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NCAA Final Four Preview

Three No. 1 seeds and one of the best turnaround stories in college basketball history are headed for St. Petersburg, Fla., and the 61st Final Four.

Top-ranked Duke, Connecticut and Michigan State were among the favorites to get there since the preseason poll had them ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 5. Ohio State, coming off an 8-22 season, didn't even crack the Top 25 until January but went on to earn a No. 4 seeding in the NCAA tournament.

All four will be there this weekend and Connecticut, which is in the Final Four for the first time in school history, will play Ohio State, which hasn't been there since 1968.

Duke, which is making its fifth Final Four appearance of the 90s but first in five years, will play Michigan State, a school that was last there 20 years ago when a newcomer named Magic Johnson led the Spartans to the national championship.

Duke's 85-64 victory over sixth-seeded Temple in the East Regional on Sunday means the Atlantic Coast Conference has had at least one representative in the Final Four every year since 1988, except for 1996.

Connecticut, which beat 10th-seeded Gonzaga 67-62 Saturday to win the West Regional, becomes just the second Big East team in the Final Four in the 90s, joining Syracuse in 1996.

Ohio State, which beat St. John's 77-74 Saturday to win the South Regional, and Michigan State, which beat defending national champion Kentucky 73-66 Sunday in the Midwest, gives the Big Ten the first multi-berth Final Four since the Southeastern Conference had two teams in 1996.

A five-year absence from the Final Four would be a deal most schools would take with a smile. Duke (36-1) is not most schools when it comes to Final Fours.

For the 12th time in school history, and the eighth time under coach Mike Krzyzewski, the Blue Devils are in the national semifinals and they go in on a school-record 31-game winning streak.

The closest game Duke has had in the tournament was a 17-point win over Southwest Missouri State in the regional semifinals.

"There's still two games to go and maybe I shouldn't brag," junior guard Chris Carrawell said, "but this team has everything you could possibly want."

Michigan State (33-4) has won 22 straight games, the last three all by less than 10 points in the tournament. Saturday's game will be a rematch with Duke as the Blue Devils beat the Spartans 73-67 in the Great Eight in December.

Connecticut (32-2), the only other team besides Duke to be ranked No. 1 this season, had always seemed to find a way not to get to the Final Four. Whether it was a buzzer-beater by Duke's Christian Laettner or a path that went through North Carolina's home state, the Huskies had never gotten there.

Now, the team with the college basketball's largest media contingent and a fervent following in a state without a professional franchise, is there.

"Fate and other good teams and players got in the way and w didn't move on," explained Jim Calhoun, who can now remove his name from the list of the sport's best coaches not to reach the Final Four. "I'm sure ours fans our going to come en masse. There's nothing like HuskyMania. People don't realize how much people in our state care."

Ohio State (27-8) shattered one of the Final Four's revered bits of trivia. No team had ever reached the national semifinals without having been in the tournament the year before. Now the answer is the Buckeyes, who were 8-22 last season and won just one conference game. The addition of guard Scoonie Penn, who came along with coach Jim O'Brien from Boston College, was the key to the remarkable turnaround.

"They said when we came here we'd had a great season but it had to end here," Buckeyes guard Michael Redd said. "I wonder what they're going to say now?"


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