UConn, San Diego State set for title game rematch in Sweet 16; Iowa State, Illinois target Elite 8

Updated Mar. 27, 2024 5:45 p.m. ET

BOSTON (AP) — Connecticut coach Dan Hurley won’t shy away from the notion that his team has consistently been the best in college basketball this season.

The Huskies’ 33-3 record and the dominant manner in which they’ve won along the way have proven that.

He also knows that means next to nothing as they return to the Sweet 16 still four victories away from becoming the first team since Florida in 2007 to repeat as NCAA Tournament champions.

“We’re not going to be able to trade that in for anything tomorrow night versus the team we faced last year in the finals,” Hurley said Wednesday as his team prepares for its East Regional semifinal matchup against a fifth-seeded San Diego State team it beat in the NCAA title game last April. “But we bring the confidence. We believe. We think we’re supposed to win these games.”


The Huskies have reason to feel that way, having won each of their first two tournament games by an average of 28 points.

For San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher it will be a chance to get past a UConn program that beat the Aztecs (26-10) and Kawhi Leonard in the 2011 Sweet 16 when the Huskies were led by Kemba Walker. In last year’s championship game, UConn jumped out to a 16-point lead and never let San Diego State get within fewer than five points in the second half.

This time UConn will also be playing at the Boston Celtics' TD Garden, just 85 miles from their campus.

“It’s like a repeat. I mean, we've got to do what they did to us,” Dutcher said. “We’re in their backyard now, and hopefully we’ll have an opportunity to beat them close to their home.”

Aztecs senior Lamont Butler is embracing getting another shot at the Huskies.

“They took us down last year, so we definitely want some revenge back a little bit,” he said.

The other half of the bracket features a matchup between second-seeded Iowa State (29-7), which has the best defensive rating of remaining teams, against No. 3 seed Illinois (28-8), which boasts the top offensive rating, according to Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings.

Both are also among six remaining Sweet 16 teams with Final Four appearances, but no titles.

Iowa State's only Final Four berth was 80 years ago.

Coach T.J. Otzelberger said the Cyclones’ old school, 57-53 victory in January over Houston was emblematic of the type of defense-first mentality that has served them best this season.

"You feel so great in the locker room after all those sacrifices, all that hard work, all that unity, all that time you beat the No. 2 ranked team in the country,” Otzelberger said. “I truly believe that gave our guys a greater sense of purpose and confidence.”

Illinois hasn’t been to a Final Four since 2005 and has been relying on its unorthodox “booty ball” offensive actions, aimed at getting different post-ups and matchups.

It also revolves around the comradery of a group that wasn’t above embracing luck as it entered a venue adorned with shamrocks.

When senior forward Coleman Hawkins walked into the news conference along with teammates Marcus Domask and Quincy Guerrier, he noticed their name placards were in an order different than where they’d sat in their previous media sessions. He quickly changed them.

“Superstitious?” the moderator asked.

“Little bit,” Hawkins replied.

But perhaps the biggest reason for the Illini’s success on offense has been senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr., who is averaging a team-high 23.3 points per game and scored 56 points in the Illini’s first two NCAA Tournament wins over Morehead State and Duquesne.

He’s done it playing most of the season under a cloud after being charged with rape in September.

Shannon played in Illinois’ first 11 games before the university suspended him from team activities when the criminal charge was filed against him. He returned after six games when a federal judge intervened, ruling that his civil rights were violated by a lack of due process.

He hasn’t spoken to the media since then and was again unavailable for interviews on Wednesday.

Coach Brad Underwood said his team has done its best to adjust.

“I’ve said all along I was going to coach the guys I had in the locker room,” Underwood said. “I was going to be the best supporter of those guys that I coach every day. We had to find a way to flourish through those tough times. Then when he came back and joined us, he was a part of our team again. He has always been a great teammate. We got him back, and here we sit today.”


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