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Updated: Thursday, March 20, 2003 7:44 AM EST
NCAA BASKETBALL PREVIEW
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No. 9 Gonzaga (23-8) vs No. 8 Cincinnati (17-11)
GONZAGA BULLDOGS
Gonzaga Bulldogs
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CINCINNATI BEARCATS
Cincinnati Bearcats
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SALT LAKE CITY (Ticker) -- Ninth-seeded Gonzaga looks to prove the NCAA Tournament selection committee right on Thursday when it meets No. 8 Cincinnati in the first round of the West Region.

Gonzaga (23-8) suffered a 72-63 loss at San Diego in the championship game of the West Coast Conference tournament, ending a four-year run. The Bulldogs had to wait until they were awarded an at-large berth by the committee, which traditionally favors major conference fifth-place teams over smaller schools.

The Bulldogs lost star guard Dan Dickau to graduation, but Blake Stepp seems to have picked up the tradition of great guards in the program. Stepp was named WCC Player of the Year after shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc and averaging 17.9 points.

Gonzaga's strength lies in its frontcourt, with bruising Ronny Turiaf leading the way. Turiaf averages 15.4 points per game and specializes in getting to the foul line.

Cory Violette and Zach Gourde are the other frontcourt starters. Violette is listed as questionable for the Bulldogs after missing the WCC title game with a sprained ankle.

Cincinnati (17-11) stumbled to the finish, losing eight of its last 12 games. But that still was enough to impress the selection committee, which gave the Bearcats their 12th straight NCAA berth.

Cincinnati also has lost six straight games away from home and are in the West Region for the third straight year. However, last year's first- and second-round games were played in Pittsburgh due to the NCAA's "pod" system.

Senior guard Leonard Stokes leads the Bearcats at 16 points per game sophomore Jason Maxiell averages 12.9 points and 6.9 rebounds. But Cincinnati's offense sputtered often this season and was held below 60 points eight times.

The Bearcats have won eight straight first-round games since a loss to Wisconsin in 1994. They have met the Bulldogs just once, recording a 75-68 victory on December 4, 1999.

Both schools participated in the Jimmy V Classic in East Rutherford, New Jersey this season.

The winner will get top-seeded Arizona or No. 16 Vermont on Saturday in the second round.


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