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Sunday, March 17, 2002
Updated: March 18, 10:55 AM ET

ESPN experts' Final Four picks


A week of games hasn't done much to change the minds of ESPN's experts. They still like the chalk in all four regions to reach Atlanta at the end of the week.

But after watching 48 games, each has a few new reasons to like Duke, Kansas, Maryland and either Arizona or Oklahoma to reach the Final Four.

A look at what the experts had to say:

ESPN.com's Andy Katz

EAST: Maryland
Maryland looked good Sunday, really good in dispatching Wisconsin. The Terps were the pick to get out of the EastJay Bilas and that's the same pick after one weekend. The Terps can beat Kentucky or Connecticut (sorry Southern Illinois, but we don't see a Elite Eight trip). But Maryland has more experience at this points than the other four teams and had a higher goal all season. Sure, Kentucky and Connecticut want to get to the Final Four now that they're in the Sweet 16. But Maryland has been positioning itself for a return trip all season. The Terps seem to be on a higher level on the focus meter and don't see to sweat a little run. They could get tight if the game is close late -- but Juan Dixon, Steve Blake, Byron Mouton and Co. don't seem to get rattled. This is their bracket, theirs to lose. And after watching them dispatch the Badgers on Sunday in D.C., it doesn't seem like they're ready to go home anytime soon. Maryland is in a comfort zone, better than at any point during the regular season. And Gary Williams isn't about to let this team fall one or two games short, not when he has his best chance for a national title.

Anyone doubt Kansas after watching the Jayhawks against Stanford? Didn't think so. The Jayhawks were as awesome in that game as they were in crushing Missouri on Big Monday in late January in Lawrence. And Saturday's win was with a questionable Kirk Hinrich to start the game. Hinrich? How about that performance? He injures his ankle, sees it swell up immediately, and 48 hours later is making 3s, diving for loose balls and hitting mid-range shots. Illinois will try and push around the Jayhawks in the Sweet 16, but they've got some revenge on their mind after being dumped by the Illini in the Sweet 16 last season. Texas and Kansas played one of the best games of the season, but the Jayhawks are simply better and more experienced for a late-March matchup. Oregon can run with the Jayhawks, but have never been here this late and might get tight in an Elite Eight situation. Roy Williams is driven to get back to the Final Four. Drew Gooden wants a taste of it before he bolts and, so too, do Nick Collison, Hinrich and Jeff Boschee. This was my pick to win it all, so I can't back off now.

WEST: Oklahoma
Oklahoma was the pick to start the bracket and the Sooners are still alive so I can't deviate from them. Oklahoma was tested by Xavier and withstood a late charge. The Sooners still aren't clicking offensively and that's the scary thought. Oklahoma won the Big 12 tournament and two games in the NCAA Tournament with its defense. The Sooners are still the toughest team in this field defensively and keep playing with more hunger in each game. Forget about Kelvin Sampson's inability to advance past the Sweet 16. This is his best team, so naturally it should be his best chance. Arizona poses a tough matchup in the Sweet 16, but the Sooners should be able to body up the Wildcats in the post, especially the freshmen big men for Arizona. Jason Gardner and Luke Walton might not have as many open looks as they've seen the last two rounds. Oklahoma has to score to win, obviously, and getting past Arizona, then UCLA or Missouri will require plenty of points. But there's no reason why they won't finally put together their best offensive game of the tournament this week in San Jose.

Notre Dame pushed Duke to near elimination and that seemed to anger the giants of this bracket. The Blue Devils were forced to win a game with Jason Williams at the free-throw line and he answered each free throw with a make. Williams' confidence and his team's confidence in him had to be at an all-time high. The Blue Devils won even though Carlos Boozer fouled out late in the game. They won with a major contribution from Daniel Ewing off the bench to prove that they have scorers even off the bench. And they continue to look like they simply belong in the Final Four, like it's their destiny. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said no coach prepares his team for late-game situations as well as Mike Krzyzewski. He said the Duke players almost feel like it's their destiny to be in the Final Four. He's right, and Indiana, then Kent State or Pittsburgh isn't going to stop them barring a complete breakdown in everything the Blue Devils do from the perimeter. If Duke loses before Atlanta, it would be the biggest shocker of next weekend -- that's how much of a lock the Blue Devils appear to be right now.

