Will maddening march get back in step?


The favorite is gone, bounced from a tournament it won last year, forced to watch next week's Final Four from within the same state, its streak of 13 straight Sweet 16 appearances now history. The upstarts are everywhere in this year's NCAA tournament, or nearly everywhere.

From 10th-seeded Maryland and 12th-seeded Tulsa dreaming of another pair of glass slippers in Dallas to ninth-seeded Boston College scheming to do to Indiana's Bob Knight in Miami what it did to North Carolina's Dean Smith in Landover to sixth-seeded Marquette hoping to revive the memories of Al McGuire's seashells and balloons in Knoxville.

A regular season filled with upsets has given way to a postseason filled with insanity. With a Maryland team shooting four of 32 in the first half against North Carolina State a little less than a month ago to one that shot 19 of 27 Saturday against Massachusetts. With four NCAA tournament underachievers chasing away past demons.

What will happen between this weekend's regional semifinals and next week's Final Four? Will the clock run out on this year's Cinderellas, or will they dance all night? Or will the remaining powers -- and you know who they are -- flex their muscles and send the pretenders and semi-contenders back to whence they came?

Here's a look at the Sweet 16s:

* East Regional: The Big East is supposed to be a shadow of its former self, but after having no teams get this far in the past two years, it now has the giant-killing Eagles (22-10) and second-seeded Connecticut (29-4) in the same Round of 16 doubleheader. While BC will be given as much chance to beat fifth-seeded Indiana (21-8) as it was to beat the top-seeded Tar Heels, the combination of experience, outside shooting and center Bill Curley could more than make up for the team's big-game inexperience. But the Huskies, led by Big East Player of the Year Donyell Marshall, should have too much for either the Eagles or Hoosiers. That's if they can handle third-seeded Florida (27-7) in Miami.

* Southeast Regional: Kansas coach Roy Williams will need to find a few rivers, not to mention streams and ponds, for his pre-game spitting routine. (It brings luck, and it worked big-time the past few years.) The fourth-seeded Jayhawks (27-7) aren't as strong as they've been in recent seasons, and whoever Williams decides to put on Purdue's Glenn Robinson will have his hands full. The Boilermakers (28-4), one of the hottest teams in the country coming into the tournament, proved last weekend they weren't a one-man team. Marquette (24-8) was able to stop Kentucky, but the Warriors could have problems matching up with Duke (25-5) and Grant Hill. CBS certainly has to be rooting for a regional final between perhaps the two best players in the country. And even North Carolina fans will be pulling for one in-state team to show up in Charlotte. Just kidding.

* Midwest Regional: The two best regional semifinal story lines will be played out in the Big D. There's the Fab Five Minus One of Michigan (23-7) against Maryland (18-11), the youngest remainingteam in the tournament. The Terps are a mirror image of the 1992 Wolverines, minus the trash talking. Then there's top-seeded Arkansas (27-3), now the tournament favorite with the elimination of the Tar Heels, and Tulsa, a team that took the Razorbacks into overtime this season. There's Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, the man who brought Tulsa to prominence, going against former protege Tubby Smith. There's Richardson's unbeaten record at Reunion Arena, which should stay intact, and all those Hoghats making the trip from Fayetteville to Dallas. And Charlotte.

* West Regional: Look who's here. Anybody who picked top-seeded Missouri (27-3), second-seeded Arizona (27-5) and fourth-seeded Syracuse (23-6) to make it to the Round of 16 can now pick up the winner's share of the office pool. The Tigers, Wildcats and Orangemen have something in common aside from miserable postseason records: a great player leading them this year. Missouri's Melvin Booker, Arizona's Khalid Reeves and Syracuse's Lawrence Moten are all future first-round NBA draft picks, as is Louisville's Clifford Rozier. So the difference here could be coaching, and the Cardinals (28-5) have one of the best postseason coaches in history in Denny Crum. But this has been such a wacky year, maybe Norm Stewart finally can get to the Final Four.

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