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No clear-cut favorite for national title Each of the top seeds enters tourney showing flaws

When Illinois and North Carolina met in last year's national championship game in St. Louis, it was the first time the top two teams in the final Associated Press poll had played for the title since 1975.

When Connecticut cut down the nets in San Antonio in 2004, it ended a quest that began with the Huskies targeted by everybody as the No. 1 team in the preseason.

Who will climb the ladder April 3 in Indianapolis? There's no obvious choice.

For starters, all four No. 1 seeds have flaws. While Duke and Connecticut have shared the top spot in the polls all year, they've hardly been dominant. Among this year's NCAA Tournament field, there's no one with fewer than two losses. The only team with two losses is George Washington -- and GW is a No. 8 seed.

"We're not a great team," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said during last week's ACC Tournament. "But I'm not sure there's a great team out there."

There may be no giants but the field has depth.

Boston College nearly beat Duke in the ACC Tournament final but ended up as a No. 4 seed. So did Illinois. John Beilein-led West Virginia is a No. 6. Fans of the Big 4 know how good Kent State and Iona are but they're just a No. 12 and No. 13, respectively.

The No. 1 seeds generate the most attention and it's been pretty clear for several weeks that Duke, Connecticut, Villanova and Memphis were going to land on those bracket lines. What's not so clear is how they'll fare in the tournament after seasons that contained several potholes.

Duke: Needed a 40-footer at the buzzer from Sean Dockery to beat Virginia Tech and escaped with the help of generous officiating later ruled in error by the ACC to beat Florida State in overtime by one. And both of them were at home.

Late in the season, the Blue Devils suffered back-to-back losses to Florida State and North Carolina, the latter on Senior Night for All-Americas J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams. There is concern Redick, about to become the NCAA's all-time three-point shooter, is getting worn down. Duke was uninspiring in the ACC Tournament in beating Miami by four, Wake Forest by 12 and BC by two.

Connecticut: Has been thoroughly unimpressive for the last seven games, culminating in its quarterfinal loss to Syracuse in the Big East Tournament. The Huskies are 5-2 in that span, losing also at Villanova and struggling to beat Notre Dame at home by one point in overtime and nearly blowing a 20-point lead before surviving at conference cellar-dwellar South Florida.

The Huskies have given up 70 points in five of their last six games. Their big men, especially forward Rudy Gay, seem uninterested. They were a second-round knockout last year (North Carolina State) and could face trouble in the second round against either Kentucky or Alabama-Birmingham.

Villanova: First off, can a team that plays four guards without any true big man really get to the Final Four? That's what the Wildcats are trying to do. On top of that, they have genuine concerns about the eye injury suffered by guard Allan Ray last Friday in New York.

The Wildcats were easy semifinal prey for Pittsburgh in the Big East Tournament. They will be at home in Philadelphia but a second-rounder against Arizona or Wisconsin won't be easy. Nor would a Sweet 16 game against former Big East foe BC.

Memphis: The Tigers were terrific in the non-conference portion of the season with wins over Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Alabama, UCLA, Cincinnati, Gonzaga and Tennessee. But how sharp can they be after two months playing in the sanitized version of Conference USA?

A steady diet of Rice, Tulsa, Tulane and Southern Mississippi is no way to get ready to meet up again with the big boys. Just three of Memphis' last 15 games have been against top-50 schools and all were against UAB. The Tigers were 2-1 in those games.

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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