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March Madness: No. 1 UConn arrives in Brooklyn chasing back-to-back titles in stacked East Region

NEW YORK (AP) — The gang's all here again. Well, almost.

Donovan Clingan and defending champion UConn aren't the only team in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament looking to make a repeat run. With fifth-seeded San Diego State and No. 8 seed Florida Atlantic also in the bracket, it's a Final Four reunion of sorts. The lone team missing is Miami, which didn't make the NCAAs this year after reaching the national semifinals last season.

Fresh off their Big East Tournament title, Clingan and the focused Huskies (31-3) are the top overall seed in this event for the first time in program history. Trying to become the first team since Florida in 2007 to win back-to-back national championships, Connecticut begins its quest Friday afternoon against No. 16 seed Stetson (22-12) at Barclays Center, home of the NBA's Brooklyn Nets.

“This road is what we’ve been manifesting and talking about for a long time,” said coach Dan Hurley, who started pushing this squad just weeks after winning the 2023 crown. "It's really easy to get seduced into thinking it’s going to be easy to do it again, or it’s going to be easy to make another run. Especially when we did it in such dominant fashion like we did last year.

“I’ve been tougher on the group throughout the season because I’ve just been trying to like root out any form of complacency or entitlement with this team,” he added. “You’re not entitled to nothing — especially this time of year.”

The selection committee didn't make things easy on UConn, either.

The top four seeds in the East all won their power-conference tournaments last weekend, including second-seeded Iowa State (Big 12), third-seeded Illinois (Big Ten) and fourth-seeded Auburn (SEC). In fact, the bracket features 11 league tournament champs — four more than any other region.

Hurley, however, said playing under a constant microscope at UConn helps his team thrive under pressure. Fueled by All-America guard Tristen Newton, Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer and Big East freshman of the year Stephon Castle, the Huskies romped through the regular season much the same way they did the NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed last year, when they won all six games by at least 13 points.

“We’ve done a great job of blocking out the noise, just because we have had a target on our back since June,” sophomore forward Alex Karaban said. “Ever since we won it last year, everyone has just been wanting to beat us and everyone has been talking about us, repeating and all that stuff. But we’ve really blocked it out this entire year ... and we are just excited to do this journey with a new team.”

UConn went through its quick practice in Brooklyn with Biggie Smalls playing over the sound system and fans scattered around the stands. After winning the Big East Tournament a subway ride away before a typical Huskies throng at Madison Square Garden, they figure to turn Barclays Center into “Storrs South” this weekend as well.

Two wins and it would be on to the East Regional in Boston, also just a bus ride from campus, with eyes on the Final Four in Arizona.

"Listen, we started in April," Hurley said. “Our visual was Brooklyn to Boston to Phoenix.”

Their initial hurdle is Stetson, the Atlantic Sun champion. Led by junior Jalen Blackmon (21.5 ppg), who scored 43 points in the conference title game against Austin Peay, the Hatters are making their first NCAA Tournament appearance after 53 seasons in Division I.

“It means everything,” said coach Donnie Jones, an assistant under Billy Donovan for the Florida teams that won consecutive national titles in 2006 and 2007. “We’ve had success in other sports, but men’s basketball just had not been to this platform.”

Indeed, the small school in DeLand, Florida, has produced more big-name pitchers — Jacob deGrom, Corey Kluber, Logan Gilbert — than point guards. And now the Hatters face a David vs. Goliath matchup against a UConn program with five national championships, all in the past quarter-century.

“It’s not the NBA where you have to win four games in seven. You have to win for 40 minutes,” Jones said.

The winner gets FAU (25-8) or No. 9 seed Northwestern, which will be without injured starters Ty Berry and Matthew Nicholson in the first game Friday at Barclays Center. But the Wildcats (21-11) earned a victory in last year's NCAA Tournament and coach Chris Collins' squad can still rely on graduate guard Boo Buie, who averages 19.2 points.

The Owls also came through New York City on their surprising run last March, reaching the Final Four with a pair of wins at MSG.

“A lot of fond memories,” coach Dusty May said. “It’s been a longer season than last, at least it seems.”

EAST REGION OUT WEST

While the bottom of the bracket began play Thursday, four other East Region teams tip off Friday in their pod at Spokane, Washington.

No. 12 seed UAB faces San Diego State, which also was a No. 5 seed last year when the Aztecs advanced to the national championship game.

“We kind of know exactly what it takes. It’s all about passing on the tradition to the younger guys who haven’t been a part of it. I feel like we’ve done a great job with that,” SDSU guard Darrion Trammell said. “We had a great preseason. Regular season, we played a lot of great teams, a lot of hostile environments. So I think we’re just set up to do it. We challenged ourselves early on in the season, so now we’re here to show it.”

BEEN HERE BEFORE

Auburn takes on 13th-seeded Yale, which will be playing in an environment that already feels familiar.

Yale’s first road game of the season back in November was a cross-country trip to face Gonzaga. And while they won’t be playing in the Zags’ gym this time, the Bulldogs are hoping their season won’t be bookmarked by losses in Spokane.

Yale is staying in the same hotel as last time, earning the opportunity with its late comeback to beat Brown for the Ivy League Tournament title. Matt Knowling’s floater from the baseline beat the buzzer and sent the Bulldogs to the NCAAs for the fourth time since 2016.

And this is a tested Yale team highlighted by 7-footer Danny Wolf inside. The Bulldogs led at Kansas at halftime this season before fading in the second half. Since that defeat just before Christmas, they are 15-3.

“Our coaching staff did a great job scheduling our non-conference where we were playing a lot of really high-level teams, so when we got into our conference we kind of were really prepared for what was ahead,” Yale guard August Mahoney said.

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AP Sports Writer Tim Booth in Spokane, Washington, contributed to this report.

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