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Analysis | March Madness is driven by doubters, but there are no doubts in Connecticut

NEW YORK – Almost everyone in March Madness has a common opponent. The doubter is again a main character.

The doubter says you are undersized, overrated and unable to keep up with a team [insert semi-doubted conference] because your schedule is in the [insert very doubted conference] was soft. You see, the doubter is rarely right, but is always relevant. The doubter is full of answers. The doubter’s X account ends up with a lot of numbers.

And because the doubter never sleeps, every team constantly sees his comments – his doubts. Except Connecticut. The Doubter has found its match in Connecticut. That could, it seems, put the Huskies at a significant disadvantage if they don’t have the chips on their shoulders to help them shoot and dunk.

Except it doesn’t. Your engine is working perfectly.

“I would say it’s up to the coach,” Alex Karaban, a sophomore forward, said of what makes U-Conn tick. chasing back-to-back NCAA men’s basketball titles. “Trainer [Dan Hurley] just lets us know every night that we are vulnerable at every moment. If we don’t live up to our identity, if we let our guard down for a second, there will be cases where we are very vulnerable and very defeatable.”

Some teams might disagree. Count Northwestern among them. On Sunday night, the Huskies defeated the Wildcats 77-58 in the Round of 32 in Brooklyn. It didn’t matter that they shot 3-for-22 from three-point range. Donovan Clingan, their 7-foot-2 center, finished with 14 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocks, bending the entire game to his will. Triston Newton contributed 20 points and 10 assists. Their last six tournament wins, dating back to last spring, have averaged 22 points. They next face fifth-seeded San Diego State in a regional semifinal in Boston on Thursday. At this point they are as inevitable as it can be.

The Huskies combat complacency by never entertaining. Take three of the possessions near the end of the first half Sunday:

Possession one: Hurley twice stomped his dress shoes on Barclays Center Court, begging the offense to make the right play. When it didn’t listen, he stomped harder. Then he gritted his teeth. Then he threw his hands up in disgust and turned away from the chaos. UConn. led by 21.

Possession two: While the Huskies were defending from Hurley, he yelled, “More pressure! More pressure! MORE PRESSURE!” Now they listened and clung to the Wildcats at the barrier. Hurley stomped again. If there had been a personal injury attorney somewhere in the crowd, he should have stuck his card on the few square feet of hardwood next to the Huskies’ bench. UConn. still led with 21.

Possession three: Newton glanced at the scoreboard deep in the backcourt and let the ball roll at his feet. It read 35 seconds, then 34. If he waited long enough to grab it, he could make it so Northwestern didn’t get its last possession before halftime. UConn. led by 22.

“We’re bulletproof,” Hurley said. “…elite offense, elite defense. I didn’t like the offensive rebounds and I didn’t like the defensive rebounds in the second half. But 20 assists, seven turnovers, one player was 14-14-8, the point guard was 20-10. When you have that, it’s hard to lose.”

What’s also difficult: finding predictability in men’s college basketball, even if the average Sweet 16 seed in this year’s unusually calcareous tournament is 3.3. Of the 32 top seeds in the conference tournament, only 11 received automatic bids. That included U-Conn., which won the Big East, but not Houston, Purdue or North Carolina, the other No. 1 seeds in the Big Dance. Outside of court, the rules change weekly, if not daily or hourly. Hundreds of players are already represented in the transfer portal. According to a recent court ruling in Tennessee, they can initially negotiate and sign contracts with support groups before enrolling in new schools.

The Huskies know well how important the portal is. After losing three starters from last year’s championship team, they added Cam Spencer, a redshirt senior guard from Rutgers. His jumping, his passing, his spatial awareness – it’s all what defines U-Conn. Tick. But when a team stops Spencer, there’s Newton. And if they stop Newton, there’s Clingan. And if they stop Clingan, there’s the sharp-shooting Karaban.

And if they stop Karaban, there’s freshman Stephon Castle, who stood out Sunday by latching onto Northwestern guard Boo Buie. And if they stop Castle, there’s forward Samson Johnson, who stood out with three alley-oops in the second half. If they stop Johnson then, it might be mathematically impossible to get that far down the options list. San Diego State, which lost to U-Conn. in last year’s title game, would still like to find out what happens. But if their defense can’t handle Spencer, Newton, Clingan, Karaban, Castle and Johnson on the same night, the Aztecs may need the doubter to fuel their dashed hopes.

Remember, the Huskies don’t have that luxury. They just have everything else.

“A team has to play really, really, really well to beat them,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said Sunday. If no team does, U-Conn. will be the first repeat champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007. You don’t need much imagination to see it.

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