ESPN's Jay Bilas

EAST: Maryland
As I felt at the beginning of the year, I believe that Maryland is one of the three Jay Bilasbest teams in the nation, and will be the team that comes out of the East. The Terrapins have two of the toughest guards mentally in Steve Blake and Juan Dixon, and both are exceptional defenders. In addition, Maryland has a terrific frontline and very good depth. As long as Maryland continues to shoot the ball reasonably well, it should be Gary Williams' second straight trip to the Final Four. The only caveat is UConn's ability to break pressure to score. A potential match-up between Maryland and UConn should produce alot of scoring and athletic plays.

Kansas is the best team in the region, and arguably the best team in the country. After a game in which I believe Kansas played not to lose against Holy Cross, the Jayhawks looked as it they were really playing to win against Stanford. The truth is, while many uninformed types may try to saddle these players with the shortcomings of other Kansas contenders, this team owes nothing to anyone. They should try to win for themselves, not for some silly notion of erasing the past. First, they can't erase anything so why even bother, and second, this team has earned the right to be selfish with this opportunity. Kansas is one impressive, well coached, agressive team that is a pleasure to watch compete. Win or lose, I'll never forget just how good these guys have been this season.

WEST: Arizona
Who comes out of this region is anyone's guess, and throwing darts at the bracket is as good a way as any to handicap it. One thing is for certain: aside from the No. 1 seed, this region had the best team at almost every seed, and several of the games were not upsets. Missouri could be the beneficiary of UCLA's win over Cincinnati, and Oklahoma is playing strong defense and rebounding well, but, I am going with Arizona to come out of this region. I chose the Wildcats on Selection Sunday and saw no reason to change that pick from their play in Albequerque.

EAST: Duke
Duke had a scare against Notre Dame but, as I believed when I first saw the bracket, no team in the South has a reasonable shot to beat Duke without a lot of help from the Blue Devils themselves. While Mike Brey's gameplan worked wonders, Chris Duhon will be more aggressive against similar defenses, and Daniel Ewing will see more minutes. To beat Duke, a team needs perimeter shooting, guards that can penetrate, and rebounding strength. None of the remaining teams in the South can match up with Duke. Barring injury, Duke will be in Atlanta with its biggest test coming in Greenville.

  ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi

EAST: Maryland
Maryland remains the class of the East, but will be tested severely by a Kentucky team that has a Joe Lunardinew lease on life. The Wildcats are the only one of six SEC teams to survive the first weekend, which is doubly ironic considering the number of so-called "experts" who picked them to lose to Valparaiso. Instead, the Wildcats picked up steam in St. Louis and enjoy the hottest hand of the tournament in senior Tayshaun Prince. Even so, if the Maryland team of Sunday's second half finds its way to the Carrier Dome, the superior guard play of the Terps should be enough for them to advance. In the other half of the bracket, the magic figures to run out for Southern Illinois against a UConn club which has now matured about a year ahead of schedule. Looking ahead to a probably final against Maryland, it is worth noting how far UConn has come since losing to the Terps 77-65 in December. The call here is for the Huskies to shave that margin in half this time, but still come up a bit short.

