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Analysis | March Madness is fueled by skeptics, but there’s no doubt in Connecticut

NEW YORK – Almost everyone March madness has a common adversary. The Skeptic is once again a main character.

The doubter says you’re undersized, overrated, incapable of hanging out with a team from (insert semi-doubted conference) because your schedule in the (insert very questionable conference) was flexible. The skeptic, you see, is rarely right but is always relevant. The skeptic is full of answers. The doubter’s X account has many numbers at the end.

And because The Doubter never sleeps, each team sees his comments – his doubts – all the time. Except Connecticut. In Connecticut, The Doubter met his match. What could put the Huskies at a serious disadvantage, it seems, is not having those chips on their shoulders to help them shoot and dunk.

Except that’s not the case. Their engine works very well.

“I would say it’s Coach,” Alex Karaban, a sophomore forward, said of what motivates U-Conn. in its quest for back-to-back NCAA men’s basketball titles. “Coach (Dan Hurley) lets us know every night that we are vulnerable at any time. If we don’t play up our identity, if we give it a second, you will see cases where we will be very vulnerable and very beatable.

A few teams might disagree. Count Northwestern among them. On Sunday night, the Huskies defeated the Wildcats, 77-58, in the round of 16 in Brooklyn. Never mind that they shot 3 of 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 had 20 points and 10 assists. Their last six tournament wins, dating back to last spring, have averaged 22 points. Next, they will face fifth-seeded San Diego State in the regional semifinals in Boston on Thursday. At this point, they are as inevitable as possible.

Huskies fight complacency by never entertaining it. Take three of the goods towards the end of the first half of Sunday:

First possession: Twice, Hurley stomped his dress shoes on the Barclays Center court, begging the offense to make the right play. When he didn’t listen, he stomped harder. Then he gritted his teeth. Then he threw his hands up in the air in disgust, turning away from the mess. U-Conn. led by 21.

Second possession: As the Huskies defended in front of Hurley, he yelled, “No more pressure!” No more pressure! MORE PRESSURE! Now they listened, sticking to the Wildcats on the perimeter. Hurley stomped Again. If somewhere in the crowd there was a personal injury lawyer, he should have swiped his card on those few square feet of hardwood near the Huskies’ bench. U-Conn. still led by 21.

Third possession: Newton, deep in the backcourt, glanced at the scoreboard and let the ball roll to his feet. He showed 35 seconds, then 34. If he waited long enough to catch it, he could ensure that Northwestern didn’t get the final possession until halftime. U-Conn. led by 22.

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

What’s also difficult: Finding predictability in men’s college basketball, even though the average Sweet 16 team seed in this year’s unusually chalk-heavy tournament is 3.3. Of the 32 conference tournament seeds, only 11 earned automatic bids. That included U-Conn., which won the Big East, but not Houston, Purdue or North Carolina, the Big Dance’s other No. 1 seeds. Beyond the field, the rules change according to the week, even the day or the hour. There are already hundreds of players in the transfer portal. For the moment, after a recent Tennessee court rulingthey can negotiate and sign contracts with booster groups before enrolling in new schools.

Huskies know well the importance of the gate. 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 all makes U-Conn. tick. But if any team stops Spencer, there’s Newton. And if they stop Newton, there’s Clingan. And if they stop Clingan, there’s sniper Karaban.

And if they stop Karaban, there’s freshman Stephon Castle, who stood out on Sunday when he hooked up with Northwestern guard Boo Buie. And if they stop Castle, there’s forward Samson Johnson, who stood out by catching three alley-oops in the second half. Then, if they arrest Johnson, well, it might be mathematically impossible to get that far down the list of options. San Diego State, who lost to U-Conn. in last year’s title match, I’d still like to know what’s going on. But if their defense can’t handle Spencer, Newton, Clingan, Karaban, Castle and Johnson in the same night, the Aztecs might need The Doubter to fuel their thwarted hopes.

Huskies, remember, do not have this luxury. They just have everything else.

“A team is going to have to play really, really, really well to beat them,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said Sunday. If no team does, U-Conn. These will be the first repeat champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that.

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