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NCAA WEST REGIONAL

Top-seeded Connecticut has pros and cons going into West Regional

Huskies struggled late in season and in recent NCAA tournament play, but placement works in its favor. Utah State shows much promise.

March 16, 2009|Mike Hiserman

Teams

The favorites: Connecticut (27-4) -- The Huskies spent four weeks atop the Associated Press poll, were 9-4 against ranked teams, and lost one road game -- to Pittsburgh -- all season. But Connecticut is 4-3 since guard Jerome Dyson has been out with a knee injury, including losses in their last two games.

The Huskies also have lost their last five NCAA tournament games. But if they needed a mojo boost, they may have received one in their tournament placement: Connecticut's 1999 and 2004 national championship teams each used a regional in Phoenix as a launching pad to the Final Four.

Memphis (31-3) -- The Tigers don't play in a power conference. True. The Tigers played four ranked opponents outside of conference and went 1-3. Also true. What does that mean against Cal State Northridge? Not much. But it might in the second round against California or Maryland.

Cinderella search: Utah State (30-4) -- All Coach Stew Morrill does is win. In his 11 seasons at Utah State, the Aggies are 267-90, with 10 consecutive 20-win seasons and 10 postseason appearances, including six NCAAs.

Games

Must see: No. 4 Washington (25-8) vs. No. 13 Mississippi State (23-12) -- The Southeastern Conference produced only three tournament teams, with the Bulldogs making it by winning the conference tournament to extend their winning streak to six. Jarvis Varnado, an athletic 6-9 junior, gives Mississippi State an inside presence to match Washington's Jon Brockman. The difference-makers could be Washington's little guards -- 5-8 freshman Isaiah Thomas (15.4 points per game) and 5-11 senior Justin Dentmon (15.0 ppg).

No. 5 Purdue (25-9) vs. No. 12 Northern Iowa (23-10) -- Purdue looks to finally be playing to its potential, but if the Boilermakers celebrate their Big Ten tournament title too long, their NCAA stay could be short. Northern Iowa has balance -- four players averaging nine to 13 points a game -- plus 7-1 center Jordan Eglseder.

Must skip: Chattanooga, facing Connecticut in the first round, is 0-3 at neutral sites and 5-10 on the road, including a 73-46 loss at USC when the Trojans weren't all that good. Enough said.

Players

On the outside: Here's wishing for a second-round matchup between Missouri and Marquette, both up-tempo teams that get stellar guard play. Marquette has seniors Jerel McNeal (19.7 ppg, 2.1 steals) and Dominic James (5.1 assists, 2.2 steals). Missouri has Zaire Taylor, whose 114-38 assist-to-turnover ratio is fifth-best in the nation, and J.T. Tiller, who has a 114-51 ratio.

Tyler Newbold, a 6-4 sophomore from Utah State, leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio at 103-25.

On the inside: Hasheem Thabeet, Connecticut's 7-3 center, is expected to go high in the NBA draft. He is averaging a co-NCAA-best 4.6 blocked shots, is second in field-goal percentage at 64.3 and also collects 10.9 rebounds per game. And forward Jeff Adrien pitches in 10.0 rpg, giving the Huskies the top rebounding tandem in the nation.

Though only 6-9, Mississippi State's Varnado is tied with Thabeet in blocked shots, averages 9.1 rebounds and shoots 56.1%.

DeMarre Carroll of Missouri and JaJuan Johnson of Purdue can also be difference-makers inside.

Rim shots

Purdue on Sunday won its first Big Ten tournament title, but the Boilermakers have won 21 regular-season titles, more than any other program in the conference.

That "AL" on the front of Marquette's uniform is in honor of the late Al McGuire, who coached the Golden Eagles to the 1977 national championship, beating North Carolina in the final. McGuire died of leukemia in 2001.

Ivy League champion Cornell (21-9) has back-to-back 20-victory seasons for the first time in the 110-year history of the program.

--

WEST

1. Connecticut (27-4)

2. Memphis (31-3)

3. Missouri (28-6)

4. Washington (25-8)

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