Florida, Tennessee could make noise in March

Feb 13, 2001 7:09 AM

This has been one of the more wide-open seasons in recent college basketball history. While a few teams have separated themselves from the field, there are still two or three seeds that can make noise in March.

First on that list is the Florida Gators, one of last season’s Final Four participants. They have battled through injuries this season, the latest to guard Justin Hamilton.

Luckily for Florida, Hamilton is a role player. While solid, his absence won’t make or break the Gators’ season.

Injuries earlier in the season to Teddy Dupay, Brett Nelson and Brent Wright were possible season-breakers, but all three players are back now, and Florida is playing well. They’ve done a good job on the road, played a tough schedule, and have the experience of last year’s tournament.

Throw all that in with a terrific head coach, and possibly the best post player in the SEC in Udonis Haslem, and the Gators could certainly be making a return trip to the Final Four — depending on their seeding, of course.

Florida’s biggest SEC rival has to be Tennessee, although Kentucky and Mississippi are having fine seasons.

Tennessee isn’t playing well going into the weekend, but they’ve played a difficult schedule and enjoy a high RPI rating, which virtually insures a high seed in the Big Dance.

At home, the Vols are still playing well, but they’ve stumbled on the road. Still, a team with Tony Harris in the backcourt, Isiah Victor and Ron Slay up front, along with swingman Vincent Yarbrough, must be reckoned with when the games start to get important. They lost at Florida, 81-67, on Jan. 30.

The teams’ next meeting is Feb. 18 at Tennessee.

Looking a bit north, the ACC boasts many of the best teams in the country. We looked at North Carolina and Duke last week. This week, we turn our sights on the next two top teams in the conference: Virginia and Maryland. They’re heading in opposite directions. Maryland took on Carolina Saturday.

The Terps lost three of four heading into that game. The hardest loss was Jan. 27 at home to Duke, 98-96 in overtime. The Terps enjoyed a 10-point lead with 54 seconds left in regulation. It evaporated in a mist of Jason Williams’ 3-point shots.

Maryland still has a talented, well-balanced team. Shooting guard Juan Dixon, swingman Terence Morris and center Lonny Baxter are among the top players in the nation at their respective positions. Point guard Steve Blake is a quality floor general who averages almost seven assists per game. Maryland also has a deep bench.

Nine players on the roster average over four points per game; 10 players average almost eight minutes per game.

Virginia is playing good ball, but part of that might be their schedule. They’re 11-1 at home, including winning their last four in Charlottesville.

The Cavaliers aren’t a big team, but have plenty of talent and can put the ball in the basket. They average over 88 points per game and have six players on their roster who average nine points or more.

Center Travis Watson is undersized, but he’s a monster on the boards, averaging more than nine per contest. Point guard Donald Hand does a great job getting the whole team involved in offense.

Three Virginia players connect on more than 40 percent of their 3-point shots: leading scorer Chris Williams, Roger Mason Jr., and sharpshooter Keith Friel. All average over 2½ attempts from the arc per game.

The Cavs don’t have great depth. Lack of size may hinder them at some point, but with their explosiveness, they’re never out of a game — unless they play at Duke.

Heading west, Iowa State has to be one of the great stories of the season. They made it to the Final Eight last year, but Marcus Fizer left for the NBA.

Many thought the good times had ended before they began in Ames. But the Cyclones play great defense, have a great coach and have good size throughout the roster.

Iowa State isn’t particularly deep, but their backcourt — Jamaal Tinsley and Kantrail Horton — is tough, big and battle-tested.

They have two quality big men: Martin Rancik and Paul Shirley. Iowa State is cruising through the Big 12, beating Kansas in Lawrence Monday. With their experience, it should be tough to beat.

Next week, we’ll take a look at some other teams that have a legitimate chance at a high seed come tournament time, but have an important week ahead.