Close games, upsets, and new faces. The opening two rounds of the NCAA tournament gave fans everything they could want.
Eighteen of the 48 games were decided by six points or fewer, and in 11 of those the margin was no more than three.
Four games went to overtime, including the double-OT thriller between Arizona and Gonzaga. Last season, only 11 of the 48 games were decided by six points or fewer.
Butler and Auburn pulled off the biggest upsets. The Bulldogs beat Mississippi State and Louisville to reach the round of 16, and the Tigers took time off from defending their at-large bid to beat Saint Joseph's and Wake Forest.
Central Michigan's Chris Kaman became more than just a 7-footer people from the Mid-American Conference raved about. And 5-9 freshman Tim Smith of East Tennessee State brought to mind Spud Webb and Muggsy Bogues.
Now comes the second weekend, when favorites usually take control and the odds get stacked against the surprise teams.
No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 5 Wisconsin -- The Wildcats cruised in their two wins to extend their streak to 25 games. The Badgers needed a 3 from Freddie Owens with a second left to beat Tulsa in the second round.
No. 2 Pittsburgh vs. No. 3 Marquette -- The Panthers won twice with their defense as they always seem to do. The Golden Eagles struggled with Holy Cross in the first round and pulled away in overtime to beat Missouri. Pittsburgh's Julius Page is one of the best man-to-man defenders in the country, and his matchup against Dwyane Wade or Travis Diener will be worth watching.
Kentucky-Pittsburgh would be the best of the regional finals and fans of defense will get their wish.
No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 5 Notre Dame -- The Wildcats avoided being the only top seed to lose when they went the extra 10 minutes to beat Gonzaga. Notre Dame came up with its best defensive effort in a while to beat Illinois after escaping the first round when Dylan Page of Wisconsin-Milwaukee missed a layup at the buzzer.
No. 2 Kansas vs. No. 3 Duke -- Neither team looked great in the first round and both were much more impressive in second-round wins over Arizona State and Central Michigan.
Arizona-Kansas was one of the more interesting regular-season games, with the Wildcats rallying from a big deficit to win on the road. The rematch in the regional final has the potential for another classic.
No. 1 Texas vs. No. 5 Connecticut -- The Longhorns have one of the best guards in T.J. Ford. The Huskies have one of the best big men in Emeka Okafor. This game will come down to supporting casts.
No. 6 Maryland vs. No. 7 Michigan State -- The Terrapins advanced to the second round with the most exciting play of the first round, Drew Nicholas' running 3 at the buzzer to beat North Carolina-Wilmington. The Spartans looked as good as they have all season in beating second-seeded Florida by 22 points in the second round.
Connecticut and Maryland had the best game of last year's regional finals, with the Terrapins going on to win the national championship. The rematch will be great even if it's half as good as the one in the Carrier Dome last March.
No. 1 Oklahoma vs. No. 12 Butler -- The biggest concern for the Sooners so far hasn't been the opponent but Hollis Price's groin injury. His health will decide if Oklahoma can get to the Final Four for a second straight year. The Bulldogs beat two good defensive teams to reach the round of 16. The way they shoot 3s causes worry for even a good perimeter defensive team like Oklahoma.
No. 3 Syracuse vs. No. 10 Auburn -- The Orangemen advanced behind their three freshmen and a bench that is suddenly contributing. The Tigers, spurred by the play of Marquis Daniels and criticism over their tournament selection, won two games most thought they shouldn't have played.
Only four of 21 double-digit seeds to reach the round of 16 over the last five years made the regional final. The two surprise runs will end here as well.
Jim O'Connell has covered college basketball for The Associated Press since 1987. He was presented the Curt Gowdy Media Award by the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.
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