The highest seeds of any region have advanced to Madison, where Kansas will really have to earn its way to an expected Final Four berth. The top-seeded Jayhawks and No. 4 Illinois square off for the second straight year in the Midwest semifinals, but their seeds are not the only things reversed from a year ago. Illinois has rarely fired all of its '01 cylinders this year, whereas Kansas -- as Stanford would certainly attest -- is as deep and explosive as any team of recent times. Look for the Jayhawks to avenge last year's elimination at the hands of Illinois and face Big 12 companion Texas in the regional final. I like Rick Barnes to somehow find a way to slow down high-scoring Oregon on Friday night before running out of gas against KU on Sunday. One final, unrelated note: Butler should have been in this region. Kent State, Southern Illinois, Tulsa, Creighton and UNC-Wilmington have proven once again that an accomplished mid-major is far more competitive than a so-so major conference entry like Charlotte (or, for that matter, Boston College, St. John's or Utah).

WEST: Oklahoma
The West was supposed to be wild, but who could have forecast a regional semifinal between No. 8 UCLA and No. 12 Missouri? Two consensus top 10 teams at the beginning of the season have shed their erratic ways and advanced through the top half of a brutal bracket. The Tigers will attempt to become the first No. 12 seed to win a Sweet 16 game in nine tries (the previous eight all faced No. 1 seeds). And the bottom of the West offers merely No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 3 Arizona. This will be a battle of styles as the physical Sooners try to bury the up-tempo Wildcats. The guess here is that Oklahoma can play Arizona's game better than the other way around, assuming Hollis Price is at or near 100 percent. What makes the regional championship so unpredictable is the possibility of a pair of conference rematches (Oklahoma-Missouri or Arizona-UCLA). In those situations, history seems to favor the lower seed. Instead, we'll take Oklahoma over UCLA.

EAST: Duke
Called the "Duke Invitational" after the bracket was released, the South has broken even better than expected for the defending national champions. Gone is a regional rematch with talented USC. Gone is SEC champion Alabama from the bottom half of the bracket. All that remain are three nice, fundamentally sound teams (Pitt, Indiana and Kent State), none of whom can outscore the Blue Devils in the bright lights of the regionals. Duke got its scare in the second round against Notre Dame. This week, look for a pair of double-digit victories over IU and the Pitt-Kent survivor (probably Pitt). The Panthers might shove Duke around a bit in Saturday's championship game, but ultimately do not have enough weapons or speed to keep the Blue Devils out of their tenth Final Four of the Coach K era. Duke began the tourney with the easiest path to Atlanta among the No. 1 seeds, and nothing has changed in that regard.

ESPN's Dick Vitale

EAST: Maryland
Maryland is physically strong and emotionally focused. And their coach Gary Williams is likewise focused. The Terps Dick Vitalereached the Final Four last year, and now nothing less than a national title will satisfy them. They have senior leadership in the inside-outside combination of Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter. The Terps won the ACC regular season over Duke by two games, and I don't see any teams in the East Region standing in the way of a second straight trip to the Final Four.

Kansas had a scare against Holy Cross in the first round. Kirk Hinrich went down with an ankle sprain, and Kansas had to win the game in the last seven minutes against the gutsy Crusaders. Hinrich was able to come back in the second round against Stanford, scoring 15 points off the bench. But even better for the Jayhawks, they returned to being the offensive machine they had been during the regular season. Kansas had its scare, and now the Jayhawks will have too much firepower for Illinois and either Texas or Oregon.

WEST: Arizona
I love the coaching ability of Lute Olson come tournament time. The Wildcats' success started in the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament when they beat Maryland and Florida -- a stunning victory considering all the talent they lost to the NBA last year. Arizona is led by point guard Jason Gardner and Luke Walton, the best passing big man in America. The 'Cats have been tested by tough competition, and the West shaped up as the toughest bracket on Selection Sunday. Now that Cincinnati is gone, I believe Arizona will march on to Atlanta.

EAST: Duke
For Duke, it comes down to their Big Three: Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer and Michael Dunleavy. They were tested big-time vs. Notre Dame -- as my late buddy Jim Valvano used to say, "survive and advance." On its way to an NCAA title, a team usually runs into one buzz saw. The Dukies withstood the test and found a way to beat the Irish. With USC knocked out early, I believe Duke will be too much too handle for Indiana and either Pitt or Kent State.