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Yeah, Baby: It's Tourney Time!

The Big Ten came within one upset by Illinois of getting a record eight teams in the NCAA tournament, while the proud ACC finds itself keeping company with the Missouri Valley and WAC with three teams each.

But if anybody has a gripe with the selection committee this year, it's a Connecticut team that is headed far from its fans in New England.

Chairman C.M. Newton said Sunday the panel judged the Huskies the second-best team in the 64-team field behind Duke. Yet, they alone among the four No. 1 seeds were shipped far from home and will open play in Denver in the West Regional.

Nonetheless, leading scorer Richard Hamilton said traveling across the country does have its benefits.

"It will help us because then there's no distractions," he said. "We've got to stick together, we got to be together to do the things we want to do."

The other No. 1 seeds are Duke in the East, Michigan State in the Midwest and Auburn in the South.

The committee spent a lot of time trying to fit the Huskies into the South, where they would have traveled no farther than Indianapolis for the first round.

"(But) because of the conference constraints, we disadvantaged so many teams moving them out of their region, we went back and did another bracket putting them in the West to see how it filled out," Newton said.

"It made it much fairer."

Duke the No. 1 overall seed and the first team to go 16-0 through the ACC draws unofficial seed No. 64, Florida A&M (12-18), one of five teams in the tournament for the first time. The Rattlers are the only sub-.500 team and got in by winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament.

"We've been branded the Cinderella through the conference tournament and we'll keep that moniker in this game as well," said Jamaal Rhodes, a sophomore forward who will probably get the honor of covering Elton Brand next Friday. "But we aren't afraid of them."

Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, a No. 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1. But whether the Rattlers do it or not is no reason to keep them out of the tournament, Newton insisted.

"It's good for the tournament and good for college basketball to have teams like that that jump up here," Newton said. "It's the experience of a lifetime, to make that field. That's the beauty of this national tournament. It's truly national."

The Big Ten set the record with seven teams in 1990 and it was matched by the Big East in 1991 and the Big Ten again in 1994. The league could have gotten the record if Illinois had completed its conference tournament run Sunday with another upset over Michigan State.

As for the ACC, it will have its lowest number of tournament teams since two, the limit at the time, were picked for the field of 40 in 1979.

In addition to regular-season and tournament champion Michigan State, the other Big Ten teams selected ere Ohio State, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Purdue, which almost ruined itself with a late-season slump and wound up No. 10 seed in the East.

The Southeastern Conference has one-fourth of the top 16 seeds, including Auburn, No. 3 Kentucky and No. 4s Tennessee and Arkansas.

But the committee's long-standing policy is not to pay any attention to conferences.

Duke, second-seeded Maryland and third-seeded North Carolina were the ACC teams chosen. The Big East, with Connecticut, No. 2 Miami and No. 3 St. John's, also had three teams in the top 16.

Duke (32-1) takes its 27-game winning streak into the opening-round game in the East Regional in Charlotte, N.C., on Friday.

"If we don't (win the tournament) we'll know that we did everything we could to try to win it and we didn't let pressure stop us," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said of his team's overall No. 1 seeding.

Michigan State (29-4), the Big Ten champion, will play on Friday against Mount St. Mary's, the Northeast Conference champions coached by 800-game winner Jim Phelan.

Auburn (27-3), which lost to Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference tournament semifinals, opens play in the South Regional on Thursday in Indianapolis against Winthrop, the Big South champions making their first tournament appearance.

Connecticut (28-2) will play in Denver on Thursday against Texas-San Antonio, which won the Southland Conference.

The Big East and Big 12 each had five teams invited, although Oklahoma, which tied for second in the Big 12, was apparently the last team selected.

"It's safe to say they were one of those who were pretty late. They were very late in the process," Newton said. "I'm not going to pinpoint who was last."

The other multibid conferences were Conference USA and Pac-10 with four each; the Atlantic Coast Conference, Missouri Valley Conference and Western Athletic Conference with three teams each; and the Mid-American Conference with two.

The other games to be played in Charlotte are: fourth-seeded Tennessee against No. 13 Delaware; fifth-seeded Wisconsin against No. 12 Southwest Missouri State; and eighth-seeded College of Charleston against No. 9 Tulsa.

At Boston it will be: second-seeded Miami against No. 15 Lafayette, which is making its first appearance since 1957; third-seeded Cincinnati against No. 14 George Mason; sixth-seeded Temple against No. 11 Kent; and seventh-seeded Texas against No. 10 Purdue.

The East Regional semifinals and finals will be held March 19 and 21 in East Rutherford, N.J.

In addition to the Michigan State-Mount St. Mary's game in Milwaukee, fourth-seeded Arizona plays No. 13 Oklahoma; fifth-seeded North Carolina Charlotte meets No. 12 Rhode Island; and No. 8 Villanova plays No. 9 Mississippi.

The games Friday in New Orleans feature second-seeded Utah against No. 15 Arkansas State; No. 3 Kentucky against 14th-seeded New exico State; No. 6 Kansas against 11th-seeded Evansville; and seventh-seeded Washington against No. 10 Miami of Ohio.

The Midwest Regional semifinals and finals are March 19 and 21 in St. Louis.

In the other games Thursday in Indianapolis, fourth-seeded Ohio State plays No. 13 Murray State; No. 5 UCLA meets 12th-seeded Detroit; and Syracuse plays Oklahoma State in the 8-9 matchup.

The other South subregional starts Thursday in Orlando, Fla., and features No. 2 Maryland against last year's surprise team, No. 15 Valparaiso; No. 3 St. John's against 14th-seeded Samford; No. 6 Indiana against No. 11 George Washington; and seventh-seeded Louisville, the school given a second chance at being in the tournament, against No. 10 Creighton.

The South Regional semifinals and final will be March 18 and 20 in Knoxville, Tenn.

In addition to Connecticut-Texas-San Antonio, the games Thursday in Denver feature No. 4 Arkansas against No. 13 Siena; No. 5 Iowa against No. 12 Alabama Birmingham; and No. 8 Missouri against No. 9 New Mexico.

In Seattle on Thursday second-seeded Stanford plays No. 15 Alcorn State; No. 3 North Carolina meets No. 14 Weber State; No. 6 Florida goes up against No. 11 Pennsylvania; and No. 7 Minnesota plays No. 10 Gonzaga.

The West Regional semifinals and finals will be March 18 and 20 in Phoenix.

The national semifinals are March 27 in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the matchups are South vs. West and East vs. Midwest. The championship game is March 29.

North Carolina extended its own record with its 25th consecutive appearance, 10 more than the next best current streak, Arizona's 15.

The other first-time NCAA teams are Arkansas State, Kent and Samford.

GO TO MARCH MAYHEM

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