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Illinois at Front of Dance Floor

N. Carolina, Duke And Washington Also Top Seeds

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 14, 2005; Page G01

Top-ranked Illinois was rewarded for its near flawless season with the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, which tips off in earnest Thursday. As expected, the Illini (32-1) are joined atop the 65 teams selected to vie for college basketball's national title by North Carolina, which won the ACC regular season.

Conference rival Duke played its way into a No. 1 seed by fending off a stubborn Georgia Tech squad at MCI Center yesterday to win its sixth ACC title in the last seven years. And Pacific-10 champion Washington was perhaps the biggest surprise, emerging from a handful of contenders to claim the remaining No. 1 seed despite being ranked just 14th in the latest Associated Press poll.

Coach Bruce Weber and Luther Head have had a lot to embrace during a 32-1 season. Illinois will open the NCAA tournament against Fairleigh Dickinson. (Michael Conroy -- AP)

Left out was Maryland, the tournament's 2002 champion, whose hopes imploded with a first-round exit in the ACC tournament. Georgetown's prospects also faded down the stretch, leaving George Washington (22-7), which won its first Atlantic 10 title on Saturday, to shoulder the region's hopes of postseason basketball glory. The Colonials drew the 12th seed in the Albuquerque Regional and open against fifth-seeded Georgia Tech, which lost to Connecticut in last season's title game.

The complete tournament bracket was unveiled yesterday evening, less than three hours after the ACC tournament. With 34 at-large spots up for grabs (the remaining 31 were determined by automatic berths), it made for a frantic afternoon's work behind the closed doors of an Indianapolis conference room by the NCAA selection committee, whose members crunch such factors as teams' records, strength of schedule, conference affiliation and momentum in doling out the coveted berths.

Afterward, committee chairman Bob Bowlsby made clear that momentum, in particular, carried considerable weight. And that's largely why regular season powers such as Wake Forest and Kansas ended up as No. 2 and 3 seeds rather than No. 1s, having made early exits from their conference tournaments.

"If you're a world-beater in December, and you're kind of stumbling into March, that plays into our consideration," Bowlsby said during a conference call. "We try not to place any more importance on the conference tournament games than we do on other games throughout the season, but the fact is they are a good measure of how you're playing at the end of the season."

Also left out were borderline teams Notre Dame, Indiana and DePaul.

The 65-team bracket held both good and bad news for the ACC. Widely viewed as the nation's toughest basketball conference, it placed just five teams in the tournament: North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and North Carolina State. But two ACC schools (North Carolina and Duke) got No. 1 seeds and open play in the same city -- Charlotte. Though they won't face each other the first or second weekends (North Carolina plays in the Syracuse Regional; Duke, in Austin), their presence in the same venue, less than a three-hour drive from their respective campuses, is sure to generate mayhem among ticket-buyers and scalpers.

The Big East and Big 12 led all conferences with six tournament bids apiece. The Big Ten got five, like the ACC.

Of the four regionals, Syracuse looks the toughest, with North Carolina, defending national champion Connecticut and Kansas filling out the top of the bracket. It presents a nightmare scenario for North Carolina Coach Roy Williams on two levels: the caliber of competition, as well as the prospect of facing his former team, Kansas, whose fans still chafe over his departure.

Washington (27-5) earned its No. 1 seed, Bowlsby said, for an entire season's work in a tough conference, which was capped by winning the Pac-10 tournament.

"I just think they're a very deserving No. 1 seed," he said.

The No. 2 seed in the region went to Wake Forest (26-5), whose loss to N.C. State in the ACC tournament quarterfinals cost them a top seed. The Demon Deacons paid a dear price in that game for the poor judgment of sophomore guard Chris Paul, who sat out with a suspension for having punched N.C. State's Julius Hodge in the groin five days earlier. Bowlsby implied that the committee looked on Paul's absence with neither empathy nor disdain in seeding Wake. "We viewed it for what it was: He didn't play, and they lost," Bowlsby said.

Gonzaga and Louisville are third and fourth in the region, respectively.

Duke, meanwhile, will have its hands full in the Austin Regional, which includes Kentucky, Oklahoma and Syracuse. Like Wake, Kentucky was in line for a No. 1 seed but squandered it with a poor showing in its conference tournament, losing to Florida in yesterday's final.

Top-seeded Illinois has a relatively easy path. Assigned to the Chicago Regional, the Illini will open in Indianapolis against 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson. Oklahoma State drew the region's No. 2 seed; Arizona and Boston College are just behind.

The selection committee's work got high marks from basketball analyst Jerry Palm, publisher of CollegeRPI.com.

"Once you got past Illinois and North Carolina, which I thought were pretty clearly No. 1 and 2, there wasn't much separation all the way down to Louisville, which could have made a case for a No. 1 [seed] but ended up No. 4," Palm said. "Also, the bottom of the bracket was very difficult this year because you had a lot of undeserving teams that -- I can't think of any other way to put it -- you could have left out."

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