March 15, 2000

By BOB BAUM
AP Sports Writer

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - To the locals, Tucson is the "Old Pueblo," a city greatly influenced by its Hispanic heritage. It's just the right place for Oklahoma star Eduardo Najera to begin the final NCAA tournament of his college career.

Najera, considered the best Mexican-born basketball player ever and almost certain to become the second from that country to play in the NBA, expects a big Hispanic following when the third-seeded Sooners (26-6) play 13th-seeded Winthrop (21-8) Thursday in the opening game of the West regional at Arizona's McKale Center.

"I feel great about the support from the Mexican people, not only the country of Mexico but the whole Hispanic population of the U.S. and even South America," the 6-foot-8 senior forward said. "We need a lot of people to support us, especially the Hispanic people. We know there are a lot of Hispanic people here, and hopefully they will be for us."

In other first-round games in Tucson, sixth-seeded Purdue (21-9) plays 11th-seeded Dayton (22-8), seventh-seeded Louisville (19-11) meets 10th-seeded Gonzaga (24-8), and second-seeded St. John's (24-7) plays 15th-seeded Northern Arizona (20-10).

Najera knows he'll have family support. His mother, father and a brother plan to make the nine-hour drive from his hometown of Chihuahua.

They will cheer on a young man whose mastery of English, as well as of basketball, is remarkable considering he could hardly speak the language and was extremely green at the game when he left Mexico five years to attend Cornerstone Christian High School in San Antonio, Texas.

"Eduardo is the sweetest, most sensitive, most beautiful soul you'll ever want to meet," Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson said. "But once he crosses those lines it becomes a battlefield to him. He's a tough, tough kid."

Najera, a third-team All-American, finished second in the Big 12 in scoring (18.8 points per game) and rebounding (9.5). That only begins to describe his importance to the Sooners (26-6).

"Eduardo fits our personality and fits our identity," Sampson said. "We want to play harder than you do. If the ball is loose, we want to be the first one to it. There's nothing that we do for our identity that he's not outstanding in. ... He's a winner. The kids in our program have really embodied our spirit."

The Sooners, who upset Arizona in the first round a year ago and then beat North Carolina-Charlotte before losing to Michigan State, are taking nothing for granted against Winthrop. Najera and teammate Renzi Stone said they remember watching Winthrop beat North Carolina-Asheville for the Big South Conference tournament title a year ago.

They also are aware that Winthrop, until the early 1970s an all-female school in Rock Hill, S.C., won at Missouri and took Maryland into overtime this season.

"That team is good," Stone said. "We're not taking them lightly, that's for sure."

The Eagles' nonconference challenges against big-name teams leaves them anything but in awe of heavily favored Oklahoma.

"The confident feeling that they have now is so great that they don't care who they're playing or where, that they can beat anybody," Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall said. "These guys now have some firsts - first Big South team to make consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, first to beat a big school. There's one more first out there, and that's to win one in the NCAA tournament."

The 10:40 a.m., local time, tipoff will mean an early morning wake-up call for both teams. The schedule could favor Winthrop.

"They haven't played since March 4," Sampson said. "We've played three games in the last five days. But this time of the year, you just go play basketball. I'm not going to make any excuses."

St. John's had to travel from New York to the great southwest for its opening-round game against Northern Arizona, a team of 3-point shooting specialists that is bound to have a good share of the crowd on its side.

St. John's will have the services of Erick Barkley and Lavor Postell, who both have been the subject of NCAA investigations. A source close to the investigations told The Associated Press that there is nothing pending that would keep the two out of Thursday's game.

Gonzaga - remember the zag rhymes with bag - returns to Arizona, the scene of its triumphant run to the regional finals a year ago. Many of the same players are back, including Matt Santangelo, Richie Frahm and Casey Calvary, although their glib coach of last season, Dan Monson, has gone to Minnesota. He was replaced by his top assistant, Mark Few.

The Bulldogs will play athletic Louisville, which is in the tournament for the 23rd time under coach Denny Crum.

Dayton and Purdue, despite their relative proximity, have played each other only twice, in 1979 and 1981, both in the NIT tournament. Purdue won both.

"We don't feel outmatched or anything like that," Dayton coach Oliver Purnell said. "We know that because of our strength of schedule, and because of who we've beaten, that we belong. ... We respect Purdue because they have the opportunity to play in the Big Ten, but we don't feel it would be a major upset if we won."