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John Feinstein's Chicago Regional Analysis

The Land of (Conference) Champions

Monday, March 14, 2005; Page G10

If there was one thing that was easy for the committee to do this year, it was decide who the top seed in the tournament would be: Illinois. Why, then, did the Illini end up opposite Oklahoma State, a team that might have been a No. 1 seed if the Big 12 started its championship game a couple of hours earlier? Clearly, Connecticut was the lowest-ranked No. 2 seed -- a team that easily could have been a No. 3 seed after losing to Syracuse in the Big East tournament semifinals.

It is a shame that Fairleigh Dickinson has to open against Illinois because Tom Green is one of those veteran coaches who produces good teams year in and year out and then gets fed to a No. 1 seed whenever his team reaches the NCAA tournament. The last time FDU was in the field, in 2001, it opened (and closed) against Duke. The Blue Devils won the national championship that year, perhaps an omen for Illinois -- as if 32-1 isn't enough of an omen.

Darren Brooks and Southern Illinois should have been higher than a No. 7 seed. The Salukis will play Saint Mary's (Calif.) in what likely could be one of the best first-round games. (Tom Gannam -- AP)

Texas and Nevada might be the best first-round matchup in the field. Longhorns Coach Rick Barnes has done some of his best work this season after losing P.J. Tucker to academic ineligibility and being hit with injuries most of the season. A lot of people will pick Nevada to win that game, but either way, Illinois isn't going down in the second round.

Boston College is a fading team although it has a decent first-weekend draw. Pennsylvania is certainly no bargain in the first round. The Quakers can shoot, they've got a 6-foot-5 point guard who can really pass in Tim Begley and they're very well coached. But they haven't seen anyone resembling BC's Craig Smith in the Ivy League.

Remember Wisconsin-Milwaukee? That is the team that came within a missed dunk of beating Notre Dame in the first round two years ago. The Panthers are perfectly capable of taking out Alabama in the first round because the Crimson Tide will think it's playing the Milwaukee Bucks. Penn vs. Wisconsin-Milwaukee would be a wonderful second-round matchup (wonder when CBS would play that one, about 10 a.m.?) but it is more likely BC and Alabama will survive. If they do, Alabama probably will take out the Eagles.

The best first-round game in this regional might very well be in Oklahoma City: Saint Mary's against Southern Illinois. Both these teams are good and the winner will be a handful for Oklahoma State. Put the second-round game someplace else and an upset might be possible. With the building filled with people dressed in orange-and-white cowboy hats, forget it.

If there's a sleeper team in this bracket it is LSU at No. 6. The Tigers probably should have beaten Kentucky on Saturday -- then again, Florida killed Kentucky yesterday, so who knows what that's worth? -- and appear to be a young team that has improved each week of the season.

A lot of people are going to pick against Illinois in this regional, but there's a reason the Illini are 32-1 and it isn't only because the Big Ten is relatively weak this year. They're good. What's more, the regional will be in Chicago. (If Illinois and Oklahoma State play in the final, there won't be a soul in the building not wearing orange.) Illinois will beat anyone who shows up in the round of 16 -- BC, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Penn -- and then likely will play Oklahoma State in the final because the Cowboys will rely on their experience and toughness to get past Arizona or LSU. Remember Oklahoma State-Saint Joseph's last year? This has the makings of that kind of final, only this time the No. 1 seed survives.

Most likely first-round upset: Wisconsin-Milwaukee over Alabama.

Most over-seeded team: Boston College.

Most under-seeded team: Southern Illinois.

Best story likely not to get written: Penn senior Eric Heil, who has kept playing in spite of multiple knee injuries.

Team that looks at this bracket and wants to scream: DePaul, which lost to UAB twice, no doubt costing it a spot in the field.

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