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Favorites still at the dance

Chalk — If you check what remains of your busted NCAA tournament bracket, you'll notice the residue of chalk.

Chalk - otherwise known as picking favorites - turned out to be the best way to go in what started out as a wild first week of March Madness.

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All four top seeds remain.

So do all the No. 3 seeds.

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And two No. 2 seeds.

There might be some Cinderfellas left in this dance, but only one, Davidson, has a reasonable chance.

It wouldn't be shocking to see all four top seeds advance to this year's Final Four in San Antonio. Two, Memphis and UCLA, have received major scares and could use them as motivation going into this week's Sweet 16. Another, North Carolina, looks almost untouchable.

Here's a look at how the first two rounds of this year's tournament have played out, and what's ahead in the Sweet 16.

Conference call

For all the criticism the Big East received for getting half of its 16 teams into the tournament, the conference certainly backed up the faith the selection committee showed in it.

Only one team - Connecticut - got knocked out in the first round, and of the three that survived the first week, West Virginia and Villanova proved what kind of quality depth the conference possesses.

"Playing in the Big East tournament makes every tournament seem like nothing to you really," the Mountaineers' Joe Alexander said after No. 7 seed West Virginia upset No. 2 seed Duke in Washington on Saturday. "Playing in the Big East gets you tougher ... there's nothing that you're not ready to face."

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The Big East, which also had Louisville make it through the first week, is one of two leagues to get three teams into the Sweet 16, along with the Pacific-10.

The Atlantic Coast Conference has only one of four left, North Carolina.

Bruins can cruise

While UCLA needed some late heroics from Kevin Love and Darren Collison to survive a second-round scare from No. 9 seed Texas A&M; in Anaheim, Calif., on Saturday night, the road to a third straight Final Four certainly appears to be less rigorous for the Bruins than the other top seeds.

With both Duke and No. 4 seed Connecticut out of the way, the Bruins will face No. 12 seed Western Kentucky in Thursday's semifinals in Phoenix. If UCLA wins, it appears that No. 3 seed Xavier would be a much tougher out than West Virginia in the regional final.

According to UCLA coach Ben Howland, it might not matter given his team's collective confidence.

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"The thing I love about our team is that they know in their heart they're always going to win the game," Howland said after the Bruins were given a far stiffer challenge from the Aggies than anyone expected. "They're going to find a way."

Kansas usually finds a way to lose in the NCAA tournament, and while it appears the Jayhawks got some help when No. 2 seed Georgetown blew a 16-point lead and lost to No. 10 seed Davidson yesterday in Raleigh, N.C., the Midwest Regional is loaded with potential potholes.

Given the program's history for gagging in the postseason, and the pressure mounting on Kansas coach Bill Self to get his team to the Final Four, No. 12 seed Villanova has nothing to lose going into Ford Field in Detroit. Nor does Davidson, which will look to continue its string of upsets against No. 3 seed Wisconsin.

North Carolina's bracket is still loaded - it's the only one with the top four seeds remaining - but staying close to home remains a huge advantage for the Tar Heels. But give Carolina credit. Considering the way it demolished Arkansas yesterday, it's still the team to beat.

Of all the top seeds, Memphis appears to be the most vulnerable, despite the fact it has lost only one game this season. The Tigers needed to go down to the wire yesterday against Mississippi State, and they should have a tough game against No. 5 seed Michigan State in the regional semifinals.

Davidson and Goliath

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A year after nearly knocking Maryland out of the NCAA tournament - that seems ages ago for Terps fans, doesn't it? - the Wildcats and their star, Stephen Curry, have become the story of this year's tournament. Their victory over the Hoyas, a Final Four team a year ago, was the tournament's biggest upset this year.

Just when things looked bleak yesterday, with Curry struggling in the first half and the Hoyas on their way to a blowout victory early in the second half, their baby-faced shooting star took over.

Curry finished with 30 points, including 25 in the second half. His performance in this year's tournament, which started with a 40-point show (30 in the second half) against Gonzaga, is one for the ages.

Just as teams thought they could beat Indiana State if they stopped that Bird kid nearly 30 years ago, teams are learning that the Wildcats have more than Curry.

Yesterday's win was the 24th straight for Davidson.

"I think we've been put on the national scene by our performance against Gonzaga, and this just further clarifies and amplifies and said it wasn't a fluke," longtime coach Bob McKillop said. "The 22-game winning streak we had coming into the tournament wasn't a fluke. The 20-0 in conference play wasn't a fluke. There is something really valid about this team."

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don.markus@baltsun.com



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