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MSU Heads Up Midwest Region

The NCAA tournament's Midwest Region features the past two national champions, last year's runner-up, three of the best guards in the land and one of the nation's top freshmen.

Not to mention one of the tournament's best stories, 800-game winner Jim Phelan of Mount St. Mary's.

But if Phelan is to win No. 801, he will have to pull off an upset for the ages against top seed and Big Ten champion Michigan State. The Spartans (29-4) have won 18 straight and, by beating Illinois on Sunday for the conference tournament title, set a school record for victories.

"This caps off an unbelievable Big Ten season for us," coach Tom Izzo said after the Illinois game. "Whether we win or lose the games to come, we're going to be ready to play and a team's going to get our best effort."

Led by Big Ten co-player of the year Mateen Cleaves, Michigan State won the regular-season title by rolling through a conference rated as the toughest in the country. Now the Spartans get to play their subregional games in nearby Milwaukee.

"It's going to be tough, so we've got to go home this week and get ready to play," Cleaves said. "Being close to home is great. That's going to be an advantage for us."

Mount St. Mary's went into the Northeast Conference tournament seeded sixth, but won the title and as a result will make its second NCAA appearance. The other, in 1995, ended in a first-round loss to Kentucky.

The Mounties (15-14) are coached by the bow-tie-wearing Phelan, who is in his 45th season at the small Catholic school in Emmittsburg, Md.

The Nos. 2 and 3 seeds in the Midwest are Utah and Kentucky, which played for the national title a year ago with the Wildcats coming out on top.

Utah (27-4) is riding a 22-game winning streak. That's far different than a year ago, when the Utes were knocked out of the Western Athletic Conference tournament in the first round.

Utah's heart and soul is guard Andre Miller, who decided not to turn pro and led the Utes to a sweep of the WAC regular-season schedule and postseason tournament.

Kentucky (25-8) doesn't appear to be as formidable as in recent years but is still dangerous. The Wildcats, who have reached the past three title games, winning two of them, had their most regular-season losses since the 1989-90 season, including four defeats in the final seven games.

But they knocked off Auburn the No. 1 seed in the South Region

and Arkansas on their way to the Southeastern Conference tournament title.

"We all wish we could have jelled quicker, but we're starting to jell now," Kentucky senior Scott Padgett said.

If fourth-seeded Arizona, which won the 1997 national championship as a No. 4 seed, returns to the Final Four, it will do so on the back of Jason Terry, the Pac-10 player of the year. The senior point guard is coming off a 26-point game in the regular-season finale against UCLA.

Arizona oens against No. 13 seed Oklahoma, which apparently was the last at-large team invited. The Sooners (20-10) have made five straight NCAA tournament appearances under Kelvin Sampson but haven't gotten past the first round.

"Arizona obviously is a much more talented basketball team than we are, but we're used to that," Sampson said. "We've beaten some talented basketball teams this year."

Kansas is in a familiar setting in the Midwest but not in a familiar spot. The Jayhawks (22-9) are seeded only sixth, their lowest NCAA seeding since 1988. But perhaps that's not all bad that year they won the national title as the No. 6 seed in the Midwest.

Kansas was the No. 1 seed in the Midwest last year but lost to Rhode Island in the second round. This year a second-round loss wouldn't be an upset since it would probably come against Kentucky.

The other teams in the Midwest are No. 5 seed North Carolina Charlotte; No. 7 Washington; No. 8 Villanova; No. 9 Mississippi; No. 10 Miami, Ohio; No. 11 Evansville; No. 12 Rhode Island; No. 14 New Mexico State; and No. 15 Arkansas State.

UNC Charlotte has proven it can play with the big boys, beating Cincinnati two out of three times in Conference USA. Rhode Island is in the tournament as the result of freshman sensation Lamar Odom's buzzer-beater against Temple in the Atlantic 10 title game.

Washington made a nice run in last year's tournament before losing to Connecticut in the East regional semifinals.

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