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In this year's field, 6 is winning number


Six is the magic number to win the NCAA tournament.

It was also quite strong in the first two rounds, as next weekend's Sweet 16 will include three No. 6 seeds, a stronger showing than all but the top line, where all four No. 1 seeds advanced.

Only two of the eight regional semifinal games that will be played Thursday and Friday, Oklahoma State-Arizona in Chicago and Washington-Louisville in Albuquerque, hold the form that the NCAA predicted.

Duke and Oklahoma State are trying to return to the Final Four. The Big Ten, not the Atlantic Coast Conference, can become the first league to produce three Final Four teams in two decades. Both have three teams alive, but both North Carolina and N.C. State are in the Syracuse Region.

A look at the regional semifinal matchups follows, with the Final Four pairings being Austin-Syracuse and Chicago-Albuquerque.

Albuquerque Regional

Washington has the toughest task of the four No. 1 seeds, as fourth-seeded Louisville backed up its claim that it deserved higher than a 4 in its dispatching of Georgia Tech. Rick Pitino's Cardinals are quick, but Lorenzo Romar's Huskies, who made their only Final Four appearance in 1953, are quicker.

Washington defensive stopper Bobby Jones on Francisco Garcia could be a crucial matchup Thursday.

Texas Tech-West Virginia displays the depth of their leagues, and the resolve embodied by a weekend star. Mike Gansey, the junior wing who had 19 points in the two overtimes against Wake Forest, transferred to West Virginia after scandal hit St. Bonaventure. Ronald Ross, the Red Raiders' leader, began his career without a scholarship.

The sideline is a contrast. John Beilein blends into the scenery at each stop. In his 15th Sweet 16 but first since 1994, Bob Knight is getting attention again for his coaching, not his temper.

Austin Regional

The nostalgia regional has a familiar pairing, and the potential to replay one of the classic regional finals.

When Duke beat Michigan State by seven in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge on Nov. 30, Spartans' freshman point guard Drew Neitzel played a frightened 10 minutes at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Now he's the starter for a Tom Izzo team that can finally quiet all of its critics.

The Blue Devils need Shelden Williams to dominate Paul Davis down low Friday. Two years ago at the Frank Erwin Center, Davis and Michigan State beat Maryland in this same round.

Kentucky over Utah has become an NCAA staple. Over the past decade, the Wildcats are 5-0 over the Utes in the tournament, most notably in the 1998 final. Kentucky is playing the strong defense that is a trademark of Tubby Smith teams, but Andrew Bogut is more dangerous passing out of the high post than he is near the basket.

A Duke-Kentucky final would recall 1992, and Christian Laettner's famed buzzer-beater.

Chicago Regional

With its top three seeds intact, this region most closely held form. The 2-3 game matches coaches who have combined for 1,521 wins, but Oklahoma State's Eddie Sutton (781) and Arizona's Lute Olson (740) will be afterthoughts at Allstate Arena.

As an assistant at Iowa fifteen years ago, Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach Bruce Pearl secretly taped conversations with a recruit who talked about illegal benefits he allegedly had been offered by Illinois. As a result, the Fighting Illini were banned for postseason play for one year.

Illinois' Bruce Weber will avoid that talking point, and chat up the Panthers' full-court pressure, but with Deron Williams and Dee Brown directing traffic, there is no team better equipped to handle it.

The Oklahoma State-Arizona perimeter people will also be played up, but that game may be decided inside, where the Wildcats' Channing Frye and Ivan Radenovic had better be prepared to lean on Ivan McFarlin and Joey Graham. Beating Utah State and UAB by a combined 35 points, Arizona looked about as stressed as North Carolina.

Syracuse Regional

North Carolina was the only one of the top four seeds to advance in the wildest regional, and it made it look easy, winning its first two games by a combined 55 points. Its Friday night date with Villanova could be one of the most entertaining third-round games.

Wildcats' point guard Mike Nardi can't push the pace like Raymond Felton, but he'll try. The Wildcats' only loss in their past 11 came on a contested call in the Big East semis against West Virginia. Jay Wright doesn't have as many options as Roy Williams, and he must come up with an answer to Sean May on the block.

N.C. State-Wisconsin probably appears on as many brackets as Texas Tech-West Virginia. Utilizing motion and the shot clock, both teams are as pleasant as a trip to the dentist. Bo Ryan has four full days to prepare the stingiest defensive team in the Big Ten for Herb Sendek's Princeton-style spread.

Both teams are steadied by a versatile senior, and Julius Hodge against Mike Wilkinson could become the game within the game. The Wolfpack's last Sweet 16 came in 1989.

The Sweet 16

By seed

1. Duke, Illinois, North Carolina, Washington.

2. Kentucky, Oklahoma State.

3. Arizona.

4. Louisville.

5. Michigan State, Villanova.

6. Texas Tech, Utah, Wisconsin.

7. West Virginia.

10. N.C. State.

12. Wisconsin-Milwaukee.By conference

ACC (3): Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State.

Big Ten (3): Illinois, Michigan State, Wisconsin.

Big East (2): Villanova, West Virginia.

Big 12 (2): Oklahoma State, Texas Tech.

Pac-10 (2): Arizona, Washington.

Conference USA (1): Louisville.

Horizon (1): Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Mountain West (1): Utah.

Southeastern (1): Kentucky.

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