No. 1 Huskies, 3 underdogs

Joining top seed UConn in D.C. are surprise teams Wash., George Mason, Wichita State

Washington Regional

Ncaa Tournament

March 24, 2006|By PAUL MCMULLEN | PAUL MCMULLEN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Other than being the tallest one on the block, Rudy Gay was a typical kid in eastern Baltimore County. He watched Sesame Street like everyone else, so the Connecticut sophomore forward was asked if one of the show's teaching tools describes the NCAA tournament's Washington Regional.

Which of these doesn't belong with the others?

Eleventh-seeded George Mason is one week removed from its first-ever NCAA tournament victory.

Seventh-seeded Wichita State, its opponent in tonight's first regional semifinal, is making its first Sweet 16 appearance since 1981.

Fifth-seeded Washington last advanced beyond the Sweet 16 in 1953, five years before coach Lorenzo Romar was born.

Connecticut, the opponent in an all-Huskies nightcap tonight at Verizon Center?

Rashad Anderson, Josh Boone and Denham Brown have placed their 2004 NCAA championship rings in the care of relatives. Jim Calhoun, not that guy from Durham, N.C., on the GM commercials, is the only man to coach two national champions in the previous 13 tournaments.

UConn was comatose for much of the first round against Albany and had to go the distance against Kentucky in the second, but Gay and the top-seeded Huskies are the only team supposed to be here.

Wichita State eliminated second-seeded Tennessee.

George Mason dispatched third-seeded North Carolina.

Washington beat fourth-seeded Illinois.

"It's crazy," Gay said, "how things have worked out."

Boone, who had Gay's back at the Cecil-Kirk Recreation Center in Northeast Baltimore, said that UConn was just trying to forget about expectations and favorites and have fun. He nodded toward point guard Marcus Williams as keeping the locker room loose in addition to distributing the ball, but the team comedian had no idea what Boone meant.

"We'll joke back at the hotel," Williams said. "Once we're here and on the court, it's all business."

That's a 180 from Fairfax, Va., where coach Jim Larranaga is serious about the Patriots of the Colonial Athletic Association enjoying themselves. They took charges in practice yesterday, but last week they played whiffle ball. Larranaga, a follower of sports psychologist Jim Rotella, told them to visualize victory, so Jai Lewis gave him a Gatorade bath.

Lewis, the wide-body senior from Aberdeen, started the chain of events that has led to an improbable rematch and Sweet 16 pairing.

George Mason played at Wichita State on Feb. 18. Lewis passed out of a triple team to Tony Skinn for the winning three-pointer. Without that victory on a hostile Missouri Valley Conference court, the Patriots probably wouldn't have received an at-large invitation.

They handled Michigan State and 2005 champion North Carolina in Dayton, Ohio. With senior guard Lamar Butler featured this week, does George Mason have to worry about the Sports Illustrated cover jinx?

"Is that anything like the Madden jinx?" sophomore forward Will Thomas said, referring to a John Madden NFL video game. "Michael Vick was on the cover, and broke a leg. Ray Lewis was there, and injured his shoulder. ... This is different than last week. We've proven we belong, and people expect us to win now."

Thomas, who went to Mount St. Joseph, and Lewis will bang against Wichita State's Paul Miller and Kyle Wilson for the second time in five weeks. It's the lowest-seeded regional semifinal since 1998, when Rhode Island, an 8, beat Valparaiso, a 13.

Larranaga has talked to everyone except Oprah this week. Mark Turgeon had Wichita State lay low in the heartland, but Washington arrives as the real stealth team. The Huskies played 14 of their first 15 games in Seattle, and Romar's 126th game as the Washington coach will be his second in the Eastern time zone.

While Pac-10 Player of the Year Brandon Roy remains overlooked in the East, only Duke has gotten more attention this season than Connecticut.

Calhoun has chafed under questioning about Williams, who began the season suspended for his role in the on-campus theft of laptop computers. Without him, the Huskies won the Maui Classic. With Williams, UConn beat LSU in a CBS national telecast and shared the Big East regular-season title with Villanova.

The Huskies should reach 30 wins for the fifth time tonight, but they're held to a higher standard.

Nate Robinson, a rookie out of Washington, won the dunk contest on NBA All-Star weekend. Boone, Gay and Williams are expected to follow the lead of Richard Hamilton and Emeka Okafor, and win NCAA titles. Calhoun prefers that pressure to what he faced coaching underdog Northeastern two decades ago.

"I'm fortunate enough to win two [titles]," Calhoun said. "Mike Krzyzewski, an incredible coach, has won one title [since 1992]. My point is that it's one of the most perilous journeys you have to make as a Goliath. It's difficult, but I tell you what, it's not that easy as David, either."

paul.mcmullen@baltsun.com

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