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Defending champ UConn fights its way back to tourney

STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut will defend its national championship as a No. 9 seed in the South Region of the NCAA tournament.

UConn (20-13) will play Iowa State Thursday in a first-round game in Louisville. The winner faces a possible matchup with the overall top seed, Kentucky.

The Huskies were considered a bubble team before coach Jim Calhoun returned from a medical leave. UConn won its regular-season finale over Pittsburgh and two games in the Big East tournament, before having their 13-game postseason winning streak snapped by Syracuse, 58-55, last week in the quarterfinals.

"These kids, down the stretch, came around to earn themselves this (bid), and you guys know it wasn't by a wide margin," Calhoun said. "It really wasn't. We had to win some games and we did, and we showed them that we deserved to get in"

Freshman center Andre Drummond said there was no cheering in the locker room when the brackets were announced. He said the team has taken a business-like approach to what is in front of them, even if others have not.

He said his mom called him after the selection show, excited about his potential matchup with Kentucky's Anthony Davis. The two centers were among the most highly touted freshmen coming into this season.

"I was like, `All right, mom, but we're not worried about that right now'," he said. "I'm worried about Iowa State right now. We're going to go out there and play some good basketball, try to win this game and hopefully see Kentucky on Saturday."

UConn has never played Iowa State. It's the first NCAA tournament bid in seven years for the Cyclones (22-10), who were knocked out of the Big 12 tournament by Texas.

Iowa State struggled to gel in non-conference play, and nearly lost at home to lowly Mississippi Valley State before the turn of the year. But the Cyclones turned it on in the Big 12, winning 12 games and beating a pair of top-10 opponents in Kansas and Baylor.

"It's a tough draw. But hey, we're up for the challenge," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said.

Iowa State's 3-point shooting already has UConn's attention. The Cyclones shoot 38 percent from 3-point range, something that has been an Achilles heel for Connecticut's defense, which gives up more than seven 3-pointers a game.

"We just got to work on contesting shots, make them do other things," guard Jeremy Lamb said. "Threes make a huge difference in the game, so we can't let them get open shots."

UConn is in its 31st NCAA tournament, and has not been seeded this low since the 1992 when the Huskies also No. 9 seed That season, UConn beat Nebraska in the first round before losing to Ohio State in the second.

Connecticut is making its 18th tournament appearance under Calhoun, who has missed 11 games this season.

He was suspended for the first three conference games for failure to maintain control of his program when it was charged with NCAA violations and he missed eight games with back problems, returning for the Huskies regular-season finale following spinal surgery. The Huskies won his first three games back, bringing him to 873 wins, sixth on the all-time list.

"When he came back, for myself, I need him here," guard Shabazz Napier said. "I love when he yells at me. I hate when he never talks to me. He's just a father figure to me, and sometimes you need that father figure to pick you up and tell you that everything is going to be fine."

UConn also played nine games this season without freshman point guard Ryan Boatright, including a six-game suspension to start the season, as the result of an NCAA investigation that found he and his family took more than $8,000 in impermissible benefits before he enrolled at Connecticut.

This could be Connecticut's last NCAA tournament until at least 2014. The Huskies face a ban on tournament play next year because of past academic problems.

"Ain't nobody thinking about that right now," Boatright said. "Everybody is focused on making this last run and winning a national championship.

"Next year, we'll worry about next year."

AP Sport Writer Luke Meredith contributed to this report from Ames, Iowa