 1994 when it was sent to Ogden, Utah, and again in 1995 when it opened in Salt Lake City. This season, however, Utah is fine with the Bearcats.

"Salt Lake's a nice place," said Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins, who is one win shy of 350 at Cincinnati. "The only thing is the altitude."

The Bearcats' strong schedule and quality wins over Oregon, Oklahoma State and Louisville helped earn the Bearcats their 12th straight bid - the fourth-longest active streak in the nation.

"It was pretty quiet in there, and there were some hearts pounding in there," forward Jason Maxiell said of Sunday's selection show. "We thought we belonged in, when we saw some of the other teams that had already gotten in there."

The Bearcats have shot just .371 from the field over their last four games.

"We're ready to show this team is focused, even though we've had some bumps along the way," forward Armein Kirkland said.

The Bulldogs earned their fifth straight tournament appearance despite a 72-63 loss to San Diego in the West Coast Conference tournament final.

The Bulldogs' previous four bids came via conference tournament titles.

"What a great statement for our program," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "The at-large shows the respect we have nationally."

However, Few added that waiting to learn his postseason fate was "was a tad too dramatic for me."

The Bulldogs were pleasantly surprised with their No. 9 seed. Last season, the Bulldogs received a No. 6 seed despite being ranked sixth in the nation.

Few said the tougher schedule he deliberately set up this season, including games against Georgia, Stanford and North Carolina State, helped them earn their spot in the field.

"That's maybe the message the committee was trying to send," he said.

Center Cory Violette, Gonzaga's third-leading scorer with an average of 11.5 points, missed the championship game after spraining an ankle in a semifinal victory over Saint Mary's.

The winner of Thursday's matchup will most likely face No. 1 seed Arizona, which plays 16th-seeded Vermont.

"We realized that if we can get past Gonzaga, we'll play the No. 1 team in the country," Kirkland said. "We're ready to show this team is focused, even though we've had some bumps along the way."

Cincinnati leads the all-time series 1-0. The Bearcats beat the Zags 75-68 in 1999 in the Rock-N-Roll Shootout in Cleveland.

PROBABLE STARTERS: Gonzaga - F Tony Skinner, F Zach Gourde, C Ronny Turiaf, G Blake Stepp, G Kyle Bankhead. Cincinnati - F Leonard Stokes, F Maxiell, C Kareem Johnson, G Field Williams, G Taron Barker.

TEAM LEADERS: Gonzaga - Stepp, 17.9 ppg and 5.9 apg; Violette, 8.1 rpg. Cincinnati - Stokes, 16 ppg; Maxiell, 6.9 rpg; Barker, 5.0 apg.

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Gonzaga - At-large berth, West Coast Conference. Cincinnati - At-large berth, Conference USA.

ALL-TIME TOURNAMENT RECORD: Gonzaga - 7-5, 5 years. Cincinnati - 38-20, 21 years.



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