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Connecticut -- and Maryland -- Can't Ask for a Better Path in West Region

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By John Feinstein
Monday, March 16, 2009

Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun has won two national championships, and both times he came out of the West Region. He's got a great shot to do it again this year.

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Here's a simple fact: There is no one in the top half of this bracket who poses any kind of serious threat to U-Conn.

Chattanooga, the first-round opponent, is in the field because the Southern Conference chose to play its tournament in Chattanooga. Calhoun, not a believer in keeping things respectable, might win that game by 50. Next up will be the Brigham Young-Texas A&M winner. This game is tough to pick but the feeling here is that the Big 12 has three very good teams -- Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri in the field -- and everyone else is just okay. So, give a slight edge to BYU. By Saturday, it won't matter.

Purdue was the second-best team in the Big Ten. That means the Boilermakers could have finished, oh, eighth in the Big East or the ACC. They might be good enough to beat Missouri Valley champion Northern Iowa, but that's it. Washington came out of nowhere to win the Pac-10 regular season, and Mississippi State came out of nowhere to win the SEC tournament. Playing three hours from Seattle in Portland, Ore., Washington should win that game and should also beat Purdue or Northern Iowa.

The Connecticut Huskies should reach the Sweet 16 and play the Washington Huskies in a rematch of their 1998 classic in Greensboro, N.C., won at the buzzer on a falling-down jumper by Richard Hamilton of Huskies East. This one probably won't be as close, even though it will be played in Phoenix. Regardless, Connecticut will not be playing six overtimes.

The bottom half of the draw, believe it or not, is as good a place as Maryland could possibly hope to be. The Terrapins should beat California in the first round. Mike Montgomery has done a superb job in Berkeley reviving the program, but Gary Williams is 13-2 in tournament openers and has won his last eight. It should be nine.

A win over Cal would set up a fascinating second-round game against Memphis. The Tigers, gaudy record and all, have beaten almost no one that's any good although John Calipari has done great work with a young team. Memphis is a lot like the 1994 Massachusetts team coached by Calipari that lost in the second round as a No. 2 seed to . . . Maryland, coached by Gary Williams. It could happen again.

The team that could come out to play Connecticut is Missouri. The Tigers got better largely under the radar and earned their No. 3 seed.

One more note: Calhoun has never lost a Final Four game. He's 4-0.

Most likely first-round upset: Utah State over Marquette. Darkhorse most likely to go deep: Maryland. Best story: Cal St.-Northridge lost its leading scorer and the coach's son after they were arrested in January and then its point guard after a car accident in February.


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