by Michael Bowen
U. of Wyoming -- Gonzaga's first-round opponent in Albuquerque, Wyoming (21-8, 11-3 and the regular-season champions of the Mountain West Conference), boasts a big front line. Marcus Bailey, a 6-5 junior guard from Cheyenne, was named to the all-conference first team for the second year in a row. Bailey averaged 14 points per game, shot 53 percent from the field and averaged 1.4 steals per game in conference play.
Wyoming's two other primary backcourt players boast impressive credentials as well. Donta Richardson is a 6-2 junior from Colorado Springs; Jason Straight, a point guard from Chicago, may only stand 5-11, but he was co-freshman of the year in the Mountain West.
The Cowboys' center, Uche Nsonwu-Amadi, is 6-10, 260 lbs., and he's from Nigeria, as is teammate Ugo Udezue, a 6-8 senior who prepped in Maryland.
The Cowboys, of course, are familiar with The Pit on the campus of the University of New Mexico, having split their home-and-home league contests, winning 79-67 in Laramie on Jan. 26, and losing in Albuquerque on Feb. 25 by a score of 74-65. (The Zags, of course, won a 95-90 overtime thriller in the Lobos' Pit back on Jan. 7.)
Wyoming's head coach, Steve McClain, was named conference coach of the year for 2001-02. Wyoming has won at least 18 games in each of McClain's four seasons in Laramie. The Pokes have combined two 20-win seasons in a row with consecutive Mountain West Conference regular-season titles (shared last year with Utah, but won this year outright).
The Cowboys went into the Mountain West's third-ever post-season tournament as the No. 1 seed, but managed only to fly past Air Force with a two-point overtime win -- their second OT win over the Falcons this season -- before being upset in the conference semis by San Diego State, 70-69. (The Aztecs (21-11) went on to defeat Utah in the conference finals. They earned a 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament and will face fourth-seeded Illinois in a Friday game at Chicago in the Midwest Regional.)
Best wins: 82-69 over Montana State at Casper, Wyo. on Dec. 15; swept two from Utah.
Against tourney teams: lost to USC, 90-84, in L.A.; lost to Texas Tech, 90-84, in Lubbock.
U. of Arizona -- Should Gonzaga get past the Cowboys, their likely second-round opponent is a team that, even as a No. 3 seed, is probably underrated. Lute Olson's Arizona Wildcats (22-9, 12-6 in the Pac-10) may be only 15th in the AP poll, but they're sixth in the RPI, they won the Pac-10 tournament and their schedule has been rated the toughest in the country. The Cats went 13-8 against 2002 tournament teams, including three-game sweeps of both Cal and USC and road wins over Maryland and Florida. Olson's team features 5-10 junior point guard Jason Gardner, 6-8 junior forward Luke Walton (son of Bill, the UCLA and NBA star), 6-10 freshman center Channing Frye, and 6-9 junior forward Rick Anderson. Gardner (20.5 points and 4.5 assists per game) and Walton (16 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists per game) were all-conference selections, while 6-1 guard Salim Stoudamire (cousin of Damon, now in his seventh year with the Portland Trailblazers) was the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year. After losing four players to the NBA off last year's NCAA runners-up, there are hopes that this youthful squad will return intact next season, Olson's 20th in Tucson.
Santa Barbara -- After a third-place finish (11-7) in the Big West, the Gauchos defeated Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and UC Irvine to advance to the title game. The Gauchos (20-10 overall) defeated two-time defending champion Utah State 60-56 to win the Big West tournament. This is UCSB's first time on the Big Dance floor since 1990. A strong defensive team, Santa Barbara has held opponents to just 38 percent shooting and 60 points per contest. They are led by Mark Hull (15.0 points and 5.4 rebounds per game), a 6-7 junior forward and first-team All Big West selection. Branduinn Fullove, a 6-4 sophomore guard, made second team all-conference honors. Nick Jones, another 6-4 sophomore guard, was the MVP of the Big West tournament. A 6-9 senior forward from Senegal, Adama Ndiaye, has recovered from a broken finger last season to become the team's leading rebounder. Fourth-year coach Bob Williams is already arguably the most successful Gaucho coach of all time, with 62 wins in four seasons.