TEXAS vs. CONNECTICUT
STORY LINE: Eyebrows were raised when Texas was seeded No. 1 in the regional. Now all the Longhorns have to do to reach their first Final Four is win two games 75 miles from their Austin campus, and Connecticut is the first steppingstone to that goal.
HOW THEY ADVANCED: The Longhorns outplayed play-in winner North Carolina Asheville, 82-61, in Birmingham, Ala., and No. 9-seeded Purdue, 77-67. Connecticut eliminated No. 12 Brigham Young, 58-53, and No. 4 Stanford, 85-74.
COMMON OPPONENTS: The Huskies beat North Carolina Asheville on Dec. 2, 117-67, in Storrs, Conn. Texas swept Oklahoma in Big 12 play; the Sooners handed the Huskies their first loss of the season, 73-63 at Norman on Jan. 7.
STYLE OF PLAY: Both teams like to push the ball and get out in transition, which should make for an entertaining game. Texas, with whirling-dervish sophomore point guard T.J. Ford running the show, averages 78.9 points. Connecticut averages 79.5 and has established an identity with the post presence of sophomore center Emeka Okafor, who averages 4.7 blocked shots and 11 rebounds.
X FACTORS: Texas will have a decided home-court advantage -- the Alamodome is less than a two-hour drive from the Longhorns’ campus. The Huskies have been playing on an emotional high since the late-season return of Coach Jim Calhoun from prostate cancer surgery.
WHAT TO EXPECT: Texas should ride a boisterous home crowd to its first regional final since 1990.
MARYLAND vs. MICHIGAN STATE
STORY LINE: It’s a game of pride between two of the last three national champions, with Maryland the defending champ and Michigan State having won in 2000. Both teams got relatively low seedings and the Terrapins are the lowest-seeded defending champion since 1986, when Villanova was seeded 10th.
HOW THEY ADVANCED: The Terrapins were pushed to the brink in the first round by No. 11 North Carolina Wilmington (which beat USC in the first round last year), needing a buzzer-beating three-point shot from Drew Nicholas to win, 75-73, in Nashville. Maryland then upended No. 3 Xavier, 77-64. Michigan State beat No. 10 Colorado, 79-64, in Tampa, Fla., before pounding No. 2 Florida, 68-46, in a rematch of the 2000 title game.
COMMON OPPONENTS: The Terrapins and Spartans played Indiana, Florida and Virginia. Maryland was 0-4 against the three, losing by an average of 5.3 points a game. Michigan State was 4-0 against the same threesome, winning by an average of 10.3 points, although that is skewed by the 22-point win over Florida.
STYLE OF PLAY: The Terrapins like to run while the more physical Spartans prefer to grind things out and punish opponents. Maryland’s 80.8 scoring average begins with the steady leadership and streaky outside shooting of senior point guard Steve Blake and is fueled by the often explosive scoring of Nicholas, who averages a team-high 17.7 points. The Spartans, who average 67.2 points playing without a true point guard, rely more on rebounding and hard-nosed defense. Sophomore Chris Hill leads them in scoring with a 14.0 average.
X FACTORS: Experience (four senior starters) and quality guard play make the Terrapins tough to beat. But the coaching of Tom Izzo, who took Michigan State to three consecutive Final Fours from 1999 to 2001, is an equalizer.
WHAT TO EXPECT: The numbers, as far as common opponents go, would seem to favor the Spartans. But there’s no way to measure pride and experience, which the Terrapins have in bulk. The heart of a defending champion should prove to be the difference.