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Sunday, March 16, 2003
Updated: March 17, 9:49 PM ET

National title contenders

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Magnificent Seven
Kentucky is ESPN.com's pick to win it all, but here's a look at seven other teams with the potential to win the national championship, along with the road blocks that will ultimately stop their title quests.

Arizona Wildcats: Record: 25-3 | Region: West | Seed: 1
Why They Can Go All The Way
The Wildcats have the depth, the overall talent and the drive to win the title. They've got experienced players who have been in a Final Four before in Jason Gardner, Luke Walton and Ricky Anderson. Lute Olson is a big-game coach and the Wildcats are as road tested as any team in the field.
Where They'll Be Stopped
National Semifinals: Loss to Kentucky
The West is just too tough to think Arizona can survive battles with Cincinnati, Illinois and Kansas (if the seedings hold) or Duke, and then emerge victorious from a national semifinal with Kentucky. Not even a week's rest will help. Arizona might not get a chance to face Kentucky at the Final Four. Getting out of the West will be a chore.

Texas Longhorns: Record: 22-6 | Region: South | Seed: 1
Why They Can Go All The Way
T.J. Ford. The Longhorns have the best player in the country and he's got the goods to lead them to the title. Ford would be a tough matchup for any opponent. And when he's on, he creates shots for everyone else on his team. The Longhorns aren't afraid of any opponent and would be a tough matchup for any team in the South.
Where They'll Be Stopped
Regional final: Loss to Maryland
The Longhorns have had a few week spots mentally as was evident in the Big 12 tournament. If Texas is off then it can be vulnerable, and that could prove deadly against an experienced team like Maryland, which can sneak out of the South and back into the Final Four.

Oklahoma Sooners: Record: 23-6 | Region: East | Seed: 1
Why They Can Go All The Way
The Sooners have the toughness to claim the title. They've also got one of the most clutch players in the game in Hollis Price. If the Sooners need an answer, Price usually responds with a big-time shot. Oklahoma's defense has also markedly improved and is a bump-and-run physical team that creates hard matchups.
Where They'll Be Stopped
National Title Game: Loss to Kentucky
The bracket is loaded in the East and the nagging injuries to Price, Ebi Ere and Quannas White could catch up with the Sooners. But we're sticking with our preseason No. 1 to reach the Big Easy. But who knew back in November that Kentucky would become all-but-unbeatable in March.

Maryland Terrapins: Record: 19-9 | Region: South | Seed: 5
Why They Can Go All The Way
The Terps have been here and done it before. Maryland has a core group of players who have won the national title. The Terps are also in the same bracket as Texas and could be physical enough in the post to beat the Longhorns. OK, we know, Maryland hasn't exactly torn up the end of the season with losses to Virginia and North Carolina. But this team still has the moxie to go far and challenge for the title.
Where They'll Be Stopped
National semifinals: Loss to Oklahoma
The Terps have to find away to get past David West and Xavier in the second round, but X isn't the toughest No. 3 seed in the field. Florida, which Maryland lost to this season, could be gone by the Sweet 16, with either Colorado or Michigan State taking out a slumping group of Gators. In a battle of frontlines, we'll take the Terps over the Spartans or Buffs, leaving Texas in the way of Gary Williams and company. Getting past one Big 12 team is possible, but two in a row? Not likely.

Syracuse Orangemen: Record: 24-5 | Region: East | Seed: 3
Why They Can Go All The Way
The Orangemen have the best talent in the game in Carmelo Anthony, a nasty zone, and one of the best high-flying offensive rebound players in Hakim Warrick. Jim Boeheim knows how to coach in the NCAA Tournament and could be trouble for any team in the East. Playing the games in Boston and potentially Albany is also an advantage for the Orangemen to come out of this bracket.
Where They'll Be Stopped
Regional Final: Loss to Oklahoma
Carmelo will carry the Orange to the brink of the Final Four before bolting to the NBA. He'll be the difference in a marquee matchup with Josh Howard and Wake, but OU's gang will slow him down enough for the Sooners to advance -- to the dismay of a Orange-clad crowd in Albany. The Orangemen have had a few mental lapses of late, which will be the difference in a game the magnitude of a regional final.

Mississippi State Bulldogs: Record: 21-8 | Region: East | Seed: 5
Why They Can Go All The Way
We loved this team when the Bulldogs beat Xavier in December. Mississippi State is back to playing tenacious defense and has a go-to scorer in Mario Austin. The Bulldogs can play nasty defense and physical on offense by manufacturing buckets. If the Bulldogs can dictate tempo then they've got a shot to win the title. They've also beaten Oklahoma this year, and aren't afraid of Kentucky or anyone else, for that matter.
Where They'll Be Stopped
Sweet 16: Loss to Oklahoma
As much as we like the Bulldogs, Mississippi State never put together a real string of big-time SEC wins against the elite this season. And we don't see 'em beating the Sooners twice in a single season. The Bulldogs will get past Louisville, but no further in Albany.

Pittsburgh Panthers: Record: 26-4 | Region: Midwest | Seed: 2
Why They Can Go All The Way
The bigger question is: "Why is Pittsburgh No. 8 on this list?" The problem is that the Panthers are in the same bracket as Kentucky. But if the Panthers can lock the Wildcats up defensively then they've got a shot to win it all. Pitt is a similar defensive-minded, ego-less team ... like Kentucky. They've also got senior leaders ... like Kentucky. And the Panthers are a team that mirrors its hard-nosed, intense coach ... like Kentucky.
Where They'll Be Stopped
Regional Final: Loss to Kentucky
Don't look for Pittsburgh to lose before getting a crack at the Wildcats. An Elite matchup with Marquette would be a tussle, but Pittsburgh has more offense in a game where points will be at a premium. But up next would be Kentucky. Enough said.



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