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Reigning NCAA champ UConn tops the East Region bracket as the No. 1 overall seed in March Madness

Connecticut opened the season with uncertainty about how well the Huskies would replace major pieces from last year's run to the national championship.

Any questions had been answered well before Selection Sunday.

The second-ranked Huskies (31-3) will enter the NCAA Tournament as the overall No. 1 seed, headlining the East Region bracket that runs close to home. And they've spent long stretches of this season looking like a runaway train in overpowering opponents and chasing college basketball's first repeat title in 17 years.

They will start with their first top regional seed since a Final Four run in 2009 and a sixth time overall. The five-time champions open play Friday against 16th-seeded Stetson in New York.

“I know we've never gotten a No. 1 overall seed in program history,” coach Dan Hurley said after the Huskies won their first Big East Tournament title since 2011 on Saturday night, “so this is a group that seems to be making history in a place that it's hard to make history.”

Hurley's analysis went a step further, adding that UConn has “clearly been the best program in the country this year.”

It's hard to argue otherwise.

UConn leads the country in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings entering Sunday’s final pre-tournament games, averaging 126.6 points per 100 possessions for the best output since 2018 champ Villanova (127.8). The Huskies also rank in adjusted defensive efficiency (94.4), joining Arizona and Auburn as the only teams to rank in the top 15 of both categories.

The team lost Final Four most outstanding player Adama Sanogo and sharpshooting guard Jordan Hawkins from last year’s title run as a No. 4 seed, with all six wins by 13+ points. Yet Tristen Newton has elevated into a lead scorer, the 7-foot-2 Donovan Clingan remains an imposing yet nimble presence, while new additions like Cam Spencer (transfer) and Stephon Castle (freshman) have the Huskies rolling again.

UConn leads the country in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings entering Sunday’s final pre-tournament games, averaging 126.6 points per 100 possessions for the best output since 2018 champ Villanova (127.8). The Huskies also rank in adjusted defensive efficiency (94.4), joining Arizona and Auburn as the only teams to rank in the top 15 of both categories.

“There’s just not a lot of holes in the way that we play,” Hurley said.

UConn has lost once since Dec. 20 with its last eight wins coming by an average margin of 21.2 points. The Huskies are poised to return to the No. 1 ranking in Monday’s AP Top 25 poll, which will stand until a final edition comes April 9 after the NCAA championship game in Glendale, Arizona.

The question now is whether UConn can become the first to win back-to-back champs since Florida in 2006 and 2007.

THE TOP CHALLENGERS

Seventh-ranked Iowa State grabbed the No. 2 seed as the top contender, blowing out Houston — the South Region's top seed — in the Big 12 Tournament's title game for a second win against the Cougars this year.

The Cyclones (27-7) have the top-ranked defense in KenPom, allowing just 87.1 points per 100 possessions. They open Thursday against No. 15 seed South Dakota State in Omaha, Nebraska.

The other top challengers are No. 13 Illinois (26-8) as the No. 3 seed and 12th-ranked Auburn (27-7) as the 4. Illinois faces No. 14 seed Morehead State, while Auburn plays 13th-seeded Yale.

The Cyclones (Big 12), Illini (Big Ten) and Tigers (Southeastern Conference) all won their league tournaments this week.

FOLLOW-UP ACT

Two of last year's surprise Final Four teams — national runner-up San Diego State and Florida Atlantic — have reunited with the Huskies in this bracket.

The Aztecs (24-10) are the No. 5 seed with a first-round matchup against No. 12 seed UAB on Friday in Spokane, Washington. The Owls (25-8) hold the No. 8 seed and face ninth-seeded Northwestern in Brooklyn on Friday, setting up a potential second-round date with the Huskies.

WELCOME IN

Washington State and Duquesne are back in the field after lengthy waits.

The seventh-seeded Cougars (24-9) open against 10th-seeded Drake on Thursday in Omaha for the program's first trip to the NCAAs since 2008, when current Virginia coach Tony Bennett led Washington State to the Sweet 16.

As for the 11th-seeded Dukes (24-11), they're in the field for the first time in nearly a half-century. Duquesne's Atlantic 10 title run secured the program's first bid since 1977 and face No. 6 seed BYU in Omaha on Thursday.

SHOTMAKERS

There are multiple big-time scorers in the bracket, starting with Illinois' Terrence Shannon Jr. He's third nationally in scoring at 22.6 points per game, including 40 points against Nebraska and then 34 more against Wisconsin to close out the Big Ten tourney.

There's also Drake's Tucker DeVries (sixth at 21.8) and Stetson's Jalen Blackmon, who is ranked 10th nationally (21.5) and had 43 points against Austin Peay in the Atlantic Sun title game to secure that program's first-ever NCAA bid.

ROAD TO GLENDALE

The regionals will be held in Boston, about 85 miles to the southwest of the Huskies’ Storrs campus. The Huskies are the favorite to win the national title, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness