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At Cleveland


* Michigan State vs. Valparaiso: So what if a No. 1-seeded team has seven losses. Michigan State has won 17 of 20 games since Mateen Cleaves returned from a broken foot, not to mention the tournament championship of arguably the toughest conference in the country, the Big Ten. The quest to reach the Final Four for a second consecutive season starts with an opponent also on the upswing. Valparaiso, in the tournament for the fifth year in a row, went from a six-game losing streak early in the season to winning 12 of its last 13 and the Mid-Continent Conference title.

* Utah vs. Saint Louis: Rick Majerus is 8-0 in first-round games but this time gets a major wild card for openers. Saint Louis finished fifth in Conference USA's American Division, lost five of its last 10 regular-season games, then won four games in a row as the ninth-seeded team in the conference tournament. All you need to know about how things are going for the Billikens: Reserve guard John Redden scored 25 points in the regular season and had 19 in the final. Besides, they were dangerous enough in the regular season to defeat DePaul, Missouri and Dayton, three tournament-bound teams.

* Kentucky vs. St. Bonaventure: These are not the typical Wildcats who strike fear. They were 5-4 down the stretch and will have a new starter today because of Desmond Allison's suspension. A strange finish to a strange year for the team that started with three consecutive wins and then lost three in a row, cause for panic in the land of Bluegrass. St. Bonaventure is in the tournament for the first time since 1978, as an at-large team from the Atlantic 10. It defeated Temple by one this season, but also lost to the Owls by 27 and 21.

* Syracuse vs. Samford: This has become the hot choice for a first-round mega-upset, with some credible reasoning. Syracuse was once 19-0, but only one of the wins was against an opponent ranked at the time, and closed with five losses in the last 10 games, needing a close escape at home against UCLA to avoid an even worse slide. The sense of urgency increases since three starters are seniors, including Jason Hart from Inglewood High. Samford, the Trans America champion from Birmingham, Ala., got hammered by St. John's in the first round a year ago, but, with all five starters back, opened 1999-2000 by defeating the Red Storm by eight. The Bulldogs and their deliberate, Princeton-style offense also lost by only two points to another eventual tournament team, Dayton.


* Maryland vs. Iona: Iona is in the tournament for the second time in three years but for the first time under second-year Coach Jeff Ruland, a former NBA all-star. The Gaels started 1-3, including a 32-point loss at UCLA and a 16-point loss to Fairfield, but won 14 of their last 15 and the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title. Maryland has replaced Steve Francis at guard with rising star Juan Dixon and reached the tournament for the seventh year in a row, a school record. Of its nine losses, two were to Duke, and others were to Temple, Kentucky and North Carolina.

* Auburn vs. Creighton: Auburn is struggling to deal with the sudden departure of senior forward Chris Porter, whose season and college career ended because of an NCAA suspension. The Tigers had a four-game losing streak--though one loss was against Florida and another to LSU--before winning two games in the SEC tournament. Creighton is back as a 10th-seeded team, just as it was in the South last year when it upset Louisville in the first round, before losing to Maryland. The Bluejays have improved their record in each of the six seasons under Coach Dana Altman.

* Iowa State vs. Central Connecticut State: The Blue Devils--not those Blue Devils--won the Northeast Conference championship--senior guard Rick Mickens is their leading scorer at 17.7 points a game--but Central Connecticut State didn't play a team that went to the tournament or a ranked team all season. Now the Blue Devils get Iowa State, coming off 13 wins in its last 14 games and with an All-American at forward, Marcus Fizer. The Cyclones' No. 2 seeding in the region is the best in school history.

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