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Takeaways: How far can UConn go in the NCAA tournament?

The Huskies are a 4-seed in a stacked West region.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn men’s basketball is dancing for the third-straight year under Dan Hurley, earning their highest seed yet during Hurley’s tenure as a 4-seed in a loaded West region. While the Huskies still need to get the proverbial monkey off their back — it has never won an NCAA tournament game under Hurley in five seasons, expectations are higher than ever for UConn this year. With the Huskies ranking No. 4 in KenPom and being picked left and right by pundits to not only make it to Las Vegas for the West region final but to reach Houston for the Final Four, our basketball staff took their guess at how far this year’s UConn squad can go in the NCAA tournament.

Shawn McGrath: I think that the second weekend is their ceiling. The West is the toughest region, with the lowest overall total among the top four seeds on the S-Curve. UConn, the top 4-seed, is paired with the second-strongest 3-seed (Gonzaga), strongest 2-seed (UCLA) and No. 3 overall seed Kansas. Each of the four are in the top 10 in KenPom, while 5-seed St. Mary’s is No. 11. At least one of those schools will go down before the Sweet 16.

Whichever team cuts down the nets inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas will be battle-tested and will have conquered a gauntlet. No. 1 Kansas has the most Quad 1 wins in history and has the mental boost associated with Bill Self’s return. No. 2 UCLA is hampered, as Adem Bona left Friday’s Pac-12 semifinal, while Jaylen Clark tore his Achilles, but rolled through league play and has lost just once to a non-Arizona foe since before Thanksgiving. No. 3 Gonzaga laid the smackdown on St. Mary’s in the West Coast Conference title game and beat Alabama.

Despite all that, UConn fits in. The Huskies also rolled the Crimson Tide and won 14-straight to begin the season, while also taking a victory over 2-seed Marquette and putting together a solid Big East resume. It’s just hard to predict the Huskies outperforming their seeding when the Jayhawks loom in the Sweet 16, even when Dan Hurley’s team is surely deserving of its seed.

Patrick Martin: The West has five (!) of the top 20 KenPom defenses in the country—VCU, UConn, Kansas, St. Mary’s and UCLA, in no particular order. That’s why on our podcast, I was content with a Sweet 16 duel with Kansas, followed by seven months of watching Stephon Castle highlights.

But after watching Marquette dismantle Xavier in the Big East tournament, I’m starting to come around to the narrative that maybe the Huskies just ran into a Shaka Smart buzzsaw. And they still were a few rim-outs from winning that game.

The dark magic of Slick Rick Pitino, combined with the pressure of two straight years of first-round exits, will make Iona an incredibly tough out. But if the more-talented Huskies play their game and advance, there could be some catharsis after finally getting that first-round monkey off their back. VCU and St. Mary’s are equally as tough matchups schematically, requiring that ‘rockfight’ mentality needed for conference games, but UConn has learned to win that way. Arkansas and Illinois aren’t cakewalks of matchups for Kansas, either. The Illini have been Jekyll and Hyde all season, while the Muss Bus has been managing injuries but has top 10 talent.

Assuming its Rock Chalk Jayhawk, Andre Jackson could make life miserable for Jalen Wilson in the same way he harassed Brandon Miller. Kansas’ lack of consistent 3-point shooting and size inside could mean a potential field day for Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan. And remember, it is so so hard to repeat as national champions.

Looking out even further, Gonzaga can’t guard a chair and that will get exposed in March. UCLA was a wagon, but the injuries they’ve so far overcome may catch up to them in the next few weeks. UConn is a team that thrives on momentum and runs—if they’re playing freely without that first weekend pressure, I think they’re going to the Final Four.

Ryan Goodman: I know Dan Hurley hasn’t won a tournament game yet and that UConn got a very tough draw. About a week ago they were +380 to go to the Final Four, now they sit at +600 to get out of this West region. This is the best of the four regions and I don’t think it’s close. Teams seeded 1-5 are all top 11 teams on KenPom and in the NET. That is simply ridiculous.

I also think Arkansas and Illinois are the most dangerous out of all the 8 and 9 seeded teams because of how much talent each possesses. While the 7 vs 10 matchup doesn’t provide any sort of scare, this region is extremely top heavy, and for that reason, will be incredibly tough to advance out of.

I don’t hate the initial draw of Iona and St. Mary’s/VCU as much as the other regions. If you look at it from that angle, this may be the best case scenario for UConn. The Huskies’ path to the Sweet 16 is relatively clear in my eyes, and I think they get there without too much of a scare. I don’t buy into the Pitino hype one bit. That interview of him is going viral for a reason. I’ve never seen a more obvious “I’m out of here” response.

Iona has never won an NCAA tournament game and this will not be the first. If UConn can frustrate MAAC player of the year Walter Clayton they should cruise in this one. Once UConn gets past Pitino’s crew and he accepts the St. John’s job a couple of hours later, I will start to get a bit nervous about Saint Mary’s. They are a very balanced and well-coached team that can win in a variety of ways, but they aren’t deep, playing all their starters at least 30 minutes per game so ultimately I think UConn wears them down with depth.

I think a potential UConn-Kansas matchup ends up being one of the best games of the tournament if this is how the dominoes fall, and UConn ekes out a three-point win. I ultimately think Gonzaga will advance past UCLA and UConn is able to get it done against the Zags to send the Huskies to their first final four in eight years. Unfortunately I think this is where the magic wears off though, as the Huskies run into a juggernaut Houston team that takes them down in their hometown. Ultimately a very successful season that sees Dan Hurley make a statement before his prized recruiting class makes its way to Storrs.