Depth, size, talent, UConn had it all. Oh, and Jim Calhoun can coach a little.
But UConn didn't win its first 26 games. Stanford did. UConn didn't plow through its conference with just one loss. Stanford did. UConn didn't always respond well in close games. Stanford did.
Which is why Stanford is the No. 1 seed in the Phoenix regional and UConn is No. 2.
But does that make Stanford the favorite?
UConn still has the most talent, especially if Okafor and stud freshman Charlie Villanueva are healthy. The Huskies' athleticism and size makes them a matchup problem for nearly everyone. And the Huskies are playing their best ball right now, having just swept through the Big East tournament.
Which is why 29-1 Stanford still has plenty to prove. And why UConn is a chic pick to win this regional.
Here is the deal with Stanford though. The Cardinal are fundamentally sound.
"They don't make too many mistakes," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said after Stanford avenged its lone defeat of the season in the Pacific 10 Conference final.
They are balanced – six different players have led the team in scoring.
And they are resilient. Star Josh Childress missed nine games due to injury and Stanford never skipped a beat.
Connecticut may look better on paper. But Stanford hasn't been concerned about paper all year. This region has the look of a looming classic showdown.
1. The defending champs – Maybe Syracuse can sneak Carmelo Anthony into his old jersey. If the Orange are going to repeat, they'll need him. Syracuse gets sent to Denver for the first two rounds.
Also in the region is Maryland, which won it in 2002 and is primed for a second-round game with SU.
2. UTEP – Under Hall of Fame coach Don Haskins, the Miners not only won the 1966 NCAA title (the first champion to start five black players) but spent four decades as a power in the West. But when the Bear retired in 1999, the program collapsed. Second year coach Billy Gillespie unexpectedly took a six-win team and got it to 24-7 and into the NCAAs.
3. Vermont – So that Howard Dean thing didn't work out so well. But the little New England state is back in the NCAA tournament thanks to cut-up coach Tom Brennan (he co-hosts a morning talk show in Burlington) and in-state product Taylor Coppenrath, who scored 43 in the America East title game. Even the most unlikely schools from the most unlikely states can dare to dream in March.
Who will win?
You have to respect Stanford, but the Cardinal's lack of perimeter speed should be a killer if they ever match up with the Huskies. UConn always has been the nation's most talented team; it looks like it finally stopped screwing around and is now playing to its potential.
The inside-outside combo of Okafor and Gordon is just too much to defend. Then there is Villanueva, a sure-bet NBA player who is primed for a breakout game. The key to winning six games in a row is surviving the inevitable off nights and dry spells. UConn has the most options. When one or even two players are off, someone else is good enough to carry them.
It says here it will carry them to another Final Four.
Dark-horse pick (sixth seed or worse)
Southern Illinois. Don't laugh.
OK, so it is unlikely. But just two years ago the Salukis were in the Sweet Sixteen and this team may be even better. So anything is possible.
SIU is 25-4. The Salukis ran through the tough Missouri Valley Conference with a 17-1 record and boast a roster full of guys who fill up the basket. Junior guard Darren Brooks is a terrific talent who can go toe to toe with any high-major player. If you don't fear the Salukis, at least respect them.
Most likely upset
Western Michigan over Vanderbilt.
Seven of the last nine Mid-American Conference teams to reach the NCAA tournament have won at least one game. Some have reached the second weekend – think Kent State, Miami of Ohio. So meet the MAC's regular season and tournament champion, a tricky squad to play that is merely 26-4 on the season.
Forward Mike Williams has plenty of NBA eyes on him and guard Ben Reed is confident in himself – exactly the kind of guy who can blow up in the NCAA tournament. Vandy is good. It had better be to avoid this trap.
Fun potential matchup
Connecticut vs. DePaul (second round).
Blue Demon coach Dave Leitao spent 16 years as an assistant under Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. He left UConn two years ago to take over DePaul and has re-energized the program. He is the prime candidate to succeed Calhoun in Storrs one day – although he might anger some Husky fans if he sprung an upset.
Or if you prefer ...
Maybe picking teams based on ability isn't your cup of tea. Hey, we all know anything works in the tournament, so here are a few other factors to consider:
Toughest mascot: Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns – You don't want to mess with those guys.
Coolest school colors: Alabama's crimson and white.
Best coach: Maryland's Gary Williams.
Best academic reputation: Stanford.
Prettiest campus: BYU.
Best home court: Carrier Dome, Syracuse.
Best state flower: North Carolina State – the American Dogwood.
Best state bird: Vermont's Hermit Thursh (sounds like a great novelist).
Five Stars to Watch
Ben Gordon Jr., G, Connecticut: Big East Tournament MVP gets overshadowed by Okafor but is the real deal.
Josh Childress, Jr. F, Stanford: The guy with the big 'fro gives the Cardinal some NBA talent.
John Gilchrist, G, Sr., Maryland: Almost single-handedly took over the ACC tournament. Can he do the same in the NCAAs?
Gerry McNamara, So., G, Syracuse: Last seen in the NCAA tournament hitting six 3-pointers in the national title game. SU needs him to get hot like that again.
Andre Brown, Sr., F, DePaul: Your classic college power forward can take over games when he plays aggressively.
• The regional features six teams that have captured the NCAA tournament (Connecticut, Maryland, N.C. State, Stanford, Syracuse, UTEP), the most of the four regions.
• Alabama is a dangerous team because it is very fast and very talented. Remember, it beat Mississippi State in Starkville earlier this season.
• UTEP coach Billy Gillespie is the rumor-mill favorite to take over for the departed Melvin Watkins at Texas A&M.
• N.C. State is a No. 3 seed just two years after many Wolfpack fans were calling for the firing of coach Herb Sendek.
- Emeka Okafor